Belleville Bobcat: An Overdue Conclusion

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It occurred to me the other day that before I took a hiatus from writing here, one of the primary stories I had been chronicling had not yet been wrapped up.  Belle, the bobcat that was brought to TreeHouse last year after being hit by a car, and Bobbie, the kitten she gave birth to while rehabilitating, concluded their stay at TreeHouse last October.  For anyone who hasn’t heard the amazing story of how Belle and Bobbie came to be TreeHouse’s guests, you can read about it here.  And thanks to the trail camera donated by a reader of this blog, we were able to watch Bobbie grow without interfering as he learned from his mother how to be a bobcat.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie's first step out of the den.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie’s first step out of the den.

I could go on for twenty pages talking about all the incredible (and adorable!) behaviors and interactions we witnessed between Belle and Bobbie thanks to the trail camera, but luckily I don’t have to.  The best videos are available for anyone to view on our YouTube channel.

Our number one priority with the bobcats was to ensure that they would both be able to return to the wild as soon as Bobbie was old enough to take care of himself, so we erected a privacy fence around the cage and strictly prohibited visitors and even volunteers from that area.  A handful of interns and volunteers were responsible for all bobcat care, keeping the number of humans they became comfortable with at an absolute minimum so that Belle was able to raise her son wild.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Ultimately, Belle resided at TreeHouse for about seven months.  In October, one week before Bobbie reached six months of age, mother and son were released in a wildlife conservation area in southern Illinois. Their release site was deep in optimal bobcat habitat—plenty of dense vegetation, steep slopes, caves, and spring-fed streams.  We couldn’t have designed a better place for them to live.

In the actual moment we opened the crates to let them go free, it was—as is often the case with mammal releases—a bit anticlimactic.  After a minute in which they both seemed to debate whether they were safer inside or outside their crates, Belle took her first cautious peek out.  Slowly and deliberately, alert and testing the air at every step, she stalked off into the woods in the direction opposite the spot from which the humans were watching.  Bobbie apparently decided that his crate was the safest spot, and finally we had to unscrew the top in order to get him to leave.  As soon as the top was removed, though, he took off like a shot, without a backward glance.  A video of the release is also available on YouTube.

Watching through the lens of the trail camera over the course of half a year, we witnessed Bobbie grow from a squirmy dark blob at the back of the den box into a wild and rambunctious young bobcat.  We saw his first steps outside the den box and his first attempt to reach the ground level of the cage.  We watched him snuggling with his mother, being bathed by her, and later ambushing her for rounds of play-fighting.  As with all carnivores we release, we needed to be sure that he was capable of hunting to provide food for himself, so we also observed his first encounter with live prey and his first kill.

When we released Belle and Bobbie, several people asked me if I was sad to see them go.  Although I can understand why someone might think I would be sad—of course I grew attached to them as I cared for them and watched their lives unfold—I can honestly say that their release wasn’t even bittersweet.  It was only sweet.  A successful release to a habitat like the one Belle and Bobbie were sent to is exactly what a wildlife rehabber hopes to achieve for every animal.  If I could write the perfect ending to Belle and Bobbie’s story, it would be this: “And they never saw another human as long as they lived.”

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

Latest Bobcat Videos

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Just a reminder to anyone following our running story on Belle, the bobcat struck by a car in Belleville in March, and Bobbie, the kitten she gave birth to while recovering at TreeHouse: videos chronicling the first 13 weeks of Bobbie’s life are available on YouTube.  The latest video can be found here.  We have now confirmed that Bobbie is male, and he is growing like a weed!  He spends his days running, climbing, playing, and generally learning from his mother how to be a bobcat.  Be sure to check back on our YouTube page over the next week or so, as more videos will be posted in the next few days.

Belle & Bobbie: Week 5 Video

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The latest collection of pictures and videos from our bobcat cam is now up on YouTube.  Due to technical difficulties (a dead battery, actually) we do not have a week 4 video, but I think week 5 is well worth the wait!  Bobbie has grown significantly and has become much more active and inquisitive.  In the video, you’ll see her first couple of excursions outside the den box–as well as her first ridiculous failure of an attempt to get out of the den.  Belle is obviously a very attentive mother, keeping close tabs on her baby at all times.  It’s so exciting for all of us to watch Bobbie grow and to have the opportunity to observe a wild bobcat rearing her kitten.  I hope you enjoy the footage as much as I did!

Bobcat Status: Moving Outside

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The new bobcat cage provides a rich environment with great opportunity for behavioral enrichment.

This week, we completed construction on our new outdoor bobcat cage.  It turned out beautifully–it has three levels so the bobcat has plentiful opportunities for climbing and jumping, areas of shade and sun, and a variety of surface materials that contribute to creating a rich environment to allow behavioral flexibility in the cage’s occupant.  The cage was originally intended for long-time permanent resident Tigger, but, sadly, he passed away before his new home was completed.  So, we are now using the cage temporarily as a rehab cage for the bobcat that was hit by a car in Belleville a few weeks ago.

On the positive side, she fought pretty spiritedly when we were putting her in a crate to take her out to the new cage.  With the help of a large net and some heavy gloves, we were able to get her into the crate without any mishaps, but it was a fairly nerve-wracking experience.  On the negative side, no one at TreeHouse has yet seen her outside the nest box in the outdoor cage, with the exception of a brief glimpse I caught of her as she slipped back into the box.  We know that she is leaving the box, which is on the second level, because her food, on the ground level, is gone each morning.  Still, at some point we will have to get a good look at her moving around in order to assess her condition and her prospects for release back to the wild.

For this reason, we are trying to obtain a camera that can be mounted in the cage, allowing us to record video of her activity when no one is around to observe it directly.  A trail camera with an infrared flash (such as the one found here) would allow us to to record video and still images of the bobcat both during the day and at night without disrupting her natural behavior.  If you are interested in making a donation toward the camera, please call TreeHouse at (618)466-2990.  Or, you can come out and visit her in person!–you can find directions here.

The bobcat has yet to leave her nest box when anyone is around to see, but visitors can still come out and see her.

Bobcat Status: Week 2

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The bobcat that was hit by a car in Belleville last week seems to be well on the path to recovery.  She’s been increasingly wild and aggressive, which we take as a very good sign.  We’ve been hanging towels over half of her cage so that she has a dark place to retreat into during the day, and she’s taken to pulling the towels inside the cage every time we put them up.  Every time we have to change her bedding, she presses herself into the corner with a degree of strength that’s fairly astonishing for an animal of her size, and she snarls and lunges at us so that moving her to the other side of the cage has become quite an ordeal.  Often when someone goes into the room where her cage is, she will begin growling and settle back on her haunches as though she is preparing to pounce.

At this point, we are optimistic about her prospects of re-release into the wild.  As far as we can tell in the relatively limited space she is currently confined to, her vision seems fine, although we will be able to tell more once she moves to a large outdoor cage.  With brain trauma, there is also the chance of other neurological problems–such as seizures or loss of motor function–becoming apparent after a delay.  So, we certainly need to keep her under observation awhile longer before we can make any definitive decisions.