You could hear the excitement in his voice, nearly quivering as he was describing them, “they are just beautiful”. Immediately you understand that Dr. Paul O’Donoghue will do whatever it takes to save the rarest cat in the world, the Scottish Wildcat.
But years ago, Paul didn’t even know that such a creature existed.
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about it, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized the desperate plight of this animal, and also, just how incredibly beautiful it is, and how important it is to Scottish ecosystems and Scottish culture.”
Thus began a noble Englishman’s quest to save the Scottish Wildcats from existence.
Dr. Paul O’Donoghue: Wildcat Warrior
Dr. O’Donoghue, a wildlife biologist and the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Scottish Wildcat Haven, has dedicated his life to saving the Scottish Wildcats. These Wildcats, which used to inhabit all of Great Britain, now can only be found in the Scottish highlands, but now their habitat is shrinking by the year, and it’s Paul’s mission to create a safe haven for the Wildcats so that they can only breed with their own kind.
And since there are only 35 Scottish Wildcats in existence, they need his help. Not only is the Scottish Wildcat the most endangered mammal in Britain, but it is also one of the rarest animals in the world.“It [The Scottish Wildcat] is about 70 times rarer than the Giant Panda” Paul told me, with both pride and concern in his voice.
“The Scottish Wildcat is about 70 times rarer than the Giant Panda”— Dr. O’Donoghue
Yet their dilemma is relatively unknown.
Unfortunately, Paul’s love for the Scottish Wildcats isn’t reciprocated.
“We love them but they hate us…but that’s fantastic, actually…our job is to get these animals back into the wild, and the wilder those kittens are, the better chance they have of survival”. These cats are incredibly elusive, and in fact, Paul himself has only discovered 10 Scottish Wildcats and seen a few in his eight-year tenure of working with these carefully undercover creatures.
Interestingly, the biggest threat to the Scottish Wildcat is hybridization with domestic cats, and this genetic extinction is a very interesting way for a species to go. If a wildcat crosses paths with a domestic cat, they will invariably mate—as Paul says “if they have the opportunity, they will take it”.
With that, Paul knew the size of the colossal task at hand. In order to save the existing wildcats from genetic inbreeding, Paul and his team would have to drive around and neuter tens of thousands of domestic cats over a thousand square miles.
This would be no easy feat.
However, once aware of the exceptional species that they had in their midst, the community itself became involved. They started volunteering their domestic cats to him, and eventually even began to police itself, requiring new neighbors to fix their cats once they move in.
Wildcats, the granddaddy of all domestic cats, have a particular ferocity that Dr. O’Donoghue finds greatly appealing. “They have not tamed down one bit since we first got them…they are untamable”. Dr. O’Donoghue should know, his extensive research has allowed him to work with lions and tigers, (in addition to black rhinos in South Africa) and the big cats tend to “steady down” after time. The same is not true for their smaller counterparts.
“They are wilder now than when we first rescued them. They are little balls of fury” he added.
Because of this, Paul has a particular disdain for zoos and organizations that desire to capture and “tame” the Wildcats. “It’s the Scottish Wildcat, not the Scottish zoo-cat”.
“It’s the Scottish Wildcat, not the Scottish zoo-cat”
The name certainly suits, as they are more like big-cats than domestic.
“A pure wildcat is incredibly different from a domestic cat”. Starting with the size-wildcats can range up to 4 feet in length. Wildcats look more like tigers, with a thick-ringed tail, and thick, layered fur.
Up until recently, Wildcat Haven has been a project that has taken place mainly in the West Coast of Scotland, however, recently thirteen Wildcats in the east of Scotland were discovered as well. This new population is roughly a third of the existing population, and could very well save the species. These sightings were all reported by one man that Paul has dubbed the Wildcat Whisperer, who found all the east coast cats, including the largest one Paul has ever witnessed, a four-foot behemoth named “The Beast” (video below).
Paul works side by side with his wife, Emily O’Donoghue, who is the Director at the Wildcat Haven and is the more organized side of the family. “We are very efficient and we actually get things done quickly since we know how each other works.”
They work well together indeed, and are the only organization truly trying to save the Scottish Wildcats as they are. While there are other groups helping the Scottish Wildcat, the Wildcat Haven is different, and Paul calls his practice “compassionate conservationist”. Unlike other organizations that want to help the Wildcats, they don’t euthanize, and certainly don’t believe in keeping the cats in captivity, but rather hoping to develop land where the cats can roam majestic and free.
The Wildcat Haven receives no government funding, and is only limited by funding, meaning individuals can make a huge difference. To learn more, or help Paul and his mission to save the Scottish Wildcat, visit Scottish Wildcat Haven.
Interview with Dr. Paul O’Donoghue of Scottish Wildcat Haven
In this podcast, Paul explains in detail the plight of the Wildcats, how they went from being deeply embedded and revered in Scottish culture, even appearing on clans emblems, to now going virtually extinct, and also what people can do to help.