Meet wild feline idols: Pallas’ cats

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bol, a male Pallas’s cat, licks his right paw, which is his habit, at Nasu Animal Kingdom in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture.

We are two Yomiuri Shimbun reporters who are both desperately in love with cats. When there is no sight of our furry friends, we ache for the comfort they give us. Just the mere mention of cats stirs us big time. But our busy and hectic daily lives deprive us of the nourishment we get from them. So now, we need more than what ordinary pet cats can give. We’ve grown to seek cats that are a little different, a little special … Ah, yes! Pallas’s cats will do!

As old Japanese saying goes, the day you come up with an idea is the best day to start working on it. So off we went, journeying to Nasu Animal Kingdom in the town of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture, where there is an animal park that keeps two Pallas’s cats.

Pallas’s cats, also called manul — a Mongolian word meaning small wildcat — inhabit the plains of countries on the Eurasian continent, such as Mongolia and Russia. They are believed to be the oldest species among the Felidae, the biological family of cats. They are popular for their expressive appearance, due in part to their wide eyes with round pupils, flat face and thick fur.

The two cats living in Nasu Animal Kingdom are Bol, 7, a male born in a Japanese zoo, and Polly, 6, a female that came from a zoo in Sweden. Videos showing their many facial expressions and peculiar way of hunting went viral, and their popularity caught fire. They are like pop idols in the world of Pallas’s cats.

The power in the eyes

Upon our arrival at Nasu Animal Kingdom, Sayaka Miyachi, the facility’s publicity officer, kindly guided us to the exhibition room for the Pallas’s cats. And the moment of our encounter came soon after. As if responding to our heightened anticipation, Bol came running toward us. He then sat quietly on a stump set in front of a glass wall that separates the cats and the spectators, looking as if to say, “Hey, gimme something.”

Er, well, he’s round, and he’s cute! Beholding his furry presence, which was far furrier than we’d imagined, even male reporters like us couldn’t help screaming like some enthusiastic pop star fans. And his stare — it was so powerful.

“Common domestic cats have vertical pupils, while the pupils of Pallas’s cats are round, which is one of their traits. That helps to make their facial expressions look different,” said Yuri Chiba, an animal keeper of the facility.

Thanks to those eyes, Pallas’ cats have strangely human-like expressions. Apparently, it is unknown whether their pupils provide them with an advantage to survive in the wild.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Polly, a female Pallas’ cat, likes to walk on snow.

Polly, who had been watching Bol from afar, came toward us as well. She is also incredibly furry. When we visited them, it was February and there was still some snow around. That’s probably why the two cats were thickly covered with winter pelage, which added to their fluffy appearance. Their natural habitat is in Central Asia, where the climate is extreme with hot summers and cold winters. Their appearance shows how they fit in such harsh environments.

“As for the coldness of a Japanese winter, they can perfectly live with it,” Miyachi said.

Staff armed with shields

Polly looked as if she was stalking prey as she lowered her body and moved her tail and limbs slowly, step by step. Apparently, such movements are another characteristic of the Pallas’s cat.

“They move like they do when they hunt,” Chiba said. “Here in this facility, we support them maintaining their wild nature.”

Yes. While they are undoubtedly cute, our impression after actually seeing them was that they had a palpably wild air about them.

And since they are wild by nature, they rarely meow.

“Males sometimes meow during the breeding season. Other times, they only give menacing hisses,” Chiba said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bol stretches his body.

Clearly, it is out of the question to hold them in your arms.

“When I go into the exhibition room, I approach them with a shield to protect myself,” she said.

Even when eating, they’re a sight to see, wildly devouring the horsemeat that was fed to them! Pallas’s cats, you are so cool.

It seemed Polly was trying to tell us, “Don’t you dare take us lightly!”

There was a time when the Pallas’s cat population declined sharply due to indiscriminate hunting for their fur, and they were on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a near-threatened species until recently. Currently, they are categorized as of “least concern” on the list.

In Japan, 16 of the cats are kept at zoos and animal parks. Those facilities are learning from mistakes and doing their best to protect Pallas’s cats, which naturally inhabit high altitudes and are susceptible to contagious diseases.

As we interviewed the park staff, the cats remained full of spirit, inquisitively coming to the glass wall or running around. The Pallas’s cats turned out to have far more to offer than just being cute. They have diverse expressions and movements. Having been soothed by them, we renewed our determination to help protect Pallas’s cats as we headed home, with a wish to meet them again!