A remarkable moment in the annals of cats brought me to an excellent episode of Radiolab this week. First the cat story. US News and World Report says that Sugar the Cat, a resident of a high rise apartment in Boston, decided to trip the light fantastic on Wednesday. The fluffy white feline stumbled from the window of her residence, fell 19 stories to the ground, and lived.
A resident of the building saw a “white streak” as Sugar flew through the air, morphed into something resembling a flying squirrel, and landed on a soft patch of dirt.
“You could see the impact crater where she actually did hit the ground and she actually lost some fur in the hole, too,” explained Mike Brammer of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Sugar appears to have sustained a cut on her lip and some lung bruises, but otherwise seems fine.
Years ago a cat I owned went through this experience, except she only dropped five stories. The veterinarian to whom I took her generically referred to this phenomenon as “cat-out-the-window,” and said that the biggest danger is if the fall is only three or four stories. In those cases, he warned, cats have insufficient time to correct their stance and adjust themselves.
“It is a misconception that cats won’t be injured if they fall from one- or two-story buildings,” advises the League, “and may actually be at greater risk for injury because it does not give them enough time to adjust their body posture to land in the safest position.”
That brings us to the Radiolab story, which asks how people experience time when they’re falling. The show explores scary amusement park rides, SCAD diving, and eventually gets to the question relevant here: What is the terminal velocity of a plummeting cat?
The show cites two New York vets who produced a study that noticed “a lot” of cats who fall out of apartment building ledges and roofs.
“What is ‘a lot’?” one of the show participants asks.
“We saw 132 cats fall in a five month summer period,” Ann, one of the vet researchers explains.
“132 in five months! That’s almost a rain of cats!” another host declares.
“It’s about four cats a day!”
Getting beyond the cute awestruck chatter, the show notes that 22 of the cats fell from buildings of eight stories and higher, “and out of those 22 only one died.”
“And there was one cat that fell 32 stories and the cat had a little bit of thoracic bruising and a chipped tooth and that was it!”
According to the show, it appears that cats that fall between five and nine stories are the most at risk. But a physicist interviewed for the program observes that after nine stories, cats reach an equilibrium between the pull of gravity and wind resistance, and they go into “cruising speed.” As the sensation of velocity declines, they relax and move into flying squirrel mode.
“Our record,” explains Ann the Vet, “is 42 floors and the cat walked away.”
“Wow,” one of the hosts declares.