11:02 AM CDT on Monday, June 25, 2007
By KATIE MENZER - The Dallas Morning News
LAGUNA ATASCOSA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – Sitting in her truck on a road surrounded by seemingly bloodthirsty thorn bushes in South Texas, Sue Booth-Binczik turned around in her seat and leaned out the window to talk to her research assistant. That's when it happened."Holy [expletive]! That's an ocelot!" shouted assistant Seth Patterson, leaping sidewise from the bed of the truck and onto the road where the animal had just crossed in a brown blur. Dr. Booth-Binczik, a research technician at the Dallas Zoo, was out of her seat in a flash and peering through the sharp bushes at the side of the road, but she was out of luck that day. The rare spotted cat was gone. "I missed it because I had turned around to talk to you," Dr. Booth-Binczik said in a good-natured huff. Few people in the United States will be lucky enough to see an ocelot in the wild today. The beautiful, smaller cousin of the leopard used to range in the thousands through Texas and parts of Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana, but the species has all but disappeared thanks to hunting, habitat loss and inbreeding.
Dr. Booth-Binczik and other researchers at the Dallas Zoo have been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to keep the country's last ocelots from dying out, but there's a lot to overcome if the agile, elusive creature is to survive. "It's a question of value for life and for nature," said Dr. Booth-Binczik, who often visits the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge to do research on the handful of ocelots here. "I think we have destroyed their habitat enough."
Fewer than 100 ocelots are left in the U.S. – all crowded into a couple of isolated pockets in the southernmost tip of Texas – and time isn't on the cats' side. Experts say a single blow – hurricane, fire or disease – could wipe the species from the country in a moment. But why save a cat most people have never heard of and even fewer have seen? Dr. Booth-Binczik argues it's a matter of survival. If alterations to the fragile spider web that is the Earth's ecosystem affect ocelots, then they're affecting other animals as well – including humans.
"We are not omniscient. We don't know which interactions between species keep ecosystems operating like they should," she said. "We don't know what will happen if the ocelot is gone." Ken Kaemmerer, curator of mammals at the Dallas Zoo, offers a less dramatic but no less compelling reason to save the tiger-striped feline. Ocelots are nice to look at. "We like cats," he said. "They're pretty."
The ocelot is a nocturnal, midsized feline that lives hidden in the dense thorn scrub of parts of North, South and Central America. Although a near twin of Texas' more abundant bobcat, the ocelot has a shorter tail and rounded ears. Its grace is as rare as its numbers. The striping and swirls on their coats are their fingerprints – unique to each animal – and their silky pelts were once highly prized by fur traders who helped hunt them to near extinction. Because the ocelot is now protected as an endangered species in the U.S. and Mexico, it is illegal to kill them today.
But even without guns, man continues to be the Texas ocelot's greatest threat. The native, inhospitable brush the cat needs for camouflage and protection is barely visible on either side of the Rio Grande today. In its place: cattle ranches, production plants and millions of acres of grapefruit trees, sugar cane, grain sorghum and cotton planted in the area's rich soil. "We've flown over South Texas and found that less than 1 percent has this very special habitat of thorn brush," said Michael Tewes, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and an expert on ocelots.
The thorn scrub that remains is isolated in small, distant pockets not large enough to sustain large ocelot populations. Because the two known ocelot colonies in Texas are cut off from each other and the clusters in Mexico – the closest is 100 miles south of the border – the ocelots are inbreeding. Genetic diversity is suffering, Dr. Tewes said, and researchers know the cats will become more susceptible to disease and reduced fertility if the inbreeding goes unchecked. Jody Mays, wildlife biologist at the Laguna Atascosa refuge near Harlingen, said the cats in her area appear to be getting smaller.
And while individual ocelots used to have all pink or pink and black spotted noses, all ocelots on the refuge have the same coloring on their noses now. That's an indication that the ocelots are too closely sharing genes. "If I see a picture of one with an all-pink nose, I know it can't be one of ours," she said. "All our ocelot have pink and black noses." While bobcats, another of Texas' native cats, have learned to flourish in man's urban setting, the ocelot has proved itself unable to adapt to the changed environment.
Bobcats can be active in the day or night – depending upon their environment – and will venture into the open, brushless territory of ranches and neighborhoods to find food. The ocelot won't leave its dense brush habitat willingly. If forced out in the open and into daylight, it will inevitably meet its death. "The primary form of mortality for ocelots is being killed on roads," Dr. Tewes said. Even at the Laguna Atascosa refuge, where speed limits are posted at 30 mph and signs warn drivers of ocelot crossings, several of the cats have been struck by cars in recent years. The wildlife service and Texas Department of Transportation plan to dig ocelot underpasses beneath some roads to give the animals a safer commute, but the government is only in the initial phase of research.
Dr. Booth-Binczik's current research involves the not-so-glamorous task of counting, measuring and weighing rats, one of the ocelots' main sources of food. Her field pants appear polka dot with spots of blood from thorns, but she knows that the data she's accumulating in the harsh wilderness of the Laguna Atascosa refuge is essential to the wildlife department's survival plan for the ocelots. "With information on a place that supports ocelots, that gives us a good idea on what it takes to support ocelots," Dr. Booth-Binczik said.
If the scientists study what a successful ocelot breeding ground looks like – the number of mice per acre, the size of each ocelot's territory and so on – they can identify or redevelop other areas of brush land in Texas to support ocelot life. Eventually, the research will lead to the creation of new ocelot colonies that operate under federal protection, conservationists hope. During Dr. Booth-Binczik's periodic, weeklong visits to the Laguna refuge, she spends her nights quietly sitting in a pickup, counting the number of rabbits and other creatures she sees. Since the ocelot stalks its prey at night, it's important to know how much prey is available then.
In the early mornings – they begin at 5:30 a.m. – Dr. Booth-Binczik inspects the 100 live-catch mouse traps she's set throughout the prickly ocelot territory on the refuge. She and an assistant use an aromatic combination of peanut butter and horse feed as a lure, and they crawl deep through thorny underbrush to set their mouse traps. Dr. Booth-Binczik carries a roll of duct tape in the back of her truck to quickly pluck off the aggressive ticks and other critters that creep onto her arms and up her pant legs while she's in the brush.
"They say that if you throw a quarter and it bounces back, then that's ocelot territory," Dr. Booth-Binczik said. Each rodent she and her assistant catch is identified, measured and weighed. They also shave a small patch of hair on its underbelly with an electric moustache clipper and mark it with a Sharpie so they can identify the rat if it returns to the trap the next day. They wear thick gloves because the rodents aren't appreciative of the hands-on attention. "Their teeth can't usually get all the way through the glove ... unless they have big teeth," Dr. Booth-Binczik said.
Stuck by thorns, bitten by ticks and gnawed on by rodents. It's hard to believe they keep their senses of humor. But they do. "My assistant and I were joking that we should contact the shaver company and tell them, 'Your product is excellent for shaving rodents. I'm sure you want to highlight that in your next commercial,' " said Dr. Booth-Binczik, after about three hours of checking traps and shaving rats during a trip to the refuge this month. Starting up new colonies for the ocelot won't be easy for conservationists, despite the years of research that have gone into them.
Much of the land they need for ocelot territory is privately owned and used. Increasing genetic diversity will require moving ocelots from Mexico to the U.S., so diplomatic channels must be opened. And within the U.S., laws protecting endangered species do not make it easy to move ocelots around. While there's a lot to overcome, Mr. Kaemmerer is hopeful that the ocelot in Texas can be saved. "The American alligator was at one time endangered," he said, "and now they're as common as crud."