Unlike their much larger namesakes leopards, Asia’s leopard cats grow to the size of a house cat—though they’re still just as wild as can be.
As kittens, leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) are tiny balls of fur that resemble a domestic kitten. The similarity recently fooled a man in southwest China’s Yunnan province. While working in hillside farmland, he spied a black-spotted kitten wandering alone.
After spending three days trying to care for the kitten, he realized the species was no ordinary domestic cat. He has since turned it over to local police. (Learn more about the world’s small cats.)
Police and wildlife officials could not be reached for this story. But speaking with Chinese state-run media outlet CCTV, police officers said they plan to send the kitten to an animal rescue station until it’s old enough to be released into the wild. They estimated the kitten was just about a month old.
But while the “rescue” may have been well-intentioned, it may not have been a rescue at all.
Luke Hunter is an expert on wild small cats and serves as the chief conservation officer for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. He says leopard cats are commonly found throughout continental South, East, and Southeast Asia. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for them to interact with the humans who live there.
“But the kitten was almost certainly not abandoned or lost,” Hunter says.
Police officers temporarily caring for the kitten theorized it had become separated and lost.
“Although the farmer meant well, the best course of action would have been to leave the kitten alone. The mother was probably simply away hunting, and she would have returned to retrieve it,” Hunter says.
He adds that when kittens are removed from their mother’s care, time is critical if they’re going to be reunited. The kitten’s mother would have searched for it for only a few days before moving into a different range.
Last year, when leopard (Panthera pardus) cubs were found in eastern India, locals initially thought they were lost. Realizing the mother was nearby, they returned the cubs to the field in which they were found. Night vision cameras captured the moment the mother spotted the box they were placed in, sniffed out her litter, and then promptly carried them away.
Difficult as it may be, wildlife officials often recommend letting nature take its course with wild animals. (What’s a real black panther?)
Humans are naturally fond of baby animals, so it’s no wonder we’re moved to compassion when we see one in distress. Online, there’s no shortage of videos showing orphaned animals taken into wildlife sanctuaries or suburban living rooms, where they’re cared for by human hands.
Often, however, “rescues” can backfire. Famously, and controversially, Yellowstone National Park euthanized a baby bison in 2016. The bison was found by tourists on the side of the road, loaded into their SUV, and taken to a park center. Thinking the mother would likely reject the calf and knowing the park had too few resources to care for it, the calf was humanely killed.
In the U.S., wildlife have legal protections that prohibit human interference. In China, leopard cats are protected.