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Tale of the tomcat

"I grew up, I tell people, so far out in the country that everyone had their own tomcat.
Tale of the tomcat
Tale of the tomcat

"I grew up, I tell people, so far out in the country that everyone had their own tomcat. Some of you are not going to get that."-Governor Rick Perry

I can be counted among those who didn't get the tomcat joke in the governor's goofy speech that Rachel highlighted last night. I grew up in relatively rural and even somewhat agrarian surroundings, but that particular expression is foreign to me. My top returned result in a brain-google for "tomcat" is "Say baby!..."

Some folks think it was a gun reference, but it seems to me everyone in Texas has whatever guns they want no matter how close the nearest farm is. I think he was being more literal than that.

First, I should note, it's an actual expression. He didn't make it up -- although the more common phrasing seems to be "keep a tomcat":

Most of my reading on this is anecdotal message board stuff (It turns out a lot of people online like to talk about cats. Waddayaknow.) but the overall picture is believable enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Most obviously, cats are good hunters, so they're kept by farms for rodent control. More significantly, cats, particularly non-neutered males, are viciously territorial. So while it may be convenient for a group of farms to share a single tom as a sort of stud, it's probably also a natural fact that farms within a given territory range will have only one tom because they'll fight each other until that's the case.

So extreme is this territoriality that tomcats will slaughter a rival's kittens. (The discussion here is a little gross -no photos though- so you might just want to take my word for it.)

Tale of the tomcat
Tale of the tomcat

So it behooves neighboring farms to share a tomcat rather than have fighting toms and imperiled litters.

Now strap on your nerd helmet because, while of course Perry was being colloquial and folksy, as long as we're in this deep we might as well find out literally how remote a farm has to be for it not to overlap with another farm's tomcat territory.

The actual numbers (and there are actual numbers) vary pretty widely depending on degree of domestication, but generally speaking a cat has a specific defended territory and then a much bigger "home range" that it patrols. As you might expect, the size of these territories is much smaller for females than males.

As for the numbers, take a look at this study from May of this year. They put radio tracking devices on 42 adult cats in Central Illinois for two years to see how far they'd wander.

One of the feral cats, a mixed breed male, had a home range of 547 hectares (1,351 acres), the largest range of those tracked.

Holy moly.