Relax and enjoy Florida bobcats if you see them

Don’t let bobcats get your dander up; relax, enjoy the show
Lauren Ritchie
COMMENTARY
October 19, 2008
Heeerrreee kitty, kitty, kitty. Niiicce kitty.
Biiigggg kitty.
Veerrryyy big kitty.
Oops. No kitty. Lynx rufus rufus, the eastern American bobcat.
It’s that time of year — bobcat kittens born in the late spring or early summer are starting to prowl on their own, looking for a tasty dinner of mouse or bunny. Some are still traveling with their mothers.
Either way, these sleek felines with the short tails are on the move, and they’re starting to be seen in Lake County.
They’ve popped up several times in the Lake Jem area south of Tavares, where folks who live near woods and water have a front-row seat for wildlife-watching.
Sharon Osterholt has had some prime viewing of the small cats — males typically weigh about 30 pounds, females 20 — since she moved in 1992 to her home where the Apopka-Beauclaire Canal empties into Lake Beauclaire.
A talented amateur photographer, the 42-year-old Osterholt shot a picture of a young male through her living room window a couple years ago. There he was, perched on her front walk, taking a break.
Once, Osterholt and her husband found their house cat pinned against the garage door and a male bobcat sitting there watching her.
“I don’t know if he thought she was cute or what. But if he’d wanted to eat her, he had plenty of opportunity,” Osterholt remarked.
Then there was the play date.
Two bobcat moms sitting on opposite sides of the Osterholt lawn let their two cubs each meet in the middle and wrestle around. The big cats just groomed themselves while the kids were busy.
Who needs cable TV when you live at the Osterholt house? Or, in many places in Lake County?
The couple is concerned, however, that people might panic when they see the cats. Not to worry — unless you own a Chihuahua.
While bobcats generally are elusive — their favorite prowling time is dawn or dusk — they are more visible than they used to be because urbanization has crept into their habitat, said Lt. Joy Hill of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“They don’t get into things like bears do, but they can certainly take small dogs or cats,” Hill said.
For some reason, however, people tend to fear them. Maybe it’s some ancient survival instinct left over from caveman days. Whatever.
Often, Hill said, residents will see the cats and want a wildlife officer to relocate them. The state doesn’t do that.
Two problems: First, the cats are territorial, and dumping one bobcat into another’s territory causes, well, shall we say, “kitty conflict”?
“It can create a domino effect. Eventually, someone’s got to go,” Hill said in an e-mail.
“And where do they go? Often they go into a neighborhood, and the whole cycle starts again.”
Secondly, there aren’t many places left in which to “relocate” the cats, she said.
Sometimes, Hill said, people swear up and down that they’ve seen a nearly extinct Florida panther. But they’ve probably seen a bobcat.
While the spotted cubs can look alike, panthers and bobcats are far different creatures. Bobcats have tails that range from little stubs to a foot long, hence the name “bob” cats. Panthers have long, slinky tails.
And bobcats are much smaller, many the size of a hefty house cat. Panthers typically weigh more than 100 pounds. If chased by a dog, the bobcat may scamper up a tree. The panther, in contrast, may pounce and chow down on your Labrador.
Bobcats generally will avoid water, but they’ll swim if they have to. They mark their home range with feces and urine and by clawing on trees. The average range is 5 square miles for a male, and about half that for a female. Males tend to wander away from where they were born when they are grown, while females usually stay close to home.
They mate in the winter and spring, and two to four kittens are born in April or May. The mother raises the young alone. They are weaned at 2 months and begin rummaging with their mom.
So, there you have today’s Florida nature lesson. Relax — and enjoy. After all, the bobcats were here before you. Keep Fluffy in the house, especially at night. Put your camera on the kitchen counter. Alert the kids to keep an eye out for their wildlife neighbors. There’s a rare opportunity lurking in the nearby woods.
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5918.
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/services/newspaper/printedition/sunday/lake/orl-lritchie1908oct19,0,3109010.column
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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org
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