December 31, 2010 10:11 PM
In 2008 a female ocelot was trapped and fitted with a radio-tracking collar at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. She was given the name Esperanza, meaning hope in Spanish.
Never was a name more deserving.
Esperanza is the No. 1 breeding female ocelot in the United States and the hope for eventual recovery of a declining population.
This past year, the ocelot population in the United States was downsized from less than 100 to less than 50, all living in South Texas. The new lower estimate has wildlife officials concerned.
That could make Esperanza one of the most important felines around. In essence, she has become America’s cat.
“Our guess is that she was about 3 or 4 years old at the time we trapped her and that would make her 6 or so now,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Jody Mays, who is in charge of the national ocelot recovery program.
Esperanza gave birth to one kitten in 2008, two in 2009 and one in 2010. Mays said it’s possible she may have had other offspring.
“Since she was 3 or 4 when we first caught her, that’s about the age they start setting up their territory, so we probably know about all her kittens,” Mays noted.
And with a little luck, Esperanza could give birth to more ocelots.
“She could have one or two kittens a year if conditions are good. If she lives about eight more years, she could have six to 10 more kittens, potentially,” she said.
Mays said there is a shortage of breeding females at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which has about 25 ocelots.
“I don’t know if I would say she’s the most important ocelot at Laguna Atascosa, but she’s one of the most important,” Mays said.
Esperanza’s primary mating partner is more than likely Adonis.
“It’s possible other ocelots may sneak into the territory and mate with her, but that’s kind of an off chance,” Mays said.
Adonis and Esperanza are about the same age and have been photographed together by trip cameras.
But the two cats have very different personalities.
“Esperanza seems like a cautious ocelot,” Mays said. “She’s very wary compared to her mate Adonis. He seems to have no problem being photographed.
“He comes right up to the water source where we have the camera and the flash doesn’t seem to bother him,” Mays said.
“Esperanza still comes up, but her head is lower, she’s looking around more and is much more hesitant, looking around for possible dangers, whereas Adonis comes right on up and doesn’t seem to hesitate at all,” Mays said.
“He’ll hang out there, stop and groom himself, but Esperanza will come in, get a drink and leave.
“Esperanza also seems to be a good provider and a good mother,” Mays noted.
Never was that more important than today.
“I think this is the most critical I’ve seen the ocelot population here,” noted Kelly McDowell, leader for the South Texas Refuge complex, which includes Laguna Atascosa, in an earlier interview. “This is as low as we’ve seen the population on lands we’ve monitored.”
McDowell said the ocelot population is at a critical state.
Esperanza should help remedy that.
Steve Sinclair is a reporter with the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen.