By Andrea Stetson
Special to the News-Press
June 27, 2009
The young bobcat that bolted off to freedom Friday afternoon remained as anonymous as it was when it first arrived as a patient at The Conservancy of Southwest Florida six months ago.
The fleeting image of the bobcat as it raced through the tall grass and into a clump of brush on a patch of private property near Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County wasn't much more than what caretakers saw of the feline each day during his stay at the rehabilitation center.
The bobcat was never given a name, weighed, measured or petted. In fact wildlife experts never even got close enough to take a peek to see if the creature was male or female.
"I never looked," said Joanna Fitzgerald-Vaught, director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
The bobcat was about four to six weeks old when it arrived at The Conservancy on Jan. 1 as the first patient of the new year. It was first spotted by some residents of the Pinewoods development off Airport-Pulling Road, who noticed two young bobcats without a mother. The residents borrowed traps from The Conservancy and managed to capture one of the babies. The second one was never seen again.
The bobcat was not injured, but kittens normally spend about a year with their mother and this one was deemed too young to survive alone. So it grew up at The Conservancy.
Wildlife experts simply tossed food in its cage, never stopping to get to know the feline. At first it was in a small enclosure, and hid in a pet carrier when its cage was cleaned, but the past couple of months it spent its time in a large flight cage that wildlife experts didn't enter.
"It was all hands off," said Fitzgerald-Vaught. "It's best that way for us, and its best for him."
Maintaining distance from the bobcat would keep it wild, Fitzgerald-Vaught explained. She didn't want the bobcat to become used to people. Instead, her goal was for it to remain wild so it could soon be freed.
So the bobcat spent the past six months munching on rats, mice and chicken and racking up about $2,000 worth of care.
All that time, the feline kept his wild instincts.
"He was wicked from the day he came in," Fitzgerald-Vaught said. "We barely ever put our hands on him."
But they did check to see if the bobcat was ready for release.
"We tested him on live prey," said Jessica Bender, wildlife rehabilitation specialist.
Bender said live mice and rats were released in the large cage to see if the bobcat could catch prey.
"We do have to give him lots of credit for instinct," Bender said.
The bobcat's instincts kicked in at his release Friday. The young cat growled and hissed as photographers were given 30 seconds to snap photos of him in his small carrier cage.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: felis rufus
DESCRIPTION: Bobcats are about twice the size of an average housecat. They have long legs, large paws and tufted ears. An adult bobcat is 26 to 41 inches long, not including the tail, and weighs 11 to 30 pounds. Most bobcats are brown or brownish red with white bellies and short, black-tipped tails.
HABITAT: They are found in a variety of habitats including swamps, forests, deserts, mountains and agricultural areas. They live in most of North America and Mexico. In Florida, they often make their dens in palmetto thickets.
FOOD: Carnivores; meals include rodents, rabbits, reptiles, fish, birds and insects.
REPRODUCTION: Bobcat mothers usually have two or three kittens in a litter. The mother raises the kittens alone. They usually stay with their mother for about a year, but can set out on their own at about six months of age.
— SOURCE: Florida's Fabulous Mammals by Dr. Jerry Lee Gingerich, animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/bobcat.html.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org