Using Curiosity to Her Advantage, Cat Finds Home in 8 Days, 3 Miles

Duncan pushed through a screen at her sitter's house and headed for her owner.
Duncan pushed through a screen at her sitter's house and headed for her owner. (Photo Courtesy Of Sandra Delony)
By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

Duncan, a gray, striped tabby, is not an indoor cat. She hates being stuck inside when staying with her owner's friend Sandra DeLony, who doesn't dare let Duncan out while catsitting -- just to be on the safe side.

So when Duncan saw an opportunity -- the open window, the oh-so-flimsy screen, the unsuspecting birds outside -- she jumped at it (or so DeLony thinks). Then, lost but apparently determined, Duncan spent the next eight days traveling about three miles back to her owner's house in another part of Silver Spring.

"It's a mystery," said DeLony, who had cared for Duncan about 10 times without incident. "We don't know how she found her way home."

The homing instinct of cats is a mystery to scientists as well, said Ashley Owen, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Humane Society. One theory is that they can follow the Earth's magnetic fields to a familiar spot. Or it's possible that Duncan might have picked up scents during the drive to DeLony's house.

"Cats are territorial by nature," Owen said. "If they don't perceive the home as their territory, they might try to get back to their own house.

"These are extraordinary instincts that the cats do have, and it's not totally understood yet why animals do this," she said.

DeLony and Duncan's owner suspect the petite 6-year-old cat might have traveled through Sligo Creek Park -- about a half-mile from DeLony's house -- as she made her way from Hayes Avenue to Thornhill Road, where the owner lives.

Whatever happened, she seemed to have avoided predatory wildlife and cars.

"I was so relieved," DeLony said. "To my eyes, she looked like she hadn't had any adventure at all."

Other than shedding some weight, Duncan seemed unshaken. If only the same could be said of DeLony and Duncan's owner, who declined to comment. The women spent a frantic week searching for the missing feline, posting fliers in their neighborhoods and responding to false alarms.

The cat had been staying with DeLony nearly a week when DeLony left for a day trip to St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore the morning of July 21. When DeLony came home late that afternoon, she noticed that a first-floor screen had been dislodged from a window that she had left open.

"I panicked; I was so upset," she said. "I wasn't sure whether she had actually gone out the window or whether she was hiding somewhere in the house. I just searched the house all over, and I couldn't find her. I walked all around the neighborhood and couldn't find her."

By July 25, Duncan's owner had left North Carolina, where she was checking on her second home, and the friends went on a flier binge. Calls poured in, but some were cases of misidentification. A tabby was spotted nursing kittens in a back yard, but it couldn't have been Duncan -- she'd been spayed.

One evening at dusk, the pair spotted a tabby sitting on a picnic table near Glen Haven Park. Duncan's owner called her name.

"The cat looked at her like, 'What the hell do you want?' " DeLony said. "Our hopes had been raised and then dashed."

After 10 or 11 calls, a useful lead came July 29. A neighbor of the owner called DeLony and said Duncan was in an alley a few homes away from the owner's. DeLony called her friend to pass along the tip.

"By the time she got outside [her house], Duncan was sitting on the porch ready to come in," DeLony said. "She called me about two minutes later and said, 'Guess who's sitting in my lap?' "

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