I first met Mama on a brisk morning in December of 2017. Katie and I were walking along the path on the north side of the second pond at Sweetwater Wetlands Wildlife Preserve. She had just emerged from the marsh with a cotton rat in her mouth about seventy yards away. She went under a bush and devoured the rat in short order, then proceeded to groom herself for several minutes. Being a good distance away, I sat on the ground and attempted to take some photos. When she finally got up, she began walking in our direction along the edge of the marsh. I kept snapping images as she approached until finally, I could no longer focus my camera.
“There’s something wrong with this damn camera,” I said. “I can’t get it to focus.”
“Look up,” Katie said.
I lowered the camera and realized that Mama was standing less than three feet from me, making direct eye contact.
Thus began a five-year journey of discovery. A journey whereby this truly amazing bobcat allowed me glimpses into her life as a top predator, a doting mother, a desert survivor in a rapidly changing environment, while also imparting in me a greater perspective about life.
Mama was fearless. She owned the wetlands. She was the master of her environment. On an almost daily basis, she braved the throngs of people that came to see her at Sweetwater, some with not the best of intentions. Park goers wanting to get a selfie with her, entirely too close for anyone’s safety, aggressive wildlife photographers who would run in front of her and lie on the ground so they could get the “money shot,” busloads of poorly supervised or unsupervised school children chasing her, yelling at her and throwing rocks, young men with sticks, beating the bushes to flush out Mama and her kittens, dogs leashed and unleashed, were all part of the regular gauntlet she had to run. She handled all this abuse with patience and tolerance, yet still continued to thrive and provide for her families.
She was also fierce. One photographer showed me a sequence of photos whereby she backed down a young Coues buck, at least three times her size that had wandered into the wetlands. On several occasions, I watched Mama route feral cats who invaded the wetlands, sometimes chasing them well into the industrial complex next door.
Mama was an exquisite hunter. In five years, I was able to observe her teaching four of her litters to hunt, imparting to each one of the kittens the skills necessary for survival. In that time, I have recorded her successfully taking down cotton rats, packrats, rock squirrels, round-tail ground squirrels, cottontail rabbits, American coots, mallards, and green wing teals. One day, she allowed me to follow her for nearly six hours while she hunted, rested, preened, scent-marked, and stretched throughout the wetlands. In that time frame, she made four kills in nine attempts (two cotton rats, one coot, one green-wing teal). That’s a 44% success rate!
Mama taught me patience. Watching her as she stalked all manner of prey, she would sit completely still along the edges of the marsh. Sometimes she would sit on her tail, I suspect, to keep it from twitching from excitement. On many occasions, she would disappear into the reeds and follow the myriad of raccoon tunnels to ambush sites. Ninety percent of the time, she exited from the same tunnel she entered. I’d set up my folding three-legged stool and wait, sometimes for twenty minutes, sometimes for three hours, to see what prey animal would be in her jaws. There were times she would just disappear, and I wouldn’t see her again that day. Wildcats can do that.
Mama also schooled me about the courtesy of personal space. Clumsy and unaware at first, it took some time for me to understand the difference between human comfort zones and bobcats. A sudden twitch of the tail, ears folded back, eyes narrowing, a furtive glance over her shoulder, all indicators that I had invaded her personal space. But Mama was patient. When I finally put the camera down and truly watched her, I saw her for her magnificence and completeness, feeling as if I had entered her world, albeit briefly. There were days when she would sit in front of me, staring out into the marsh, then closing her eyes.
The last day Katie and I sat with Mama was November 11, 2022. She had just caught and delivered a packrat to her single kitten. We sat on a bench and watched as she led the kitten on a foray along the marsh. Soon, she returned and walked along the marsh to where we sat. She sat at the edge, eyes half closed, gazing out at the wetlands. She stayed with us for fifteen minutes before she disappeared into the marsh.
Mama’s journey ended in the second week of December 2022. It is estimated that she was at least seven years old. The necropsy evidence indicated that she was most likely hit by a motor vehicle and suffered fatal head and shoulder trauma. She leaves behind a legacy of at least four generations of bobcats whom she has taught well. She has touched the lives of hundreds of people who came to the wetlands to get close to, if even for the briefest of moments, something truly wild.
Put the camera down. Look up.
Fare thee well, Mama. RIP, my bobcat teacher.
January 21, 2023