BULL CREEK WMA - I had no idea a bobcat would be so big.
That was my second thought when I finally saw my first bobcat last week in this wildlife management area 15 miles west of West Melbourne.
My first thought was, "My, God! There's a panther!" But I quickly realized that was folly when I spotted the animal's bob-tail that gives it its name.
And that made me realize the bobcat's size and color -- it was a solid tawny color rather than spotted or striped -- may explain a lot about why so many people think they've seen a panther in Central Florida when none live here.
After spending so much time in the woods in my lifetime without seeing a bobcat and having so many fellow hikers tell me they see them "all the time," I figured I was destined never to see one. As it is, I was very lucky to be looking in the right direction when this critter silently sauntered within 50 feet of me and my tent.
It was totally unperturbed by my presence, stopping a second to get a better look at me by telescoping its head upward before lazily strolling away.
It was a beauty, but clearly not something you'd want to tangle with.
Cats are such perfectly designed hunters, there's little difference between any of the world's 37 species -- including your domesticated Fluffy at home -- except for size.
Bobcats have adapted so well to human encroachment, they're thriving. But while they're pretty much everywhere, they're virtual ghosts, showing themselves in backyards and on trails only when they feel like making an appearance.
Both despite and because of their omnipresence, little is known about the bobcat. We know a lot more about what few panthers remain in South Florida because we're trying so desperately to save them.
But even most scientists who study the panther in Florida have never seen one in the wild, and since panthers almost never wander this far north, any reported sighting here needs to be taken with skepticism. Think Bigfoot.
(About one-fourth of reported sightings in Florida involve a black panther, which is a definite red flag: Biologists say there's none in North America .)
In any event, "my" bobcat impressed me with its size -- about three feet long, two feet tall and maybe 20 pounds -- and panther-like look.
A bobcat can take down a 150-pound buck, but it's agile enough to bat bats out of the air like Fluffy takes down sparrows in the backyard.
It mostly eats rabbits and mice, but it'll eat anything, including its own progeny and former "wife" if he happens upon them outside mating season.
For all its dependence on territorial scent markings, the bobcat smells neither good nor well.
It depends more on sight and hearing to capture its prey, which sometimes can turn the bobcat's olfactory system against it.
The rat snake is known to put out a musky scent that hits the bobcat like catnip, leaving it to roll around and purr like Fluffy and forget completely what it was chasing.
Bobcats are essentially harmless to people, but when one is seen prowling a neighborhood like the one in Windermere last week, it hits the news.
I'm just thrilled I finally saw one. And I'm especially glad I saw it well enough to realize, even in my excitement, that it wasn't a panther. I'd hate to be viewed as one of those people who claims to have seen Bigfoot.
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