A-Nature Blog

Although only slightly bigger than a housecat, the Ocelot is actually a member of the “Big Cat” group of wildcats. The beautiful markings on its fur resemble those on Leopards. Photo from Alice Tapiol Breeze.

Little Big Cat, Where Are You?

Last summer, a new young Ocelot was caught on video by a camera trap set up in Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge in south Texas.  The wildlife biologists studied the patterns of her spots and determined she was not one of the 50 or so known individual Ocelots in the region.  They named her OF333.  (So much for sentimentality!)  So far, they have not been able to bait and trap her, but they would like to, in order to radio-collar the cat.  With so few Ocelots remaining in Texas, it is important to keep track of every one possible.  A sample of her DNA might also help determine where she came from.

There are only two populations of Ocelots in Texas:  One is the refuge’s population and the other group is surviving on private land north of the refuge.  I suspect that enough of the cats of these two populations have been DNA tested that it might be possible to link OF333 to one of them.   Unless however, she made her way here from a northern Mexico population, which is unfortunately a slim possibility.

Although Ocelots are on the Federal Endangered Species List in the United States, they are considered “a species of Least Concern” globally.  This is because Ocelots have a broad range throughout Central and South America.  It is the most common felid species in most of the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas.  Only the northern fringe of their range reaches Texas.  It is in this fringe area that Ocelots are struggling to survive.

Ocelots are widely distributed throughout Central and South America. They prefer tropical and subtropical habitats with dense vegetation. Wikimedia commons map.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Bulletin (#41, 1978) indicated that Ocelots once ranged further into Texas, even into Bee County.  Historically, the cats “inhabited the chaparral thickets of the Gulf Coast of south and eastern Texas” and could be found in Louisiana and Arkansas.  As the chaparral was cleared for agricultural land, the Ocelots withdrew.   Texas Ocelots (Felis leopardis albescens) are true denizens of the Brush Country.   They absolutely require dense stands of Tamaulipan Thornscrub.  The shrub density should be so thick that one cannot see further into it than five feet.  Humans entering such habitat would have to crawl, and even then would have a hard time getting anywhere!

Studies show that tracts of at least 100 acres of dense brush are needed to support Ocelots.  Smaller tracts might be utilized if they adjoin other suitable habitats or connect by brushy corridors.  TPWD estimates that the 1000 or so individuals of the subspecies F. leopardis albescens occupying northern Mexico and south Texas might interact if brush corridors existed.  Less than 5% of native Tamaulipan Thornscrub habitat survives in the Rio Grande Valley.  And very little of that habitat connects with similar habitat on the Mexican side of the border.  Ocelots dispersing from breeding populations on either side will have a difficult time making the move.  Suitable tracts are just too few and too far between.

Although fragmentation of habitat is the biggest problem facing Ocelots today, it was not their only problem 50 years ago.  In the 1960s and until the mid-1970s, “the Ocelot was the spotted cat most heavily exploited by the fur trade.  Some estimates suggest that over 200,000 animals were taken annually for this purpose.  A much lower number were imported as pets.”  Fortunately, the CITES regulations, arriving in 1975, have effectively ended the trade in the “little Big Cats” and their beautiful pelts.

A video of Coyote Peterson encountering a half-grown Ocelot kitten is on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oSh_zOaVFk).  Watch it to see how beautiful this animal is, and how playfully “house-cat-like” it is.  In spite of its tendency to “play bite” you in the neck, armpit or groin, you can understand why someone would want one as a pet.

A special license plate is available for those of us who want to help Save Texas Ocelots! TxDMV.gov photo.

I have often thought I would like to have an Ocelot as a pet.  After all, Salvador Dali had one.  Of course, he also had an aardvark, so I can’t help but question his judgement.  However, the cost of a kitten alone would run me close to $15,000!   Take note:  there is the cost of raw meat (estimated $1,200 a year), permits and liability insurance (another grand or two a year), and vet visits (the vet would have to be licensed to care for exotic cats and he/she would probably have to come to you.)  You would need at least 800 square yards of solidly fenced, suitable habitat for your pet’s outside area.  Keeping an Ocelot indoors could get pretty stinky too, as both the males and females mark their territories with powerfully smelly urine.

Anyway, it is illegal to own an Ocelot in Texas.  It is illegal in many states and most countries.   I am glad.  I think I would much rather support conservation efforts to save the Ocelots.  I have already started; I now have a special license plate on my car.  It reads SaveTexasOcelots.org and part of its cost goes to protect the Laguna Atascosa Refuge’s little Big Cats!

02/02/2018 – Column by Karen L. P. Benson