Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bobcat sighting spooks Orlando-area pet owners

Wildlife officials urge Windermere-area residents to keep tabs on their animals.

Rich Mckay - Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 26, 2007

Windermere, there's a razor-clawed bobcat on the prowl, and your pets are on the menu.

Your Russian blues, Welsh corgis, bichon frises and other jewel-collared critters could be game. Poofy-haired or not.

The wildcat has been spotted skulking along a fence line between some woods and the manicured backyards at The Willows of Lake Rhea just north of Windermere in Orange County.

For about a week, neighbors say, they have seen the animal behind their fence.

Neighbors have been calling Orange County Animal Control and rangers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But the answer they get is to do nothing, unless the animal appears to be rabid or is killing pets.

"We tell people that if we remove one [bobcat], it's not really solving the problem -- there'll just be another one," said Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the wildlife commission.

"People have to understand that bobcats have been here longer than humans," she said. "They typically don't cause a real problem, so we tell people just don't approach them and don't try to feed them."

Most bobcats will not approach humans, said Mark Hostetler, a wildlife ecologist and professor at the University of Florida.

"They're creatures of opportunity," he said.

That doesn't mean anyone should get cuddly with the tufted-eared wildcat.

The spotted carnivores with sharp fangs, retractable claws and an appetite for mammals under 12 pounds are native Floridians, although many longtime residents have never seen one.

They're reclusive beasts with an uncanny ability to blend in as they hunt their favorite snacks -- rats, rabbits and mice.

But that's not to say that bobcats don't ever cause problems.

In 2002, a hiker in Rock Springs Run State Reserve near Apopka was one of three people attacked by one [rabid] bobcat in back-to-back incidents before it was shot dead, still clinging to a ranger's arm.

That same year, at least 10 housecats in west Orange County were slaughtered, and a bobcat was blamed.

Hostetler said that pet-eating is rare, though.

"I'd be concerned if it started exhibiting unusual behavior, such as losing its fear of humans," he said.

And that's exactly what Willows resident Ingrid Peri fears.

She's among the people who have seen the bobcat trotting along or just sitting by the treeline, watching her yard and her three dogs.

"It was like it was hunting us, and then it crouched down," Peri said. "It didn't look scared at all."

Peri and her daughter Susan, 22, said they've seen other bobcats -- also called lynxes -- in the woods.

As of yet, there are no reports of slain cats or dogs.

Hill's advice: "Keep an eye on your pets."

Rich McKay can be reached at 407-420-5470 or bobcat2607may26,0,7835755.story?coll=orl-news- headlines-orange

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