By Mark Davis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:47 p.m. Friday, November 27, 2009
Chet Powell, who knows a few things about animals, has a rule: Never, ever, bother May. Not while she's eating, anyway.
If you do, make sure you count your fingers first. She's quick, and unapologetic, just like any adolescent bobcat.
May the bobcat is the resident star of Reed Bingham State Park in South Georgia. She came to the park in spring, a tiny thing with eyes tightly shut, shaky and barely alive. But oh, what a difference a few months of hand-feedings make.
"She was kind of slow at first," said Powell, the park's director. "But not anymore."
A master of understatement, our Mr. Powell. In a race, this young Lynx rufus could make a neutron sweat. If she's coming around the corner you should go ahead and look at the middle of the yard; she'll be there momentarily. She's lightning in a fur coat, trailed by a thunderous purr.
A South Georgia timber crew found her when it knocked down a dead tree. The fallen tree revealed three bobcat kittens, not even a week old, blind and helpless. One was dead. The crew stopped everything and hustled the two living kittens to an animal rescue group. That organization took them to Reed Bingham, where people are always saving something — possums, deer, birds. Powell once took a sick snake to the doctor.
A second bobcat died, leaving one. Employees bottle-fed her every morning, every night. She strained, wiggled, dug her claws into life and held on. The kitten opened her eyes, stretched her legs, learned to walk. Employees named her May, after the month she came to the park.
Now, she eats fancy, high-protein cat food from a bowl. Powell thinks he may use her for an educational exhibit. How many people have ever had a close encounter of the furred kind with a bobcat?
May is not the only draw at Reed Bingham, a 3 1/2-hour drive south of Atlanta. The 1,600-acre park is home to a variety of creatures, furry and otherwise. The limpkin, a rare wading bird with a dagger beak, stalks the edges of the Little River and park lake. Bald eagles build nests the size of Smart cars in its trees. The longest snake native to America, the Eastern indigo, is a Reed Bingham regular.
The park also is renowned for its annual release of baby gopher tortoises, the state reptile. Buzzard Day is another visitor favorite, and small wonder: Your Georgia experience isn't complete until you've seen a tree sagging with carrion-eaters.
Other parks also use animals to educate visitors about Georgia's nonhuman residents, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Amicalola Falls, for example, frequently features birds and mammals in programs. Many parks bring out lizards, snakes and other things that crawl past your tent.
May, meantime, is learning the nuances of bobcat life, tracking stuffed animals in a grassy compound. The toys trigger a hunting instinct, preparing her for a life grabbing squirrels, rats, mice "and whatever she can catch," Powell said.
Eventually, she'll return to the forests. Bobcats, which aren't endangered, thrive in the leafy tangles of South Georgia, and that's where Powell will take her. She must go where the wild things are.
"Obviously," he said, "a bobcat is not a pet."
He probably will take her to a stand of distant woods, maybe the piney plains near the Georgia-Florida border. There, he'll open a cage, bid her goodbye and watch her go, a bolt of lightning wearing a fur coat.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org