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Ginge, the Antarctic Cat
by Robert Burton
The following is Robert's own entertaining account in full of his time with base cat Ginge.
My first memory of Ginge is watching him trying to look inconspicuous in the snow. He was failing miserably. I had just arrived at the British Antarctic Survey at Signy Island in November, 1963.
Ginge had been tempted outdoors by the unusual sunshine and he was stalking a group of snow-white, pigeon-like sheathbills, with all the sinuous stealth of his kind. Of course, he had no hope of getting within striking distance. As he slunk towards the sheathbills, they simply scuttled away. Then, circling behind him, they showed their contempt for the hunter by pecking his tail as it twitched in anticipation. Watching from the windows, we were amused by Ginge's frustration and ignominy. This was his function as base cat. Along with the ancient gramophone records and year-old magazines he was one of the few sources of entertainment.
I appreciated Ginge for his company when I was on night meteorological duty. Time hung heavily after everyone else had gone to bed and Ginge would stretch out on my knee, purring comfortably, while I drank cups of coffee or dozed the hours away. He also had a more valuable psychological function. We were living in fairly cramped conditions and there were times when, usually for no reason, we felt out of temper with our fellows and sat, grumbling silently in a corner. Ginge would settle on our laps and show that someone was on our side.
How long Ginge had lived at Signy we did not know; he was part of the fixtures and fittings. It was said that he was slightly odd, neurotic even, because of his long exile from the company of other cats. But who can fathom the psyche of a cat? This was surely only another instance of endowing a pet with our own attributes. We would certainly become odd or neurotic if we had to live in the Antarctic for as long as Ginge. We would eventually go home but Ginge, it seemed, was there for all his nine lives.
It was Ginge's habit to wander into the kitchen and mew repeatedly. "Hello, Ginge! Dinnertime already, is it?" And the cook would open a tin of stewing steak and spoon it into Ginge's bowl. Sometimes the offering was dismissed with a sniff and the mewing continued. So a tin of sardines was opened, and then herrings-in-tomato. Yet still Ginge mewed, looking up wistfully at the cook. "You're thirsty, then?" and the operation was repeated with water, followed by evaporated milk, and similar negative results.
Only those who understood cats recognised that all Ginge was asking was affection. He just wanted to be stroked and spoken to although a cuddle and a scratch behind the ears would be nicer.
Ginge was one of those talkative cats, perhaps because of a dash of Oriental in his blood. This was a trait that once gave me the fright of my life. One night I was seated in the met. office, long past midnight. It was as quiet as the grave, except for the wind sighing in the aerials. I have always been edgy at night and the piercing shriek behind me stood my hair on end. I sat paralysed for a very long few seconds before I could steel myself to look over my shoulder. There, of course, was Ginge, tail up, coming to keep me company.
So Ginge kept us entertained and earned his tins of meat and fish and his comfortable blanket-lined box by the kitchen stove. Unfortunately, like so many cats, he had the unforgivable habit of killing birds. He may not have had much luck with the sheathbills during the day, but his nocturnal forays after petrels shuffling to their burrows were devastating.
One day, higher authority (in the person of the Senior Biologist) decided we could no longer keep a carnivore that was killing the very wildlife we were supposed to be studying. So Ginge had to go. There was dark talk of him being taken out and shot. Echoes of Mrs Chippy!
At this point Fate stepped in and I developed a raging toothache that neither aspirins nor the rum ration could quell. It's an ill wind that blows no one any good, they say: and Ginge won a reprieve. I was packed off to the dentist in the Falkland Islands, and Ginge was allowed to come with me.
The voyage on the Kista Dan was rough and miserable for man and cat. On the first day we ran into a storm and I was confined to my bunk in the fo'csle, feeling utterly wretched. As the bows plunged over the crest of each roller and my bunk dropped beneath me, I went into free fall; then I was flattened into the mattress as the bows reared again to meet the next heaving wall of water.
At each rear and plunge, our baggage went sliding up and down outside the cabin. Among the cases was Ginge's travelling box. From inside came a pitiful wail that changed pitch as the box shuffled past the door. It was a unique demonstration of the Doppler effect!
There must have been moments when Ginge felt that a quick death from a bullet would have been the better option. Me too; I could do nothing to comfort him until next morning when, dodging the spray, we hurried aft to the main accommodation. There I found a cat-loving ship's cook who occupied a more stable part of the ship and was happy to care for Ginge, while I returned to the fo'csle to nurse my aching tooth and queasy stomach.
Four days later, we reached Stanley and Ginge was handed over to his new family. I was duly drilled, filled and sent back to Signy, but to a different routine. Now I played endless games of patience during the night watches. Ginge was no longer a part of our lives and the last I heard was that he had been taken back to the UK, to a happy retirement where nights are warm and the milk fresh. If his tail twitched while he slept, it was only because he was dreaming of stalking those tantalising sheathbills.
Ginge, and other cats, are recalled by members of the British Antarctic Survey
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Simon of HMS Amethyst.
He remains the only cat ever to have been awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry under enemy fire,
in what became known as the 'Yangtse Incident' (1949).
Read Simon's story.
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Page created July 2006, with later revisions and additions