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Trailing the Bobcat

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bobcats are one of the hardest animals to see. I've seen two in my life: one in North Dakota, sunning itself by a prairie pothole. It was the size of a springer spaniel, thick-necked, muscular, burly; it must have been a male. I had a bit of trouble convincing Bill it wasn't a house cat until we got it in the scope, and it stood up, flicked its six-inch banded tail, and stomped off. Fantastic. I was dancing around like a spider on a griddle, I was so excited.
Before that, I had my best-ever life look at a bobcat on the trail that leads through Sta. Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. I had been trailing along on a nature walk, lugging 7-month old Liam in a backpack, when he started to caterwaul with hunger. I waved the group on and sat down to nurse him (Spicy water!) All was silent. I heard a slight crackle of leaves and the loveliest male bobcat on the planet stepped out onto the trail only about 12 feet away. He was spotted and striped and flames of rufous ran up the inside of his legs and over his ears. He pretended not to see us but oh, he did--he paused, looked over his shoulder and bolted into the underbrush, where he switched his tail and stared into my eyes with a gold-green intensity that made my heart turn inside out. Oh, thank you, Liam, for making me wait for that bolt of grace.
So I am laying for our bobcats. I've photographed their tracks and today I've found a place where one must like to hang out--an enormous dry ledge-cave on a very steep part of our neighbor's land.
A bobcat had left its calling cards, pretty fresh, at the edge of the cave (kind of a No Trespassing sign to the ubiquitous 'coons).
Bobcat ca-ca is broken into segments, like Tootsie Rolls. And it doesn't smell nice, but they don't bury it when they want to send a message. This was not here a week ago.

Chet's spine hair rose up, something that doesn't happen when he sniffs coon scat. I got such a vivid image of a big, thick-furred bobcat wedged under the ledge. I don't know whether Chet sent it to me or not--he didn't need to. I thought, This is where I would go in a downpour, if I were a bobcat. I might even sleep here all day. Who knows. Maybe he heard us coming and slipped out, down into the ravine. What a thought.

The bobcat cave was just a part of Chet's excellent day. With everyone else in school, he was #1. I gave him a DentalChew, and he decided to take it outside to bury it, something I normally try to prevent. Those things are expensive.
I've been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' books lately, starting with The Hidden Life of Dogs, continuing with The Social Life of Dogs. EMT has to be one of the coolest people on the planet. Her book, The Harmless People, a loving portrait of the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari, is an amazement. She applies the same gentle observational and interpretive powers to her small pack of dogs, following them on their rounds and watching their social interactions. So I decided to follow Chet with his DentalChew.
He was concerned that I was watching him; I could see that, so I dropped farther back. He took off for the orchard with a casual, nonchalant gait.
He tried a number of different sites before finally deciding on a brushy corner of our woods. In the house, Chet buries all kinds of things--biscuits, chew bones---but he doesn't have much to work with, and I'll find bones in my shoes and treats under piled-up computer cords. Here, his broad nose served him well, and he pushed leaf litter and twigs over the chew until it was all but buried.
Sorry, Chet, but I'm not interested in donating your chew toys to the coyotes. When I thought he wasn't looking, I stuck it in my pocket to recycle. But he saw me, and gave me a baleful look. Durn humans. I had that thing buried.


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