Monday, August 14, 2006

Bobcat proves fitting school mascot

Last Updated: August 11, 2006, 04:31:46 AM PDT

MERCED, California — There are no bruins at UCLA, no rams at Colorado State, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a anteater at UC Irvine.

But at the University of California at Merced, bobcats apparently abound.

"We've certainly had our share of sightings," said Michael Parish, commander of the UC Merced police department. "So we know they're around the campus."

In fact, UC Merced has seen so much of its small, wide-pawed mascot that the university now includes bobcat safety tips in orientation programs for students, faculty and staff.

At orientation this week, a comical skit taught incoming students what to do if faced with a bobcat — raise your arms to appear bigger while slowly backing away.

"It's meant to be funny," said university spokeswoman Lorena Anderson. "But a lot of our students do come from more urban areas, so they're not used to seeing any kind of wild animals. … And if you're here in the evenings when it's quieter, you might see one passing through."

The university's mascot was chosen more than five years ago — long before campus construction began — by local elementary students who were likely unaware how fitting a choice the golden bobcat would turn out to be.

"It's kind of become a point of pride for us," said James Barnes, UC Merced's orientation and learning assistance coordinator. "We laugh about it, but it's pretty unique if you think about it, to actually see a real live mascot on campus."

A bobcat even made a cameo on the university's inaugural day in September as crews prepared for UC Merced's opening ceremony, Anderson said.

In a recent sighting, a group of incoming students at orientation last week spotted a bobcat near Scholars Lane.

"We thought it was a cat at first, so I went over to it," said junior Adrian Ledesma, who led the group. "They're not that big, so they don't really look intimidating at first. But when I realized what it was, that was pretty scary."

Donna McDowell is head zookeeper at the Applegate Park Zoo in Merced. She said bobcats are often sighted in Merced County's rural areas.

"You're not going to see them wandering around the city, of course, but when you get out into the country, they're around," she said. "It's not uncommon to see them."

McDowell said bobcats typically don't approach humans but will defend themselves if confronted.

Despite their size — bobcats weigh between 15 and 30 pounds, with an average length of about 30 inches — they can hunt animals much larger, including deer.

"They can be ferocious. … You wouldn't want to tangle with one," McDowell said.

Bobcats don't present a safety risk on campus, Parish said.

"They've never approached anyone that we know of. … They prefer to keep to themselves," he said.

For all the sightings, the campus has seen only one bobcat-related incident, he said.

About two months ago, a bobcat cub was found in front of the university library, said officer Stephen Partridge.

"We didn't know where the mother was, and it looked a little sick," Partridge said. "It was backed up into a corner and wouldn't move."

Partridge called Merced County Animal Control, which removed the cub and turned it over to the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill.

"We still have him. … He's doing pretty good," said Teresa Stephenson, outreach coordinator at the center. "He's a nasty little guy, but he's healthy."

The center will likely keep the cub for a few more months, during which time the center's staff will teach him to hunt, Stephenson said.

"We'll release him back into the wild when he's ready," she said. "But he probably won't be going back to the campus."

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