The man who let the cats out of the bag

Andrew Kitchener got some strange looks as he prepared to board a plane in Chicago with a large refrigerated box. "Have you got your grandmother in there?" asked one puzzled customs official. "No," explained Kitchener, who is the curator of mammals and birds at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. "I’ve got seven dead bobcats."

The cats were on their way to Edinburgh to contribute to one of the most extensive feline natural history shows ever staged. Cats - The Ultimate Predators will bring together for the first time anywhere in the world examples of all 37 cat species, from the biggest to the smallest, the rarest to the common-or-garden moggie.

The show is a triumph for Kitchener and his team, who have worked for ten years to secure the cats from all over the world, as far afield as Chile, Borneo and Vladivostok. They are particularly proud that only two cats for the show have been borrowed from other museums, the others have been mounted in Edinburgh by the world-class taxidermy team at NMS, most famous recently for preserving Dolly the Sheep.

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"Sometimes the common things are more difficult to get than the rare," says Kitchener. "We had enormous trouble getting bobcats. We could have bought one from a dealer in the US, but that would have contravened our collecting policy of using only natural casualties. That left us with bobcats collected off roads in various parts of the America. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago brought them together for me and I brought seven back. It’s always good to have more than one, because not every specimen will be suitable for mounting."

While the common bobcat was giving them no end of difficulties, the team found themselves in possession of one of the world’s rarest cats almost by chance. The bay cat, found only on the island of Borneo, is a rare and secretive animal about which little is known. "We were contacting Japanese colleagues working in Sabah, Malaysia, about another cat, and just as an aside at the end of the e-mail, I put: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a bay cat in the freezer, have you?’ And they had!"

The exhibition aims to explain what makes the cat - in all its guises - one of the most efficient predators the world has ever seen. An astonishing variety of sizes and shapes of cats have found themselves a niche they can usefully exploit, from deserts to rainforests, in heat, snow and even in water. Younger visitors will have the opportunity to look through cat’s eyes, feel the texture of a tiger’s tongue, even smell jaguar urine.

But the real stars of the show will be the cats themselves. Kitchener says that contemporary taxidermy is light years away from moth-eaten Victorian models of yesteryear. "We don’t want to show them sitting on all fours looking as bored as you might expect a cat to look in a small glass case. I think we’ve got to make people believe that in the next instant that cat’s going to move.

"The aim is to show their behaviours - running, leaping, scent-marking, mating. The team have spent a lot of time looking at photographs and videos and studying the animals in zoos to get that behaviour right."

Where they have been able to mount several cats of the same species, they demonstrate the behaviour of cats in groups - a pair of Canadian lynx hunting as a team, sand cat kittens at play, two Pallas’ cats rubbing heads in greeting, the many and varied behaviours of a feral cat community. A leopard - more of a lone wolf - is seen stashing a dead antelope in a tree, safe from theft by hyenas and jackals, for a meal later on.

Enormous care was taken to show each species of cat in their native surroundings and, where appropriate, hunting native prey. Kitchener says:

"We have been asking collections around the world to send little boxes - sometimes big boxes - of leaves. We have leaves from Borneo, Thailand, Gabon, Belize and Argentina, and sand from the United Arab Emirates. You wouldn’t believe how different it is, it is a vivid red colour."

One of the most remarkable things about the cat family is its diversity, and the astonishingly efficient way different types of cats have adapted to their environments. A cat eating fish is no surprise, but the idea of a cat diving into water to catch one is quite another. The flat-headed cat, native to Borneo, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, has no problem with this, however, using its extra-long pre-molar teeth to grab a fish rather like a miniature crocodile.

The caracal, on the other hand, catches birds. Kitchener says, "They can leap up to extraordinary heights and have very fast reaction times. The caracal provided the origin of the phrase ‘the cat among the pigeons’. In past centuries in India, they would loose a flock of doves in a small arena, put a caracal in there and take bets on how many it would catch before the flock flew away."

The cheetah, meanwhile, is the world’s fastest land mammal, clocking in to the record books at 63 mph. But speed has its disadvantages. "Its biggest problem is overheating. It can only run for half a kilometre before it has to stop and breathe rather heavily, or it risks boiling its brains! It relies on getting close to its prey and very fast acceleration."

The Canadian lynx has thick fur on the pads on its feet forming what are essential snow shoes, insulating from the cold and spreading weight so the cat can run along on snow without sinking. The sand cat, from the deserts of North Africa and Arabia, has fur on its feet too, in this case to insulate from the heat.

The marbled cat, another native of Malaysia and South-east Asia, is blessed with flexible ankle joints, meaning that it can climb down trees as well as up - something many domestic cats have yet to discover they do not share.

Strong predators though they are, some cat species are seriously endangered, mainly because of the activities of mankind. To help to make this point, two of the stars of the show are Zeus and Boris, representatives of two of the most endangered cat species in the world.

Zeus is an Iberian lynx who lived much of his life on the Coto Donana National Park in Spain. Kitchener says: "One of the key habitats of the Iberian lynx is the cork oak forests, which are sustainably harvested to make corks for wine bottles. Now, with all the screw and plastic caps which are being used, demand has declined and some people are beginning to level the forests. The lynx is losing its home. So perhaps it’s our duty to drink for conservation, and make sure our wine has natural corks!"

Boris, an amur tiger from South-East Russia, tells a different story. He injured his paw in a poacher’s snare, after which he was no longer able to retract his massive hunting claws. Unable to hunt wild prey, he turned to livestock, until one villager came after him with a gun.

There are thought to be as few as 400 amur tigers left in the wild. Although they are protected by law, they are still hunted extensively for their pelts while their bones and other body parts are in demand to make traditional Chinese medicines.

Though more rare in terms of numbers, the iriomoti cat, the only cat species indigenous to Japan, is protected very successfully. There may be only about 60 left in the wild, but the cat has been proclaimed a "Grand Monument" in its native land. Neither a live nor mounted specimen has ever left Japan, but, for the first time, a skin has been allowed to be lent to NMS.

Kitchener says: "We believe this is the first time that an iriomoti cat has left Japan, and we’re very honoured to have him here. He is brownish grey with small black spots and two black stripes on his head. He’s not shouting out ‘I’m an iriomoti cat’, he’s very discreet and understated."

A more endangered species can be found living much closer to home. The Scottish wildcat started to decline sharply in the 19th century. In the last 100 years it has regained ground, but the distinct species now risks being lost through inter-breeding with domestic cats. "They are critically endangered, it is thought there are only a few hundred animals left. They are not another version of the domestic cat, they have been here for 9000 years, and are a distinct species with a fossil record going back two million years. They are a very important part of our natural heritage."

This is yet one more indication of our complicated relationship with cats.

They were status symbols in ancient Egypt, and for the thousands of Americans who keep big cats as "pets", they still are. The big-game hunters of the 19th century loved to hunt them, while, at other times in history, they have hunted us. Pampered family pet or super-efficient killing machine?

Or, as cat owners who wake up to regular deliveries of dead mice will argue, possibly both?

• Cats - the Ultimate Predators is at the Royal Museum, Edinburgh, from 13 February to 30 May.