Not a Lot of Ocelots

Once thought to have vanished from North America victims of hunting and habitat loss the cats maintain a slender pawhold in the thickets of South Texas

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Tewes trapped his first ocelot on the Corbett Ranch on March 2, 1982. He and his colleagues had set cage traps in promising thickets, but for days failed to bag even an opossum. Then one morning they were greeted at their first trap by a spotted cat, “flagging its long ringed tail at us,” says Tewes. “I shouted, ‘It’s an ocelot!’ and promptly crushed my soda can with my bare hands.” Thus began the first scientific inquiry into the Texas variety.

Yturria is no less concerned with protecting the ocelot. Under a plan worked out with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) several years ago, he set aside 600 acres of brush in the middle of his 15,000 acres north of the Rio GrandeValley. “I realized I was part of the problem when I found out that the land I was clearing for cattle still held the ocelot,” he says. “I’d like to see some semblance of this country just like I remember it as a boy.”

When Yturria was growing up in the 1930s, both ocelots and some jaguars made Texas their home. And when his great-grandfather started ranching here around 150 years ago, 6 of the 37 species of wildcats in the world could be found in what is now Texas. Four of them— the mountain lion, the bobcat, the jaguarundi and the ocelot—are thought to remain, though the jaguar and the margay have vanished. (The last known Texas jaguar was shot just outside Kingsville in 1948, and the margay, a sort of miniature ocelot, was last seen 100 years before, near Eagle Pass, on the Mexican border.)

Until recently, ocelots had a reputation as varmints, since they were often accused—sometimes with good reason— of raiding the henhouse. Taking advantage of their taste for poultry, Tewes used live chickens to draw the cats to his traps. That wasn’t necessarily bad news for the bait. The chickens were safe in separate cages at the rear of the traps and even viewed captured ocelots as a food source. “I often found them picking ticks off an ocelot’s head in the trap,” says Tewes.

Ocelots in the wild will go after rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, lizards and even fish. Some naturalists say they’ll also stalk bigger game—red brocket deer and squirrel monkeys.

Noted Smithsonian mammalogist Louise Emmons, in her classic 1980s study of ocelots in Peru, reports they seem fond of playing with their food: “Once in Peru I watched an ocelot walk out on the path with a baby Proechimys [spiny rat] in its mouth. . . . It put it down and let it run away briefly before pouncing on it. It repeated its ‘game’ several times, alternately batting the baby rat a bit with its paw—just as we’ve all seen domestic cats do—before finally picking it up in its mouth and heading back into the forest . . . presumably to nosh on its catch.”

In contrast to our stereotypical view of the cat as a loner, Emmons’ work suggests that ocelots may have a more social lifestyle than fellow felines such as jaguars, pumas and tigers. “Although the sexes each maintained individual territories and, as is usual among many cat species, a dominant male’s territory overlapped several female tracts,” she recounted, “the cats would often meet and spend time together. And this included at least two males, a father and son, who, one would expect, wouldn’t have tolerated each other.”

One of Tewes’ Texas colleagues, Linda Laack, 41, a FWS field biologist at LANWR, reports that ocelots are “solitary but hardly antisocial.” Ocelot mothers, she says, are dutiful. “Usually, they protect the kittens by moving them from den to den, sometimes as often as five times in their first few months.” Dens are located on the ground, well hidden and defended by thorn scrub. Once, though, Laack noted that a mother had stashed her kitten in a tree before going out hunting. “There I was, intent on setting a trap at the base of a tree,” she says, “when suddenly it was ‘raining’ cats. The kitten landed near me before it quickly bounded away.” Females teach their young to hunt, and if there is enough food, they will take motherhood one step further by setting their daughters up in a kind of land tenure system. “They’ll subdivide their territory to accommodate their daughters,” says Laack. “But sons, too, are allowed to hang around for a couple of years, as long as the mother is still associated with the son’s father. Or it may be that they stay with mom or in her territory for longer, to further mature and hone survival skills.”

For an ocelot in Texas—with only a few thousand free acres of possible habitat, separated by vast tracts of farms, ranches, development and highways— finding a territory is especially challenging. One young male from the Yturria Ranch managed to cross a 27- mile gantlet of highways, roads and farmland before being hit by a car and killed near Harlingen.

“Vehicles are the enemy,” says Tewes. “In the last few years at least 20 ocelots have been killed by them.” The Texas Department of Transportation has been experimenting with culvert underpasses for ocelots and other wildlife, and the FWS is continuing its 20-year project to develop a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande.


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