Every day in Sonoma I see some sort of wildlife, from flocks of birds to rabbits, foxes and the occasional coyote. But nothing says “wild” like a large cat. They seem the wildest of the wild. If you’ve lived with dogs and cats, you’ll know why. Dogs seem to be simpatico with humans, even if they are wild coyotes and clearly don’t want to be too near you. They get us. We all live in packs. We’re sociable, although maybe not with each other. No, I’m never worried about the canids. When the dogs and I encounter a coyote, we just back away, endure the contemptuous look it shoots us and let him (or usually them) go on their way.
Cats are another story. Everyone has had that scary moment when a cat looks at you and you can just see the thought bubble: “I’d rip your head off and eat your eyeballs, but I can’t be bothered. As long as you keep feeding me that tuna…” That’s why wild cats are so frightening. Some of them have the heft to rip your head off. And they can’t be appeased with tuna. Let’s just say with any cats, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are top of the food chain. As the cat gets bigger, you realize your position has slipped.
We know Joaquin, our Mountain Lion, pays frequent visits here. Some workers here have seen him, although I’ve only encountered tracks, scat and the remains of his kills. We’ve worked out a system: the dogs and I don’t go stomping around on his hunting grounds after dark and he doesn’t come out in the daytime and kills us. Works for everyone. But I never know when the cat will decide he’s sick of the arrangement. So I’m extra careful and only walk in the woods with a group. I’m thinking of getting some pepper spray. And when we get livestock, we’ll have some burros who are known to fight Mountain Lions. I’m going Teddy Roosevelt on this one.
So suffice it to say, big cats, magnificent as they are, scare the hell out of me and the terriers. That’s how I knew something was up yesterday afternoon. Oscar started pacing in front of the big barn windows and whining softly. Then he jumped up on the table — where he knows he’s not supposed to be — and seemed to be craning his neck to get a look at something. Since Oscar’s response to seeing anything move is usually to bark his head off, I knew this was something different.
Sure enough, sauntering down the hill and straight for the barn was a large cat. At first I thought it was a Mountain Lion. But then noticed the characteristic spots and the “mutton chop” whiskers. Let me pause and say that I’ve seen Bobcats before and they are usually much smaller. In fact, using an Internationally recognized unit of measure, I’d say they were about terrier sized, although longer in the body and with legs about twice as long as a Smooth Fox Terrier’s. From what I’ve read, they usually run about 20 to 25 pounds but can get up to 40. On the low end, that’s exactly terrier sized, especially when the terrier is zaftig Lucy not skinny Oscar. This guy, however, was about the size of a small female Labrador, although not as heavily-bodied. In fact, he was one sleek streak of rippling muscle. And he didn’t seem at all intimidated by two wide-eyed terriers staring at him out of the barn window.
I grabbed my camera, which was unfortunately only my point-and-shoot, and doubly unfortunately, set to Digital Macro. Which meant I was unable to get any meaningful pictures. Even if Bob had held still for me. Which he didn’t. As Bob the Cat saw me ease out of the barn doors, he turned and sauntered back up the hill and toward Lake Charles. But he made sure to do it so slowly that the message was sent: “I’m not scared of you. I just can’t be bothered.” As he walked, he flicked that bobbed tail up and down — which I took as another gesture of disrespect. Then he skipped back into the brush above the pond. Turns out he was right to be disrespectful. Although often Bobcats are just twice as big as a normal house cat, some of my reading says they can take down small deer. Certainly this guy would have inflicted some damage.
My reading on Bobcats tells me that they are crepuscular, which means they like to hunt in the twilight and early dawn hours. But apparently, in winter, their prey — mostly rabbits — become more diurnal, so Bobcats do too. That must be why he felt he would take a stroll down the hill at 3:30 PM.
What surprises me is that he was so big. I’ve read that large predators tend to grow or shrink in size depending on the food supply and the presence of even bigger predators. So where there are large healthy wolf packs, the coyotes are smaller and feed mostly on rodents. Where there are no wolves, the coyotes grow larger and go for larger game. But we’ve got coyotes as big, fat and sassy as German Shepherds (I’ve seen ’em). And judging by the deer he brings down, our Mountain Lion is not getting sand kicked in his face.
I guess the only conclusion is that there is lots of room out here for all kinds of predators. And lots of food. Let’s hope the menu doesn’t expand to include terriers. Or amateur vintners.
Read more about Bobcats here and here. Or check out this audio page with Bobcat sounds. Apparently one of their defense mechanisms is a growl that makes them sound like a Mountain Lion. And they do sound scary.
(Top Bobcat image: Google Images.)