Taking the fear out of living with bobcats

Timing is everything.

While it was just a coincidence that Greenwich Connecticut Audubon Center’s program “Bobcats: Our Feline Neighbors” took place less than a week after a rabid bobcat attacked a dog and its owner in Southbury, it could not have come at a better time.

It was exactly what was needed to quell any fear the public might have of these elusive, exceptional animals that media coverage of such a rare attack stokes. That the bobcat had tested positive for rabies was not in the headlines.

“With rabies an animal basically loses its mind, and it’s out of its own control, so it doesn’t know what it’s doing,” explained biologist Melissa Ruszczyk of the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division. “It’s not the nature of that species in particular, it’s the nature of the disease.”

“More often than not bobcats are in much greater danger of being harmed by us than we are by them,” added Ryan Maclean, bird education specialist at Greenwich Audubon.

“Well said,” Ruszczyk replied.

I could not agree more. Working at Friends of Animals I have seen all too often how media reports do nothing to truly educate the public about wildlife and their behavior, and that puts their lives in danger. Because bobcats are such a highly misunderstood species, it can sometimes lead to fear of them. However, they pose no direct threat to humans.

I left the Audubon’s online program feeling hopeful that bobcats in Connecticut will no longer be misunderstood if attendees, including myself, tell their story to help people feel comfortable with their presence.

More details of their story are being uncovered through a three-year research project being conducted by CT DEEP. Ruszczyk and other researchers are collecting data on the movements of bobcats in Connecticut and how they navigate through our neighborhoods. They are also learning more about how we can help them survive alongside us, and that was music to my ears.

Just to be clear, if CT DEEP ever thinks bobcats have recovered to a point that they should be “managed” through hunting, Friends of Animals will not tolerate it. Unfortunately, we have watched the agency betray Connecticut’s black bears. The agency makes money off hunting and trapping licenses.

According to CT DEEP, the state’s once dwindling bobcat population was facing extirpation until 1972 when unregulated exploitation was halted, and the bobcat was reclassified as a protected furbearer with no hunting or trapping seasons. The bobcat population has since

recovered due to improving forest habitat conditions and legal protections. By 1825, only 25% of Connecticut was forested due to deforestation from agricultural activities and other uses of timber. Today, nearly 60% of Connecticut is covered in forest, and bobcats are regularly observed throughout the state.

Sighting and vehicle-kill reports indicate that bobcats now reside in all eight Connecticut counties. However, the heaviest concentrations occur in the northwestern corner of the state, according to DEEP.

Still seeing one is rare and special. That is because they are most active just after dusk and before dawn. And they are only about two to three times the size of their distant relative, the domestic house cat.

Bobcats are polygamous and do not form lasting pair bonds. They breed between February and March. One to four (usually two) kittens are born in April.

Dens are located beneath windfall or in caves, rock crevices and ledges, hollow logs, and trees. The den may be lined with dry leaves, moss, or grass, which are formed into a shallow depression by the female. The same den site may be used for several years.

Secretive, solitary and seldom observed, they tend to hunt and travel in areas of thick cover, relying on their keen eyesight and hearing for locating prey, according to DEEP. Bobcats are patient hunters, meaning they spend much of their time either sitting or crouching, watching and listening. Once prey is located, a bobcat will stalk within range and ambush its quarry.

In Connecticut, bobcats prey on cottontail rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, white-tailed deer, birds, and, to a much lesser extent, insects and reptiles.

However, bobcats do not know the difference between a domestic chicken and a wild turkey, Ruszczyk pointed out.

“It’s important to recognize who wild animals are. Wild animals are here to live and hunt—that is what they do,” she said.

That means it is people’s responsibility to protect pets. She also said farmers need to put up electric fencing.

For far too long DEEP and local governments have accommodated farmers who confine and exploit doomed cattle, sheep, chickens and other animals by killing their predators. So, I was certainly encouraged to hear Ruszczyk finally holding farmers accountable. (We at Friends of Animals see veganism as a moral and ecological issue and oppose the use of animals for human consumption. Plus, it is better for the environment and can combat climate change.)

“We do have the ability to coexist with wildlife in a good way,” Ruszczyk said.

Maclean became fascinated with coexisting with bobcats after he saw his first one while participating in the fall hawk watch at the Greenwich Audubon Center property in the fall of 2013. The next evening a former colleague photographed the bobcat in the same location with two of her three kittens next to her.

“From that moment, I realized that these creatures had a special reason for being on this property. I became so fascinated with how they were living their lives,” Maclean said. “They’re out there serving an incredibly important role as predators in our ecosystem. And thankfully, because of research being done across the state and the country, we are learning how to be able to provide these creatures, who were once thought of as vermin and hunted to near extinction in Connecticut, with a home and how to coexist with them.”

Beyond that, there is simply no denying the enchanting affect seeing a mysterious species for the first time can have on you.

“I had never seen a bobcat in the wild before and there one was— it was this beautiful, elusive and magical creature staring back at me,” Maclean said.

Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.