"Montserrat Mystery Cat"
UPDATE ~ April 29, 2019: A sample of scat collected in 2001 (and saved for all these years) was recently tested by David Foran PhD, School of Criminal Justice and Department of Integrative Biology, Michigan State University. Here are his findings:
"I isolated DNA from two sections, from the internal portions to avoid contamination. I did three separate analyses, one looking at the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene, one for the 12S ribosomal gene, and one for the 16S ribosomal gene."
"First, it is definitely in the genus Felis, meaning it is not a mountain lion, etc. [it's not a puma]. The best fit is an African wildcat (Felis lybica) or perhaps European wildcat (Felis silvestris) (they are very closely related, and used to be considered the same species). Lybica is the ancient ancestor of domestic cats. Both can cross breed with domestic cats."
"The Big Cat" - A Limerick
A puma, they say, causes thrills
Skulking about Silver Hills.
If it were a leopard we
Might all be in jeopardy,
But beasts are the prey this one kills.
The Montserrat Reporter, May 2000
From Adventure to Mystery: A Search for Answers
By Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund, Founder/Director of Work for Wild Life International
While on vacation in April of 2000, my husband, Arne Hammarlund, was hiking alone in the remote, uninhabited Silver Hills located on the northern-most tip of Montserrat in the West Indies.
Sitting atop a rocky cliff, he pulled out his video camera and started filming the hot, windswept landscape that surrounded him, panning up and down, from the sea to the adjoining rock outcrops, to the nearby valley below. Feral goats and cows could be seen in the camera’s viewfinder.
Then, something else wandered into view.
At first glance it appeared to be a cougar, but it’s a well-known fact there are no large carnivores on this island. Or at least that’s what Arne thought. Closer scrutiny revealed it was not quite a cougar—it had large, pointed ears and an exceptionally long, furry tail.
Later dubbed the ‘Montserrat Mystery Cat’—this very thin, light-colored cat was drinking from the edge of a pond below. As Arne filmed, the cat slowly walked along the banks of the pond, past a round rock at the pond’s edge. Before disappearing into the thorny vegetation, it paused, crouched, and then looked Arne straight in the eye!
Thus began a years-long effort to figure out who or what the Montserrat Mystery Cat is. To this day, we do not know.
Large Cat on a Small Island?
Watch the video of our cat sightings below.
Ten miles long and seven miles wide, Montserrat is a quiet, mountainous island, located in the West Indies of the Caribbean. It was brought to the attention of the world in 1995 when its long-dormant volcano exploded, forcing the evacuation of everyone on the south end of the island. Many people moved off the island, and others relocated to the more arid, hilly northern section—closer to the Silver Hills.
In the year 2000, my parents had lived on Montserrat seasonally for more than 15 years. Arne, my young son, and I were frequent visitors. As avid hikers and explorers, we knew every square inch of the island, including the remote Silver Hills where few people ventured. Arne’s mission that hot day in April 2000 was to scope out a ‘goat trail’ and report back to my son and me.
What a report it was!
Excited and perplexed by what we saw in his video, we decided we’d return to the pond to measure the size of the round rock at the pond’s edge to try to determine (through comparison) the size of the mystery cat.
And so, three days later, the Burbank-Hammarlund trio made the long, hot, steep, uncomfortable trek back to the Silver Hills area, scrambling to the top of the cactus-filled hill where we peered down into the valley to get a good look at the pond prior to our decent toward the round rock.
To our amazement, there it was! Not just the rock, but rather a large, light-colored cat crouching at the water’s edge, drinking from the pond in the exact spot as had been seen three days earlier.
In the middle of nowhere, we watched and filmed and gawked as the cat—clearly not the same emaciated cat Arne had seen days earlier, but rather a younger, plumper individual—finished drinking and gradually wandered off into the bushes.
Suddenly, a very young, darker-colored, kitten-size cat with distinct markings appeared for a brief moment and quickly vanished from view before we could capture him or her on film. Perhaps a baby Montserrat Mystery Cat, we speculated. It made no sense that a domestic house cat could live way out here in this harsh, remote area.
From our best estimate (by measuring the large, round rock at the pond’s edge and comparing it to the cat’s body) the first cat filmed was approximately 28” long, from nose to the base of the tail, with a 17” long tail. It stood 17” tall from the ground to the shoulder. The second cat filmed was slightly smaller. Both had markings on their hind quarters and the tip of the tail was very white.
Montserrat Mystery Cat
Body + Tail: 45" (nose to tip of tail)
Tail Alone: 17" long, furry with white tip
Height: 17" ground to shoulder
Large pointed ears
Markings on hind quarters
Catch de Cat
We shared our video footage with the then Director of the Montserrat National Trust, a small nonprofit conservation organization, and with the head of the Tourist Board.
A team of local officials from the Trust and Forestry Department, plus a local veterinarian, subsequently hiked to the Silver Hills to see for themselves. While they did not spot any cats, they found numerous dead goats with their necks broken and bellies eaten.
Soon, rumors of a dangerous large cat circulated all around the island. News articles, opinion columns and radio talk shows speculated about the nature of the cat, and a new Soca song, “Catch de Cat for Me,” played endlessly on the radio, asking “Is it a cougar, is it a puma, does it have rabies, can it make babies?”
Clearly, Montserrat had cat fever and some people were beginning to sound the alarm to stay safe and not venture out!
Meanwhile, with some local officials calling for capturing the cat, Arne and I were trying to figure out, scientifically, what the mystery cat was. I contacted David Foran, a forensic scientist at The George Washington University, who conducted DNA testing on scat we and other local experts had collected. Longtime residents from Montserrat emailed us stories—dating back decades—about multiple sightings of large cats living on Montserrat.
It seems we were not the first to see the mysterious Montserrat cat, but we were the first to film it.
We sent our somewhat grainy video footage to experts around the globe, including the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) in Canada, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, cougar biologists, zoo keepers and game experts, and then to the Cat Specialist Group in Switzerland (watch the video).
The DNA tests came back inconclusive (the scat was too degraded) and no one, not a single big cat expert, could tell us what species animal they saw on our videos. CLICK FOR UPDATE ~ SPECIES IDENTIFIED IN 2019!
We returned to Monsterrat and to the pond in Silver Hills several times over subsequent years, but never again sighted the cats. A long, harsh drought and continued construction in once remote areas of the island (needed in order to relocate residents and businesses to safe areas) may have marked the end of the Montserrat Mystery Cat. No one knows for sure.
Social Media Sleuth
Recently, while cleaning office file drawers, I came upon a large folder filled with letters, photos, emails, news clippings, and notes about the Montserrat Mystery Cat, and I wondered. With the advent of YouTube, Facebook and other social media (not available to me in 2000), could I find someone in the world who could help solve the mystery of the Montserrat cats once and for all?
And so, I’m going to try.
Read my story, click on the various links to documentation, watch my YouTube video, and then let me know what you think. Send me an email with any information you may have. I would be eternally grateful!
By the way: The idea that there is a large cat species on small islands in the Caribbean is not limited to Montserrat. Check out this article that appeared in the Culebra (Puerto Rico) Calendar in December 2005.
Thanks for your help. I'll keep you posted.
Work For Wild Life