Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Wonderful Wild Kitty! Moto and Me: My Year As a Wildcat's Foster Mom by Suzu Eszterhas

As a child, I used to tell my mom that one day I would live in a tent in Africa. So it was a dream come true when I headed to the Masai Mara, a wildlife reserve in Kenya, to photograph animals.

Suzi Eszterhas found her dream up close and personal, living with all kinds of wildlife--elephants, hippos, lions, and giraffes--just outside her tent flap, just as she'd hoped. But she never expected to mother a wildcat, Africa's amazing serval cat.

Only two weeks old, little Moto found himself left alone on a road in Kenya as his mother was trying to move her litter away from a grass fire, and Suzi volunteered to be Moto's foster mom.

Anyone who has fostered domestic kittens knows that it is a big job. Kittens cry just like human babies and must be fed every few hours. They require washing and stroking similar to that of their mothers to survive. Moto especially loved being cleaned with an old brush, rough like his mother's tongue. Suzi bottle-fed him a formula of milk, fish oil, eggs, and vitamins day and night. She was busy, but Moto thrived, and soon he was purring when Suzi held him.

Like regular domestic cats, serval kittens play with toys, and Suzi gave Moto a plush duck named Mr. Ducky. He slept with it, purred for it, but as he grew, he pounced on it, wrestled with it, and carried it around in his mouth. By the time he was one month old, he was ready to explore outside. Moto also learned to enjoy rides in Suzi's jeep, watching the other animals from behind the safety of the glass windows.

Moto was shy but curious. He smelled the grass, listened to the birdcalls, and watched everything with big, wide-open eyes. The first times, we wold walk only a few feet before Moto retreated back into the tent, exhausted by his big adventure. If a noise frightened him or he lost sight of me, Moto would call out. His call was like a short, loud meow. I'd return his call by saying, "Moto," and he would call back. Hearing Moto call for me felt good. I knew I was creating a strong bond with him.

But Suzi was a working photographer, so she fashioned a cloth pouch so that she could carry him around as she shot photos outside. At first he slept, but soon the curious kitten learned to poke his head out and see what "Mom" was doing, and it was not long before he began to explore the world outside the tent. Suzi introduced pureed chicken to his formula and then began to introduce solid food to little Moto. It was a big event when he was fed his first mouse, and in a few weeks, he was learning to catch his own dinner. Suzi even helped him learn to catch fish.

To become a hunter, Moto had to explore the bush. Sometimes he would disappear for hours. He roamed freely around camp, practicing stalking, running, pouncing. Learning how to hunt was a huge step in being able to take care of himself. I was very proud.

Moto also had to learn to protect himself, mostly from the larger predators--leopards, lions, wild dogs--in the bush, and he learned to hide invisibly, his spotted gold coat camouflaging him in the tall grass, and to climb high beyond reach in the trees with his now long and powerful claws.

By the time Moto was eight months old, he was nearly the size of an adult serval. Like a wild serval, Moto was active at dawn, dusk, and nighttime and slept most of the day. Moto didn't need much from me anymore.

Despite their familiar kittenish look as babies, an adult serval cat is an impressive animal, weighing up to forty pounds, able to run like a cheetah and use their unusually long hind legs to leap eight feet straight up to capture birds on the wing. Suzi gradually saw less and less of Moto, and she was both sad and glad that he was now independent.

Eszterhas' Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat's Foster Mom (Owlkids Books, 2017) is a true story of that will fascinate young readers who may themselves dream of studying wildlife one day. Illustrated lavishly with the author's own photographs, this slim book gives middle readers much information (including an appendix, All About Servals) and what's more, a satisfying vicarious experience of raising a wildcat kitten and watching him return successfully to the wild. Fans of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Scientists in the Field series and National Geographics' Baby Animal series will find this new one from Owlkids Books a welcome addition to their nature reading. For kids who love animals, share this one with Owlkids' wonderful Koala Hospital (Wildlife Rescue) (see review here.)

Says Booklist, "Photos of Moto, both as a fluffy-faced baby and an active, handsome adult, are the clear scene-stealers, but plenty of interesting facts on servals are included. More than one reader will consider following Eszterhas' footsteps."

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