Regarding your July 19 column on cats always landing (relatively) unharmed on their feet after falling considerable distances, I thought you might be interested in knowing about an experiment carried out by a friend of mine when I lived in rural northern California. I should stress that this person is reliable (not given to lying or stretching the truth) and is the kind who would carry out the experiment described below. I should also stress that I was not a direct or indirect participant in this experiment, but that I have every reason to believe it is true.
A cat was dropped from a Cessna 150 at the standard airport pattern altitude of 800 feet. An observer on the ground (not me) who was an experiment participant (that is, they were expecting the cat to be coming and were on the lookout for it) noted that the cat impacted on all four feet, after which it ran away at great speed and was never seen again. Since the cat survived well enough to run away, the experiment seems to support the "flying squirrel" thesis [i.e., that falling cats spread themselves out like flying squirrels, enabling them to survive falls of any distance].
I don't know if the cat landed on the paved part (runways or taxiways) or in the adjacent fields. I doubt this would have made much difference. Also I am not sure what an appropriate control for such an experiment would be. I understand that this experimenter once investigated the flight characteristics of a chicken under similar circumstances. In case you're wondering, the chicken appeared to the ground observer to exhibit some largely ineffective latent flying-type behavior before an immediately fatal impact.
--Name withheld, via the Internet
Back when I was a kid we used to take the cat up on the roof and toss it off. It was just a one-story house, so the cat didn't have far to fall. That little bugger would spread out his arms and legs and glide on down, just like a flying squirrel. He never seemed to mind it in the least. He'd let us drag him up there again and again. It seems they have a natural ability to protect themselves from falls. Now that's science! --Dave, via AOL
No, that's stupidity. The flying-squirrel hypothesis is that cats after falling seven stories reach terminal velocity, spread out like flying squirrels, and relax, which helps them survive. Cats falling shorter distances, while they usually land on their feet, may not relax and some suffer serious injury.
This just shows the danger of making fine distinctions when you're trying to explain something to Joe Mope. Whether the cat tossers above saw something about the flying-squirrel hypothesis I don't know. But somehow people have got this idea that cats will survive any fall, period. So now we have the Eternal Boys of the world heaving cats off roofs and even (sheesh) out of airplanes for sport.
Let us review the facts.
1. Nobody says that cats will survive any fall uninjured. Of the 132 cats brought to New York's Animal Medical Center after accidental falls, two-thirds required treatment, and half of this number required lifesaving treatment.
2. The flying-squirrel hypothesis may well explain why some cats survive extremely long falls. No one has demonstrated that all cats will survive long falls. On the contrary, from anecdotal accounts we know that at least some cats are killed--the deaths just aren't reported.
Cecil's lackey Little Ed got into a big argument with a young fellow who was enamored of the flying-squirrel hypothesis. After Little Ed patiently explained the difference between some and all, the young fellow conceded Cecil was right to make point number two above. (The text of the argument can be found in the Junk Drawer section of our AOL area.)
"But so what if Cecil was right?" the young fellow said by way of a parting shot. (I'm paraphrasing here.) "Cecil's point was boring. The flying-squirrel hypothesis is interesting."
OK, fine, it's interesting. The ditz pitching the cat out of the Cessna thought that was interesting. (In a subsequent note, Name Withheld emphasized that no great effort was made to find the cat, and it may simply have run off to die.) I'm into the intellectual-curiosity thing as much as the next guy, but some days I'm happy just to suppress the nuts.
Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration of cat clawing out man's eyeball, by Slug Signorino.