What struck me about Operation Cat Drop – the flying cats of Borneo story – was not the unintended chain of events but the detail about the cats. Fourteen thousand cats! Where on earth would they be able to round up 14.000 cats? Could it possibly be true? And how could I find out?
In addition to the wide circulation on the internet I found a story deep in the archives of the New York Times for November 13th 1969. The research led me to the sources of the story but still, the numbers of cats was seriously in question.
The WHO library reference service provided references confirming the WHO project to control malaria but no knowledge of any parachuting cats.
And then it occurred to me that the military keep excellent records. If the RAF conducted the flights then there would be a record. The Ministry of Defense (UK) provided a copy of the RAF Operations Record Book (Please ask if you would like to see it).
So, from the record: On the 13th of March 1960 Flying Officer Nimmo and crew of RAF Beverley Flight flew out of Changi, Singapore. Their mission was a “unique drop to Bario in the Kalabit islands of Sarawak”.
They dropped 7000 lbs of stores including:
4 cartons of stout for a recuperating chieftain
And over 20 cats to wage war on rats that were threatening crops
The report goes on to say: “The following message was received from a Mr. McSporran of Bario: “Many thanks to RAF and all responsible for air drop arrangements; also to cat donors and cat basket makers. All cats safe and much appreciated (?).
Very accurate dropping but unfortunately parachute that was dropping wheels failed to open. All other stores received safely….”
So – the basic story is true. The RAF did assist in replenishing the cats of Sarawak. But where the number 14.000 comes in I can only imagine. Perhaps that was the height from which they were dropped. And my favorite detail – beyond the donated cats in their baskets of course – is the four cartons of stout for the recuperating chieftain. Medicinal alcohol airlifted in and safely dropped from a height.
The story of the chain of events is a wonderful parable. It illustrates a principle of ecology – that all aspects of an ecological community are interconnected in an intricate network of relationships. We are all connected. And disrupting one part of that web of relationships can have far reaching and often quite unintended consequences.
Other examples of human intervention and good intentions going awry are many. In Hawaii the rapacious mongoose was introduced to control the rats that ate the sugar cane. The rats hunted by night, the mongeese (?) hunted by day and rather than feasting on the rats ate the chickens and native bird population.
Kudzu was deliberately introduced to the southern USA to control soil erosion and immediately began taking over – growing like a plant in a science fiction horror story.
Rabbits were introduced into Australia for hunting for sport to devastating effect on native animals, plant life and soil erosion.
For a careful and very interesting well documented account of the original story of the mosquito eradication project see:
Careless technology: Ecological aspects of pest control in Malaysia by Gordon R. Conway.
Ecologically everything is connected and to disrupt one part of the picture has an effect on the rest – often in quite unexpected and unintended ways. The need then is to try and see the biggest possible picture and to weigh the risks of intervention as best one can. Easy to say but much harder to do.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it
hitched to everything else in the universe
Here are the three posts with the whole story