Cat of All Trades
Bobcats are adapting to life in suburbia, where they mostly eat rats and squirrels - not cats and dogs.
By Wendee Holtcamp
I'm watching a video clip of reporter Nigel Wheeler strolling through an upscale Arlington, Texas, suburb as he speaks to the local news audience about "The Bobcat Situation." According to the anchorman who introduced the segment, "Bobcats are invading an Arlington neighborhood, and residents have the pictures to prove it." Neighbors say they are "on alert," concerned for their small dogs and their children. A bobcat captured in a cage looks fierce as it snarls.
What biologists say about bobcats couldn't be further from the news report. "They're small and pretty much harmless," says Ellen Stringer-Browning, a Ph.D. student at University of Texas – Arlington under Professor Dan Formanowicz. The 39-year-old graduate student has spent the past three years researching bobcats in Big Bend National Park and at River Legacy Parks, a 1,300-acre forested preserve along the Trinity River, which borders the neighborhood where the bobcats have, um, "invaded."
"While some people think it's cool to have bobcats in the neighborhood, some people really don't get it and are terrified," she says. "Most people don't really understand the difference between a bobcat and a lion."
At only 15 to 35 pounds, bobcats are substantially smaller than mountain lions. Lanky and lean, bobcats have furry faces, including tufts of fur on each cheek, and black fur tips emanating from their large ears. The bobcat's name comes from its short, bobbed tail – shared only by their close relative, the lynx – whereas big cats like mountain lions have long tails. Limited only by extreme cold in the northern reaches of North America, bobcats range from Mexico to Canada.
Unlike some species, which specialize in a single prey item or live only in a specific habitat, these medium-sized felines are prey and habitat generalists. In other words, they can eat whatever prey is available, including rodents, birds, lizards, rabbits and other small prey, and they've even been known to take an occasional fawn or fox. These adaptable cats can also survive in forest, marshland, desert, grassland or even at the edge of suburbia. This greatly intrigues biologists.
"Of all North American cats, they've become the only one that can handle high-level disturbance," says Stringer-Browning. Because of that, biologists study bobcats as a sort of model organism. "It's a way to get answers about other species. How do they survive when ocelots or margays can't?" Throughout North America – and around the world – most wild feline species have declined as human populations have grown and encroached on their habitat. The bobcat stands in a class apart, having been able to survive and even thrive near human development.
Stringer-Browning started studying bobcats in River Legacy Parks in 2005, adding to her research in Big Bend National Park. "We are interested in their dispersal, if they are going into the neighborhoods, how often they're colliding with cars, what they're eating, and what their genetic variation is within their population compared to others in Texas," she explains. She also wants to find out just how many bobcats live in the area.
River Legacy Parks began from a private donation of 204 acres and was initially named the Rose-Brown-May Park. Renamed River Legacy Parks in 1988, it gradually grew to 1,300 acres through donations and acquisitions. The park has a sustainably designed, award-winning Living Science Center. Built in 1996, the science center has exhibit halls and interpretive displays, including a stuffed bobcat. Visitors to the park regularly report seeing bobcats while jogging or hiking through the 8 miles of trails, and the park's Web site even has a "Bobcat Blog" to track sightings.
Bobcats live mostly solitary lives, defending distinct territories and coming together only for mating. Females give birth to fully furred kittens in springtime, which River Legacy Parks visitors sometimes are privileged to catch a glimpse of. Melissa Nawrocki, RLP naturalist, saw a female with kittens who regularly hung out near the Science Center last year. "The kittens were up in a tree, and mom was on the ground by the path," says Nawrocki. "I thought that it was kind of cool to see the mother and her kittens so close to the path, and that she let kids and adults walk by and see them."
I walk through the park's leaf-strewn paths with Stringer-Browning and TPWD biologist Brett Johnson, who collaborates on her project. A wild tangle of branches, trees, brush and vines provide the perfect place for the tawny spotted cats to hide, and the Trinity River's lush bottomland hardwood forests provide ideal habitat for wildlife. Bobcats mark their territories with scat – biologists' name for fecal matter – as well as a musky secretion from their anal glands, often right on the trail, and we're looking to see if we can find some. Stringer-Browning is carrying a jar of highly concentrated bobcat scent, which comes from the anal gland and is used to attract bobcats.
"Can I smell it?" I ask.
"Trust me, you don't want to smell it," she replies.
"Just a little smell."
She gives me a look, but hands me the jar. I decide it's wise not to stick my nose in but rather, I use the tried-and-true chemistry technique of wafting the scent toward my nose with my hand.
As soon as it reaches my nostrils I gasp, horrified. "Ugh! Oh my gosh! Eww! Oh and I barely got a whiff! I think I'm gonna throw up!"
"I warned you," she says, laughing.
It actually smells a little skunk-like, only worse, if that is possible.
We continue walking and talking about bobcats, her research, the public's attitudes towards them and the television news media's fear-mongering. Are people genuinely as frightened, or is the media overstating the case? Many people living in suburban neighborhoods with wandering bobcats seem to have a different attitude toward the wild cats than those who willingly jog through the park and seek them out. The fact that bobcats opportunistically take various prey worries some people. One TV station reported that a bobcat attacked a lady's small dog in her Plano backyard. The animal allegedly ran out of the woods, through an open gate and jumped on the tiny dog while she watched. The woman – whose dog had over $3,000 in surgery as a result – pled her case: "I don't want a child to have to go through this."
"The number of people injured by bobcats is so small that it is pretty much a non-factor," says Johnson. Pets, on the other hand, could occasionally be a legitimate target of a hungry suburban bobcat. Because of that, whenever someone's pet goes missing in these areas, people often start blaming bobcats.
Johnson turns this on its head, "When pets go missing, is this a bobcat problem, or is this a responsible pet ownership problem?" He says many folks leave pets unattended in a yard backing up to open space. Feral dogs also kill a lot of loose pets but don't get as much blame. People also leave pet food outside, which attracts rodents, and bobcats may follow the rodents. When pet owners take precautions, it reduces or eliminates the risk of a bobcat attacking their pet.
Since bobcats typically hunt during dawn, dusk or evening, people may think that seeing one during daylight means it has rabies. This may hold true more in wilderness areas, but in areas that are urban and suburban, some bobcats become habituated to people and start to stray from their natural habits.
"Around parks and green belts, unless it is actively approaching people with pets, I don't really worry about anything." says Johnson. "I don't get overly excited about a bobcat being in a neighborhood, but at the same time I don't encourage letting him just hang around and get real comfortable around humans."
The reality is, bobcats rarely attack people. Most of the known cases of bobcat attacks were by rabies-infected animals, or involved people cornering a bobcat, which defended itself. Encounters with wild animals often seem frightening because they're so out of the ordinary.
As we walk through the park, Stringer-Browning tells me that part of her study involves figuring out what these bobcats actually eat. Necropsies of two bobcats revealed that both had multiple rats in their bellies; seems bobcats wandering streets have taken a liking to pesky city rodents. Since she finds a lot more scat than dead bobcats – fortunately for the cats – she uses the scat to study their diets. Biologists can identify what species fur in the scat comes from. Of 50 pieces of scat collected so far, what is she finding? "They aren't feeding on Spot and Fluffy." And there weren't any small children in there. What she has found in bobcat scat is a lot of squirrel, rabbit and rat fur.
Stringer-Browning hopes her study will provide information on the River Legacy bobcats and also help biologists understand how bobcats adapt to the suburban-forest interface and how they thrive while other small cat species are near extinction. Although the World Conservation Union considers bobcats a "species of least concern," they note that due to persecution, habitat degradation and loss, populations are declining throughout their range.
The success and adaptability of bobcats is not a given, and despite media reports, bobcats do not lurk around every corner. Despite having spent three years working with them, Stringer-Browning had never seen one in the area until last month.
"He was trying to go from a secluded area of trees up to a sidewalk and then cross the street, but people kept coming on the sidewalk and thwarting his plans," she says. "I was really glad, since I figured crossing the street was not in his best interest. It was also pretty encouraging that the guy who saw him first was excited and spent the remainder of the time waiting for the train taking pictures and telling everyone else about the cat. He clearly thought it was a cool thing!"
Yet bobcats are undoubtedly common in the park itself.
"There's rarely a day that goes by that I don't speak with someone about a bobcat sighting. Most are awestruck," says River Legacy Foundation Executive Director Phyllis Snider. "Occasionally, I will hear someone speak of the bobcats as if they were interlopers in 'our park.' That mystifies me. I've been working at the Living Science Center since it opened 13 years ago, and the sight of a bobcat still thrills me. It's a wonderful reminder of why I invest the long hours."