VALLEY MORNING STAR, HARLINGEN, TEXAS - MICHAEL BARAJAS - Sun, Feb 14, 3:32 AM
Feb. 14--HARLINGEN -- The 9-year-old ocelot stood atop a 10-foot pole after scaling it with ease, eyeing the crowd with its large kitten-like eyes.
"As you can see, the ocelot is an amazing climber," one of the trainers said, as Sihil, an ocelot with a shiny black- and brown-spotted coat, stretched and then darted down the pole with lightning-fast speed, dazzling the seated crowd at Marine Military Academy.
Children and parents gasped as trainers from the Cincinnati Zoo showed off Sihil and another big cat during Saturday's 11th annual Ocelot Conservation Festival. The festival, organizers said, was to highlight the plight of the endangered ocelot in South Texas.
"The very first step in helping save this animal is education and awareness," Kathy Watkins, one of Sihil's trainers from Cincinnati, said.
Jody Mays, a wildlife biologist with the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Rio Hondo, said ocelot populations, especially in South Texas, have become dangerously depleted. "There are still a few of these around, but they're in serious trouble," Mays said. The ocelot's native habitat is in South and Central America, running all the way up into South Texas, Mays said.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is home to a number of ocelots.
Each year, the festival, hosted by the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, raises money for education and conservation efforts to ensure the long-term survival of ocelots in the Rio Grande Valley. This year, organizers estimated that approximately 2,000 people attended the event.
In the United States, wildlife experts and conservationists estimate that there are fewer than 50 ocelots left, all in South Texas, Mays said.
The dangers facing ocelots in South Texas range from the illegal fur trade to destruction of the animal's habitat. In South Texas, Mays said, residential and commercial developments have cleared out much of the brush land where ocelots generally live. Obstacles like highways and the border wall, she said, make it even more difficult for ocelots to migrate and thrive. "The number one cause of death for ocelots is road mortality," Mays said.
"We can still work together and we can still try to save this population," Mays told the crowd.
In addition to showing off Sihil, trainers from the Cincinnati Zoo let Jambo, a playful 3-year-old African serval, prance across the stage. "He still has a little bit of a kitten personality," Watkins told the crowd, as Alicia Sampson, another trainer, guided Jambo as he playfully strutted across two tables, his eyes darting across the seated crowd.
Servals, larger than ocelots, can run as fast as 35 mph, making them one of the fastest wildcats. Sampson dangled a small ball 6 feet off the ground, waving it back and forth until it caught Jambo's eye. As Jambo quickly leaped to swat at the ball, Watkins told the crowd how the cat could jump as much as five-times its body length, saying, "They literally catch birds out of the sky."
Outside Saturday, the festival hosted a number of other events for children and their families.
Children laughed as they pulled fish out of a large catch and release tank sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Nearby, a crowd formed as various birds darted across the sky in a raptor show put on by Last Chance Forever.
Back inside the ocelot show, as Sihil darted up a 10-foot tree stump to grab a treat, Mays urged the crowd to help preserve the ocelot in Texas.
"Texas is the only state in the U.S. that has these animals, so we'd like to keep them here," she said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org