By LAUREN SONIS
FLAGLER BEACH -- The first time Anastasia Zwenger spotted a bobcat in her backyard, she was puzzled.
"The first time I saw it, I thought, what is it? What kind of thing is it?" said Anastasia, 8. "I knew it was an animal."
Anastasia saw her first cat in June 2005. Since then, she has seen bobcats near her house in south Flagler Beach at least seven times, she said. The third-grader stopped climbing her usual tree in a brush-filled lot near her home when she saw a bobcat perched in it. The family has video footage of a cat on their dock. And Anastasia came face to face with one standing outside her window, she said.
Anastasia's mom, Stacey Zwenger, said the family doesn't want to put up a fence; they find the cats fascinating and would rather just co-exist.
Some local residents said it wasn't until recently that they saw their first bobcat, or at least noticed them.
Wildlife Management co-owner Darlene Kinard said the business answers mostly calls from Flagler County and northern Volusia County. She said she normally gets about six bobcat calls a year for Flagler, but this year she's been getting about six a month. She said she gets many of her calls from the P and R sections in Palm Coast and attributes the increase to development.
Other officials in Volusia and Flagler counties said their agencies haven't had an increase in calls. Salli Combs, animal control director for Orange City, said her agency hasn't had a bobcat call in probably seven years, possibly because it's a small city. Likewise, Shari Williams an office manager for unincorporated Volusia County animal control, said she knows of no bobcat calls in her eight years with the agency.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Joy Hill said bobcats are common so the agency doesn't study their population trends but devotes its limited resources to studying endangered cats, like panthers.
"Really, it's generally felt that as predators their population is stable enough that it doesn't warrant a real detailed investigation at this point," said Mark Asleson, a biologist with the commission.
He said the calls have been stable over the past three to five years and that bobcats have to adapt to encroaching human presence.
Asleson said the commission advises people to leave the cats alone and bring domestic cats indoors since they risk being a potential bobcat meal.
And Hill said pets like small dogs and house cats won't defend themselves the same way a wild animal would.
CEO Carole Baskin of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa said bobcats tend to avoid pets like domestic cats because they put up a fight and instead opt for rats, opossums and wild turkeys without getting close to people. She added that the territorial cats are important to the eco-system since they provide rodent control.
Dr. Mel Sunquist, a professor at the University of Florida's wildlife ecology and conservation department in Gainesville, said people who spot the evasive night hunters should count themselves lucky. Sunquist has seen two bobcats outside of traps in 25 years.
"They're just very secretive, and a lot of times, they're active at night," he said. "So, your chances of seeing one are pretty slim."
Based on radio-tracking information, Sunquist estimates densities probably range from one cat every two to three square miles in excellent habitat with dense forest and lots of rabbits and rodents. With radio tracking, scientists collar animals with a transmitter and follow it with a receiver. The collars work like the anklets used for people on house arrest.
Dustin Devos, a park service specialist at Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area in Flagler Beach, knows of two to four bobcats that reside in the 145-acre park.
He said while it's been a steady year at the park, people may be seeing more bobcats lately because the drought could cause them to look for water.
Devos said they're also more active in the spring, during their mating season.
What is a bobcat?
The golden brown cats with retractable claws can reach 3 feet long, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site. Named for their short, stubby tails, they tend to sink their needle-like teeth into birds, small mammals and the occasional young, white-tailed deer.
What to do if you see one
Daytona Beach animal control officer Steve Bostick said he's had only one bobcat call since January. He usually gets five a year. Bostick said wildlife in general may surface in Flagler because of recent wildfires. Food shouldn't be left outside, and pets should have their rabies shots.
Biologist Mark Asleson with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission suggested people leave bobcats alone when they see one and bring pets inside.
Who can you call?
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, (352) 732-1225, or go to www.myfwc.com/critters/bobcat.htm.
Did You Know?m
While bobcats live 12 to 13 years in the wild, in captivity they have lived more than 23 years.
* Often confused with their larger relative, the panther, bobcats can be found in the United States, northern Mexico and southern Canada, living in forests, coastal swamps, deserts and scrubland.
* Bobcats generally are solitary animals. Although females never share territories, which are about five square miles, male territories -- ranging from 25 to 30 square miles -- can overlap.
* About 1 million bobcats remain in the wild in North America.