|Tom Harrisson (left) with
The earliest reference to the cat story is a two-page description of the
events leading to the cat drop written by a person, Tom Harrisson, who
claims to have been personally involved with the effort (Harrisson
1965). Harrisson provides a date for the cat drop, 1959, which does not
appear in any other rendition of the story. He also suggests that the
cats died as an “obvious result” of eating cockroaches that had died
from the insecticide sprayed to prevent malaria, although he does not
mention which insecticide was used. He praises the positive effect of
the anti-malaria effort but laments the consequences of the rat
infestation resulting from the loss of the cats, especially in the
“Kelabit highlands”, an upland area of Sarawak.
In his explanation of the cat drop, Harrison relates that new cats were
collected in coastal towns by the WHO, placed in “parachute-borne
containers bulging with cats of every degree of age and rage” and
dropped in “the interior uplands” with help from the Royal Air Force
(RAF) flying out of Kuching. In another publication of his (Harrison
1959b), which describes conditions in Borneo twelve years after World
War II, he mentions that the North Borneo government “pioneered the use
of supply drops for out-stations and field parties” and that these drops
were used “with effect for the World Health Organization” in Sarawak. An
example of this is given in the report by de Zulueta and LaChance (1956)
who describe an air-drop to replenish their stock of DDT (of all things)
by the RAF in 1954. Further verification of air drops over Borneo is
given in an Internet site dedicated to a RAF supply-transport airplane
(the “Blackburn Beverley”) used for these efforts (Stubbs 2007). The
author of the website mentions the creation of special cages to
parachute “live chickens and even cats to alleviate rat problems in
jungle forts” from the transport plane.
During World War II, Harrisson led a guerilla operation in which he and
a squad of commandoes dropped into a remote area near Bario, Sarawak,
and convinced the local tribesmen to start killing Japanese soldiers
occupying the island (Harrisson 1959a; Heimann 1998). He lived in Borneo
after the war as curator of the Museum of Sarawak. However, he was also
a bit of a maverick with regards to his scholarly activities and readily
alienated others. His obituary (Anonymous 1976) states that “his
publications were the petrol-pumps that refueled his ego”, and “that
sometimes his intuition tempted him to make dangerous imaginative
leaps”. His biography is titled “The Most Offending Soul Alive” (Heimann
1998) which further implies an irascible nature and doubts as to the
veracity of his story. However, Harrisson’s version of the cat story is
referenced by Gordon Conway (1972) in which Conway relates both aspects
of the cat story (moths and cats). Conway also provides an account of
the incident involving the geckos in the cat story, which he states
occurred in Sabah rather than Sarawak. As Conway states (without
reference), “like the cockroaches, they too are frequently eaten by cats
and thus can pass on the accumulated DDT”. Conway also states that, in
Sabah, cats were collected in towns and transported to upland areas
(presumably via roadways), but does not indicate who collected the cats.
The longhouse at Bario,
Sarawak in 1959 (Harrisson, 1959)
The most dramatic proof for a cat drop is provided in the “Operations
Record Book” kept by the RAF (Royal Air Force 1960). The report
describes that on March 13, 1960, a crew in a Beverley transport plane
flew out of Changi, Singapore and “carried out a unique drop to Bario in
the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak”. The items dropped were also
mentioned; a total of “7000 pounds of stores” including “over 20 cats to
wage war on rats which were threatening crops”. The report goes on to
state that a reply was received from a person on the ground who thanked
the RAF and the “cat donors and cat basket makers”, and that “all cats
safe and much appreciated.” In addition to his association with Bario
during World War II, Harrisson (1959b) returned there during the 1950’s
to help build an airstrip. Given this location for the cat drop, it is
most probable that the insecticide used in this area was DDT since it
was not was not in the “First Division” of Sarawak where dieldrin was
used (the First Division was in the area near the capital of Sarawak,
|A page from the RAF
'Operations Record Book' showing 20 cats dropped by parachute on
However, Harrisson’s is not the only version of events in Bario at the
time of the cat drop. Harrisson’s biographer, Judith Heimann (1998)
states that another person besides Harrisson also came up with the idea
of a cat drop in Bario. Heimann had located the transcript of a wireless
message to Borneo Airways from Harrisson requesting a plane to carry the
collected cats and fly Harrisson out of Bario after their delivery, but
a plane was not available for landing in Bario’s short airstrip. Heimann
then states that a District Officer, Malcolm McSporran, in Bario
rebuilding the airstrip, related to her that he (independently) arranged
with the RAF to drop cats along with materials for the airstrip.
McSporran explained that that the cats used for the drop were collected
in Kuching by members of the fire department which suggests the WHO was
never involved in any aspect of the cat drop that occurred in Bario.
This version of the story also explains the “7000 pounds of stores”
dropped with the cats (Royal Air Force 1960) as those needed for the
airstrip. Heimann also brings up another element of the cat story not
reported elsewhere – the lack of cockroaches from the insecticide
spraying caused a proliferation of bed bugs in the longhouses.
McSporran’s account of events in Bario related to the cat drop is also
detailed in a book by Alastair Morrison (1993). Interestingly, Morrison
does not connect the increase in rats with a loss of cats from
insecticide spraying even though he describes the anti-malaria campaign
in the region and credits de Zulueta, “a most hard working Columbian”
for leading the effort in Sarawak. Furthermore, Morrison claims to have
discovered the “true background to the cat drop” – McSporran’s request
for cats came as a consequence of a rat having eaten a hole in his
pillow while he slept to remove the contents for a nest lining.
A final note: A short article in the Quarterly News of the Association
of Former WHO Staff of April-June, 2005 mentions that the WHO library
staff receives many queries about the cat story and “library staff
wondered whether cats had been really parachuted over Borneo.” If the
library staff does not know of a report, then it is very likely the WHO
never published a report implicating their involvement in the cat drop.
- [Anonymous.] 1976. Obituary, Tom Harrisson, O.B.E., D. D.O. Rain
- Conway GR.1972. Ecological aspects of pest control in Malaysia. In: The
Record of the Conference on the Ecological Aspects of International
Development, (Farrar MT, Milton JP eds.) Washington University, December
8-11, 1968, The Natural History Press, Garden City.
- de Zulueta J, LaChance F. 1956. A malaria-control experiment in the
interior of Borneo. Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
- Harrisson T. 1959a. World Within: A Borneo Story. London: The Cresset
- Harrisson T. 1959b. Innermost Borneo: Ten Years’ Exploration and
Research. The Geographical Journal 125 (3/4):299-311.
- Harrisson T. 1965. Operation cat drop. Animals 5:512-513.
- Heimann JM. 1998. The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His
Remarkable Life. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
- Morrison A. 1993. Fair Land Sarawak: Some Reflections of an Expatriate
Official. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Southeast Asia Program.
- Royal Air Force. 1960. Operations Record Book. Report of Beverley Flight
of 48th Squadron, March 1960, Changi, Singapore. Compiled by Fg. Off.
- Stubbs PW. 2007. The Beverley Association. Available:
[accessed 2 April 2007].