February 14, 2009 – 6:31 PM
Valley Morning Star
HARLINGEN — Seven-year-old Sihil jumped through the air to fetch a piece of food from atop a 6-foot tree stump on stage at Marine Military Academy.
A crowd of more than 600 children and parents gasped as the ocelot balanced on the inches-wide top of the sawed-off tree.
Sihil amazed the audience by climbing the stump, then turning around and climbing down head first, one of the few cat species capable of doing that.
But the demonstration Saturday at the 10th annual Ocelot Conservation Festival was meant to be more than just entertainment. It was designed to educate the audience about the endangered cat and what can be done to protect the species.
Alicia Sampson, a cat trainer who helped bring Sihil to Harlingen from the Cincinnati Zoo, discussed the importance of raising awareness on ocelot habitat in deep South Texas.
“You can’t do anything unless the public knows what’s going on,” Sampson said. “A lot of the things that happen like habitat loss and interfering – like feeding if they don’t know what they’re doing – are done by people.”
The ocelot looks like a cross between a leopard and a house cat.
Kelly McDowell, manager of the federal wildlife refuges in South Texas, said there might be only 80 to 100 ocelots left in the United States.
“Ocelots are not doing well,” he said. “They’re mostly on refuges and private lands so it’s real important that we have a festival like this to draw awareness to their plights and needs. And when you protect ocelots you protect other species that occur in the South Texas brush land.”
The festival raises money for research and education aimed at restoring habitat for ocelots in the Rio Grande Valley.
More than 2,000 people packed information and activity booths spanning the MMA grounds and watched other demonstrations that included trained raptors that shot through the air like arrows.
Children laughed and cheered as they pulled fresh-water catfish out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service catch-and-release tank outside the Cadet Activities center.
Other nature organizations at the event included Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Gladys Porter Zoo, the Valley Nature Center, the Gorgas Science Foundation of Brownsville and the Valley Proud environmental council.
Jonathan Ybarra, who brought along his children Obed, 10, and Genesis, 9, said the ocelot demonstration was his favorite part of the event.
“This is the second time we’ve been here,” he said. “We learned a little bit more than we knew about ocelots like their habitats and the things that affect their lives.”
Little Obed sat at one of the booths making a milk jug bird feeder.
“I saw sea turtles, ocelots and then we’re going to go outside after I do the bird feeder,” he said. “It’s fun. My favorite part was the ocelot.”
“It’s fun,” she said.
Ybarra said he was glad his daughter insisted on going to the festival.
“We had other chores to run around and do but she had to come,” he said. “But this is very relaxing, educational and a fun atmosphere. It’s positive for us because it helps us to understand our part in the conservation of wildlife.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org