Ever wondered why your cat buries its scat? The most popular explanations revolve around the domestic cat’s (Felis catus) obsession with personal hygiene and fear of larger predators. Some speculate that it is as much about keeping themselves out of harm’s way as it is about keeping the peace at home. Burying scat is the cat’s way of maintaining a low profile. It might be an admission of its inferior rank (vis-a-vis the humans it shares territory with) or a leftover from its untamed past (when it was fair game for every other predator). Many felids (including the big cats) hide their excrement to avoid other predators, dominant members of their own species and threats to their young.

Though one cannot be sure of the exact science behind such behaviour, there is a charming Santhal tale explaining this peculiar phenomenon. Santhals are an Austroasiatic tribe, related to the Vietnamese and Khmer of Southeast Asia. They live in the forests covering the plateau of Chota Nagpur in eastern India, eking out a living by farming small plots, raising pigs and goats, and hunting wild game. Taken from Cecil Henry Bompas’ (a British officer posted in the Bengal Presidency) ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’, the story tells how tigers and cats, once thick friends, became enemies and why big cats, once scared of dogs, began to hunt them.

The Tigers and The Cat

In former days tigers and cats were friends and used to hunt together and share the game they caught; and they did not eat the game raw but used to cook it as men do. One day some tigers and a cat had killed a deer and they had no fire with which to cook it; then the tigers said to the cat “You are small, go and beg a light from yonder village.” But the cat said that he was afraid to go; however they urged him saying “You have a thin tail and plump feet; you can bring it in a trice.” So, as they all insisted on his going, he at last consented; and said “Well, I will go; but don’t expect me to be very quick; if I get a good opportunity for fetching the fire, I will come back soon.” They said “All right, go and run off with a small fire-brand and we will meet you outside the village.”

So the cat went off and coming to a house, went inside to pull a firebrand from the hearth. On the fire some milk was boiling; and the cat thought “This smells very nice, I will have a taste of it” and he found it so nice that he made up his mind to drink it all, before he took away the fire-brand. But in order to lap the milk he had to put his feet on the fireplace, and it was so hot that he burnt his feet and had to get down; so then he sat down and waited till the fire went out and the hearth grew cool, and then he lapped up the milk and ran off with a piece of smouldering wood.

Meanwhile the tigers had got tired of waiting and had eaten the deer raw; and they were very angry at being made to eat raw flesh and swore that they would eat the cat too. When they saw the cat bringing the fire they ran to meet him and abused him and cried out “You have made us eat raw flesh; we will eat you too, dung and all” On hearing this threat the cat ran back to the village in fear of his life; and the tigers followed in pursuit; but when they got near the village, the village dogs all ran out barking and the tigers were frightened and turned back and the cat was saved. From that day tigers and leopards have eaten raw flesh; and cats bury their excrement, because of what the tigers had said.

Every day the tigers went to the village in search of the cat; but when the dogs barked they slunk away; for the tigers were very frightened at the sight of the dogs’ curly tails; they thought that the tails were nooses and that they would be strangled by them. One day one of the tigers met a jackal and called to him “Nephew, listen to me; a cat made us eat raw flesh and has escaped into this village and I want to catch it, but the dogs come barking at me. I don’t mind that, but I am very frightened of their nooses. Now, you are very like a dog, cannot you go and tell them not to use their nooses.” The jackal answered, “Uncle, you are quite mistaken; what you see are their tails, not nooses; they will not strangle you with them.” So the tiger took courage and the next day went to the village to hunt for the cat, but he could not find it. And when the dogs barked he got angry and caught and killed one of them; and from that time tigers and leopards eat dogs.

Image Attribution: This image from Wikimedia Commons is of a painting, ‘Tiger Rolling’ by the French artist Antoine-Louis Barye. Famed for his sculptures and illustrations of animals, he portrayed the tiger rolling on the ground, much like a house cat. Painted between 1850 and 1869, it is preserved in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (USA).

Reference: Live Science