The rarest cat in America — the ocelot — lives in the southmost corner of Texas, near Brownsville. It’s a spotted cat, marigold yellow and black, about the size of a small border collie — and a few weeks ago I was asked to go help catch one.
Jody Mays works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. It’s her job to keep tabs on the small, remnant population of ocelots in the United States. No one knows their true numbers in this country: Fewer than 100 — maybe fewer than 50. They live in the impenetrable, tick infested, thorn and brush country of South Texas, right near the Rio Grande, just across from Mexico. (Their habitat includes the Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve.)
Though widespread in South and Central America, this prettiest of cats is now on the brink of extinction in the United States due to clearing of its habitat, which is seen by locals as pretty nasty. Ironically, as the cats get scarcer, their name and fame spreads and adorns developments, roads and golf courses. Every other subdivision, it seems, is called “Ocelot something-or-another.”
The Nature Conservancy is working with others to protect as much ocelot habitat as possible through conservation easements, linking up the small known breeding populations of the cat. But this work is expensive business — and was recently made a little harder by the U.S. government’s plans to build a border fence, which would permanently isolate the U.S. ocelot population from the source population in Central America.
At Laguna Atascosa, some 45,000 acres are occupied by perhaps just two dozen cats. Secretive, nocturnal and rare, they don’t make Jody’s job any easier. Our traps, baited with chicken, quail or pigeons (the bait is kept in a separate cage and thus unharmed) caught us everything from armadillos to bobcats to coyotes. But on the mornings I visited, the ocelots were staying away.
I left a camera with Jody, in the hopes that she might film what is no doubt rare footage of an American ocelot. And sure enough, a few days later, she calls with news of a young male ocelot being trapped. (See him above.)
With a radio collar on, he was subsequently released, and in the days and months to come, he will help us understand the needs and desires of the ocelot. But in some ways we already know what they need most. More land. More habitat.
In a state where private property is king, and where roads and agriculture bisects the slivers of remaining habitat, finding that additional habitat may be far harder than finding the rarest cat in America.
(Image: Ocelot at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Used courtesy of USFWS.)
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