Cats Over Borneo

on Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cats in Cat City, Borneo (PhotoCredit: LGS)

This strange piece of public art is found in the city of Kuching which is the capital of the state of Sarawak on the vast, equatorial and forested island of Borneo. The cats' theme is actually in tribute to the city because the name Kuching actually means "cat" in the Malay language. Hence Kuching is actually "Cat City".

However, Borneo is the setting of an even more interesting and bizzare cat related story. This story is often called "Cats over Borneo". The story is set in the 1950's. Malaria, the severe and potentially fatal blood borne disease, was rampant and it was known to be spread by the Anopheles mosquito. The relatively new and young World Health Organization (WHO) was fervent in their efforts to fight malaria.

They had just added to their arsenal of weapons, a new and effective insecticide, a chemical called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT. Today, we are aware of DDT's problems including its long half life and tendency to accumulate in fatty tissue as well as its effect on non-target species. However, at that time, the pesticide was being used worldwide, and was widely touted for its safety and its effectiveness.

Anyway, the WHO sprayed DDT liberally in the Dayak villages of the Sarawak interior. Initially, this campaign was considered a success as mosquitoes were killed and the malaria rate dropped. Then authorities were hit by two mystery complaints. The first was very bizzare. The Dayak villages consisted of longhouses which accomodate several families and which were covered by a thatch roof. The villagers complained that their roofs were collapsing exposing whole communities to the elements. Although puzzled, the authorities were forced to act quickly and sent in corrugated metal sheets to be used as roofing material.

Before, they could even take a breather, they were surprised by the outbreak of plague and reports of famine as grain stores were decimated by a large invasion of rats. The authorities urgently investigated the matter and called the Royal Air Force for help. Citizens were also asked to donate cats and to help build special cat baskets. Operation "Cat Drop" was carried out in which hundreds of cats were parachuted by the RAF onto interior villages. This reinforcement of cats eventually solved the problem.

The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo by Charlotte Pomerantz relates this true story in the form of a rhyme. It is also featured in an article by Gordon R. Conway in The Careless Technology: Ecology and International Development (1972) and a first-hand account of “Operation Cat-drop” is given by Tom Harrisson in the journal Animals published in 1965.

What transpired in the jungles of Borneo is a clear example and a cautionary tale that man does not know enough about the inter-connectivity of the web of life and many of our actions to address a single problem have often unexpected reprecussions. The DDT did infact kill the mosquitoes and also other insects in the jungle which were non-target species. One of which was a jungle wasp. These wasps in turn played the important role of keeping a certain caterpillar population in check by laying eggs on the caterpillar and when the larvae hatch out, the larvae feed on the caterpillar, killing it. When the DDT killed the wasp, the caterpillar population boomed and as the caterpillar fed on the roof thatching, the roofs started to collapse.

At the same time, the geckos which are a type of lizard which feed on insects were having a great time because it kept finding dead insects everywhere. However, as they ate, the DDT levels in their bodies continued to rise. The cats in the village in turn often catch and eat the geckos. Soon, all the cats died of poisoning. With the cats gone, the rats came out to play. Their population boomed, leading to the destruction of grain stores and the spread of plague. A situation that was only reversed by the airborne drop of cats over Borneo.

A strange but true tale and a warning to man to stop messing with the world's complex and balanced web of life. I did not even mention how all these imported cats caused a great upset to the indigenous squirrel population!


Claire said...

That is a great story. Humans are the great fuckitalls of the world. I'll bet the cats also had a negative effect on the native bird population. I wonder what the malaria situation is like today in Borneo.

leslie said...

Rachel Carson did more benefit than we can ever imagine. She was author of 'Silent Spring'. She is worth a little study, if you aren't familiar with her.

meggie said...

That is such an interesting, & important story. It should be taught at every school in the world. And mad scientists should be reiminded of it! (Only the 'Mad one"!)

Anonymous said...

"Oh what a tangled web we weave", or dismantle at this point.

This is why I got a degree in Social and Environmental issues", it's ridiculous to think that humans can just affect a tiny microcosmo without affecting the larger.

Too bad you don't have any pics of the cats being parachuted in. It's both sad and funny at the same time.


geewits said...

I kinda drifted off there picturing cats parachuting. I hope I dream about that tonight.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Malaria is still a problem today but although there is a risk ofgetting it in the jungle, you can also get it in certain urban areas with poor sanitation and rubbish disposal services.

I know of Rachel Carson and her book and refer to it often when I give talks on the environment although I confess that I have never read the whole book.

The problem is all scientists have the potential to be a "mad" one. :)

I was thinking of posting a drawing of cats parachuting but I thought people's imagination is better than any drawing.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story with a great point.
Don't mess with Mother nature, she knows what she's doing.
deceased cats.):

riseoutofme said...

Have been lurking around here for a while now ....

Grew up listening to the Goons every Sunday afternoon ... thanks for prompting the memory!

Very informative article on Malaria in this months National Geographic ...

Cats parachuting .. surreal.

Janice Thomson said...

How true Lgs that man seems to think he knows more than Nature and interferes in almost all her doings. This happened in the States some years ago when pesticides were used against a growing gopher problem. Alas, so were the birds and the fox and everything else affected too. To this day there are no birds in this particular terribly sad.
Nature has her cycles and keeps a careful balance when things get out of hand but we in our impatience and lack of knowledge of the interconnectedness of living things do our best to ruin the whole thing. How much we have to learn! I actually love the sculptures...very unique.
Thanks Lgs for this poignant reminder to stay out of Nature's affairs - she knows what she is doing.

patterns of ink said...

This is fascinating! I'm cutting and pasting it to a word document with proper "by line." My teachers need to read this. If in some discreet way you can direct me to an article with your name on it, I'd be happy to include something other than Lone Grey Squirrel, =) but that will do for now.

One more thing, LGS, I know how much you love the song "Fields of Gold" so you really must go back to that post I wrote after my daughter's wedding in late June and click on the text link at "photos at the shore." It will take you to a dream-like video my brother made that morning using Sting's mellow hit. You'll love it.


Becky Wolfe said...

Ah, my dose of history & humor, all wrapped up in one bit of information. *grin* Always something interesting to read on your blog. I can just picture parachuting cats and the terror-filled howls they were probably making on decent. (much like the sounds they make if one is ever transported in a vehicle - just mournful)

And such a great reminder that for every action, there always is a reaction.

Thanks for sharing this!!!

Open Grove Claudia said...

That's a beautiful statue and a lovely story. Of course, here in Denver, we have only huge, I mean 10 story, public art work - dancing aliens, blue bear, etc. Subtle is not a Colorado value.

Odat said...

I don't think "man" will ever learn...before it's too late..
Thanks for relating that story...

EA Monroe said...

LGS, thanks for sharing the photo of the sculpture and the "history." I agree with what you say about messing with the balance of nature. I can't help but wonder what all will happen with all the genetically altered seed/ foodstuff as well. Oh, and I love Sting's Fields of Gold song, too.

Josie said...

LGS, that is the most interesting thing I have ever read. I wonder how much harm man has done to the sensitive eco-nature of the earth by doing this very thing. I have read that many of the famines in Africa are "man-made" because of tinkering with agriculture there.

What an interesting post.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Sorry I missed you earlier. Hope you have pleasant and fantastical dreams.

Sorry about the dead cats, man. But on the positive side, the replacement cats were the heroes of the moment.

Thanks for de-lurking and leaving comments. Always appreciated.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

thanks for sharing about the anti-gopher campaign gone awry. I haven't heard of that. glad you like the sculptures.

You really think the post is worth showing to your teachers? I am flattered but of course the story is naturally a good one to share. For the by-line, drop me an email so that I can reply. My email address is in my profile. Thanks also for sharing that video of your daughter's wedding. She is very beautiful. The video was very well put together.

I've tried transporting a cat once so your description of cats howling really hits home.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I've seen your giant blue bear! He's kinda of a cute and inquisitive, the way he peeps into the building.

thanks. I share your concern about genetically modified organisms. Ah, Sting. "Fields of Gold" a lazy, happy little sad song.

sorry I missed you earlier. I agree. Man isn't the sharpest knife around.

Man had community based farming and all the accumulated wisdom. Then we got blown away by scientific marvels and the chemical revolution. Here we let our pride lead us out of wisdom's shadow.

HeiressChild said...

hi LGS, what a great and interesting story. there's so much history to know, and i thank you for always sharing something. with all of the cutting down of trees to make way for new roads, new homes, new businesses, etc., and the experimentation of things like DDT, etc., the negative effects on animals and the environment, not to mention mankind just continues to manifiest and escalate.

may you experience a better work-week coming up.

the walking man said...

Whew LGS I thought halfway through this post you were going to say they Napalmed everything. I guess I have been thinking about Cheney being president for a day when Bush had a camera shoved up his ass.

Man will never stop trying to dominate the environment but what they don't understand that the earth is a living organism and will fight back to anything we do to her. We are all fools and idiots for not rising en masse to the problems Governments and Businesses have caused us.



Jocelyn said...

Seriously? I learn so much every time I visit here.

I'm a huge fan of public art--but then again it so often catches me by in your photo here...some of the cats look like ferrets or meerkats, even.

Fascinating stuff.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thanks for the kind words and also for the wishes for a better work week. It is much appreciated. I am leaving it to God to sort out but humanly speaking, it doesn't look very good.

There was no napalm in the original story but perhaps it will appear if there ever is a Hollywood dramtization of the story! LoL.

I am not one prone to protest but as I see more and more evidence of planetary rape and injustice, I increasingly agree with your statement that we are fools not to rise and oppose the governments and multi-nationals behind most of this damage.

Asian cats are not the round fluffy specimens you have in USA. Most of our cats are of suspiciously diverse parentage and as a result are leaner and longer looking which is why they may appear more like a ferret to you. Our squirrels too have sharper, point-ier snouts and straight tails.

CS said...

A wonerful example of how nothing we do is without consequence. Think w'll ever get better at considering consequences?

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I think that many are pushing for the "precautionary principle" for example in the use of genetically modified organisms. The principle proposes that the proponent must prove to a reasonable degree that it will do no harm to the environment. Big business and some arrogant scientists oppose this and say that it is the role of opponents to prove that it does any harm. Unless harm is proven, they should be allowed to use and release these modified organisms. So, money says that we won't learn.

...Kat said...

I like having the last word?

More cat stories please!
More cat images please!

Anonymous said...

For some real information on these parachuted cats go to:

and also click the follow up links at the bottom of the post to see the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Its an interesting story, but however all your comments are most likely comming from people who are living in an area where the is no malaria.
Imagine you live there and there is malaria around you and some of your family is dying because of that. I think you would like to have the DDT spread over the area, as malaria is a dangerous killer.
Think about that.
I have lived in Kuching, Borneo for many years and I know what I am talking about.

JH said...

Where is there any evidence for the hundreds of cats? Most versions of this story use the figure 14,000 cats. Which of course is completely nonsensical. There is evidence that cats were dropped in parachute baskets along with two "cases of stout for an ailing chieftain". But not hundreds.
and elated postsfor the facts.

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Josie said...

Here's a link to the story of the flying cats of Borneo. I have the actual RAF flight record. there were cats but no where near the silly story of 14,000. Where that came from who knows. Let me know if you have problems accessing the links:


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