The ring-tailed cat is a creature that looks like a lemur had a wild night with a fox. It hangs out in arid places, eating whatever’s available. Here’s why it became the purse-dog of the gold rush.

Few people know of the ring-tailed cat, even though the animals aren’t particularly rare. They range from southern Mexico to northern California, and have been spotted as far east as Louisiana. Most of the time, they live in deserts, and the lack of water naturally limits their number, but in arid regions that still have a reliable water source (like a river or a natural spring), they aren’t hard to find.

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They are very easy to find when miners moved into a new area. Mining wasn’t a steady occupation, and unlike settlers or farmers, miners had little interest in planting non-native crops or setting up townships. They lived in ramshackle settlements that were troubled by insects, rats, and mice. The rats and mice attracted the ring-tailed cats. These animals aren’t cats — they’re members of the same family as raccoons — but unlike raccoons they were extremely easy to domesticate. Miners could set aside a little box or build a small shelter for the ring-tailed cat during the day, then retire for the night. The ring-tailed cat would come out and lay waste to the mouse and rat population, crunch a few insects, drink a little water, then get back into its box to sleep through the next day. The animals got the nick-name “miner’s cat,” and were commonly seen at camp sites.

Today, a few people do keep ring-tailed cats as pets, but they’ve mostly fallen out of favor. People prefer actual cats. If, for some reason, we have to give up our cats one day, it’s good to know that most of North America has a fall-back pet.

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[Source: Birds and Mammals of the Sierra Nevada, by Lowell Sumner]

Image: Robert Body