Good Kitty

Arizonan Kevin Hansen impressively details the amazingly adaptable bobcat

We kill millions of them because of an odd desire to wrap our bodies in their skins. In a single year, Texans once took out 17,686 of them. From 1996-2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services destroyed 18,085. The feds gunned them down from aircraft, strangled them in neck snares, captured and then shot them in leghold traps--our tax dollars hard at work.

Audubon referred to it as the common American wildcat. Its other aliases include colorful monikers like catamount, cat of the mountains, lynx cat, bay lynx, cat lynx, red lynx, barred bobcat and the pallid bobcat. At the University of Arizona, it goes by the name Wilbur the Wildcat. The word bobcat is probably a shortened version of "bobtailed cat."

Bobcat: Master of Survival is the title of Kevin Hansen's luminous new book about one of North America's most mysterious predators.

Lynx rufus is perhaps the most studied and most exploited wild cat in the world, yet somehow, this ghostly animal manages to endure the cat-ocide. It may even be expanding its range. Like the coyote, bobcats appear to be adapting to us and our ways, and they sometimes haunt our suburbs like feline wraiths.

Out of some 38 species of wild cats in the world, 16 are in danger of extinction, and another seven have an endangered subspecies. The bobcat is one of seven cat species in North America. It retains most of its original range from southern Canada all the way to central Mexico. Bobcats are remarkably adaptable. In the United States, they're found from California to Maine, from the northern forests to the Southwest deserts and the Southeast's subtropical wetlands. They've been trapped in the mountains up to 8,700 feet in elevation. They call every continental state home except Delaware, although they are apparently unwelcome in Texas.

Hansen's book was 10 years in the making, and the care he's invested in it shows--it's as finely crafted as a Shaker cabinet. He describes how what started out as a simple investigation into bobcat biology and behavior became "a journey that wound through the mythology of native cultures, the commercial fur trade, the history of predator control, animal rights, wildlife-management philosophy and international conservation of wild felines." All of these parts are woven into the life story of the bobcat, one of the most studied yet least known of wild cats.

Harley Shaw is a renowned biologist who spent a quarter century with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and is also author of Soul Among Lions, a classic book about pumas. Shaw writes in his foreword to Bobcat that, "More citizens become concerned and curious but find reliable information difficult to locate. Too often it exists only in technical journals written in biologist's jargon." This is true, and Hansen studiously avoids this trap by crafting a book that is accessible to both public and scientist alike. Too often, biology books like this are dead, choking the very life out of the living thing they are describing. Not this book. Bobcats is immensely readable and captures not just the animal's biology and behavior, but also part of its soul and the role it has played in our human drama, for better or for worse.

There is a hysterical story related by Hansen about his visit to a facility that takes in unwanted or injured exotic cats. One of the residents is an overly friendly bobcat. As Hansen makes friends with and takes pictures of the bobcat, it nuzzles his armpit, then lovingly sinks its teeth into Hansen's tender armpit flesh.

Nevertheless, it's a hard life being a bobcat. Dogs kill them. Coyotes kill them. Pumas will kill them, in a case of, as one researcher noted, "cat-eat-cat." They get rabies. They engage in cannibalism--not often, but it happens. They've been known to die agonizingly from encounters with porcupines. We kill thousands each year with cars, trains, power poles, guns and traps. But they not only seem to be surviving; in some cases, they are thriving. This toughness is what amazes Hansen. The bobcat is a survivor, and Hansen's book captures the wonder and awe inspired by such an animal.

Mountain lions, wolves, grizzly bears and now jaguars are the big, sexy species that grab all the headlines. In a group of animals that dwells in the shadows, the wild cats, the bobcat is in deep cover. It flies just under the radar. But Hansen has pulled back the foliage just a bit, enough for us to appreciate this amazing animal, its tenacity and why it is important to all of us. Bobcat: Master of Survival is one of the most impressive and graceful biological accounts to come along in many years.