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!

More TreeHouse Babies

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This baby red fox was admitted to TreeHouse a couple of weeks ago after being found trapped under a deep freeze in a basement.  He is doing well, but we have to be careful to limit our interactions with him, as it is easy for young foxes to get overly habituated to humans.  You can see a video of him on our new YouTube channel.

This young barred owl was found on the ground after one of the recent storms.  The location of its nest was unknown, so we have placed it with a foster parent and two other owlets at TreeHouse.  Placement with a foster parent helps ensure that the young owls will imprint on their own species, instead of on humans.

This coyote pup was brought to TreeHouse after it was found in someone’s yard.  We don’t know why she was on her own in the open–we’re speculating that her den was nearby and she crawled out after something happened to her mother.

Belle and Bobbie are still doing well.  The baby has not yet ventured out of the den box, but it is becoming increasingly visible in the pictures and videos taken by the trail camera in the cage.  You can see the latest collection of videos here.  This photo, which shows Belle nursing her infant, is the only close-up we have of the two.

Surprise! A Wild Bobcat Kitten

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Two weeks ago, TreeHouse experienced a very exciting first.  The bobcat we admitted in March after she was hit by a car in Belleville gave birth to a kitten.  The baby, which we have decided to call “Bobbie”, seems to be perfectly healthy, but we are adopting a totally hands-off approach and allowing the mother (“Belle”) to care for the baby entirely on her own.  For this reason, we do not even know Bobbie’s sex—it would be too stressful to both mother and infant for us to take the baby away for an examination.

Belle and Bobbie are just the sixth and seventh wild bobcats TreeHouse has ever admitted.  It seems that the population of bobcats in southern Illinois is growing, as all have been admitted since 2005.  Prior to that point, we had received a few bobcats that were confiscated from people illegally keeping them as pets.

Belle was admitted to TreeHouse on March 7, and Bobbie was born, by our closest estimation, on April 16.  The gestation period for bobcats is around 62 days, so Belle would not yet have been half-way through her pregnancy when she was struck by the car and brought to TreeHouse.  She had full-body X-rays taken at that time, but even under magnification the radiographs show no sign of a developing fetus—it was simply too early in the pregnancy.

As Belle progressed in her rehabilitation from the head injury she sustained in her accident, she remained very secretive, only leaving her den box when no one was around to see her.  For this reason, although we believed that she was recovering well, we were reluctant to release her until we could verify that she was not experiencing any lingering neurological effects, such as problems with balance or diminished eyesight or hearing.

One of our first glimpses of Belle exploring her surroundings.

As a means to observe Belle’s movements without disrupting them, we obtained a trail camera with an infrared flash that would be able to take still pictures and video whenever Belle moved past it, day or night.  It was while the camera was being installed in the cage, on April 16, that we first heard the kitten mewing from inside the den box.

Belle was extremely defensive of the den at this point, showing her teeth and growling menacingly at anyone who approached her cage.  As we began to suspect the presence of kitten, we were cautious of causing any unnecessary stress to the mother, so it was not until the next day that we actually caught a glimpse of Bobbie—at that point basically a dark blob curled up by Belle’s stomach.  We immediately began to take measures to reduce any noise or disturbance in the vicinity of the bobcat cage, erecting a privacy fence around the cage and strictly limiting the number of people who would enter the cage to feed.

Our apologies to anyone who came to TreeHouse in the last two weeks and were told that the bobcat was unavailable for public viewing because she was a candidate for release and needed to remain isolated from humans.  This is true—we hope to be able to release both mother and young back to the wild once Bobbie is old enough—but the presence of an infant made complete privacy even more imperative, for multiple reasons.

Belle guards her den against anyone who approaches.

Although wild felines are typically very good mothers, if conditions are unfavorable for rearing a litter, they will abandon their young.  Unfavorable conditions can mean poor habitat, inadequate food supply, or a stressful environment.   Belle seems perfectly content with her den, and she is certainly receiving enough to eat, so our primary concern is limiting stress.  Being stared at all day by strange humans can be incredibly stressful for wild animals, so it is for this reason that she will not be available for viewing.  The presence of hormones associated with stress can even interfere with the production of hormones necessary for lactation, so if Belle becomes too stressed she could become physically unable to care for her baby.

If this were to happen and it became necessary for us to intervene in order to save Bobbie, we would do so, but it would be better in every way for the bobkitten to be raised by its mother rather than being hand-reared by humans.  It will grow up much more wild this way, and since we hope to release it to the wild, it is important that the kitten not become too accustomed to humans.

So, the reason we delayed releasing the information about Bobbie’s birth is that we needed to find a way to share this exciting story while also protecting Belle and Bobbie’s privacy.  The animals always come first at TreeHouse, and during this time the most important thing is for Belle to feel comfortable and secure.  Instead of subjecting her to the stress of having a stream of people come out to see her baby in person, we therefore will be uploading pictures and video from the camera in her cage to our new Youtube page.  Check for a new video each week, as we follow Bobbie’s growth and Belle’s daily movements.

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 3

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The bobcat’s condition is continuing to improve.  She has now moved into the exercise room, so she has a lot more space to move around, and she seems to be taking advantage of it.  Bobcats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours, so during the day she spends most of her time resting either inside or on top of her den box.  Still, we can tell that she is much more active when no one is around–she knocks things over and drags her food all over the floor of the exercise room.  She’s also been eating well.  We’re feeding her mice and a variety of types of meat.  At the moment she has a leg of deer that she’s been chewing on–we sometimes get fresh roadkill to feed out to our animals.  I imagine the deer meat must be a real treat for her.  Bobcats will occasionally take down deer in the wild, but it is rare for them to go after such large prey.

We are hoping to be able to move her outside next week.  In the outdoor cage she will have even more space to move around and she will have the chance to climb and leap onto different platforms and shelves.  This will give us the opportunity to better assess her condition and determine the outlook for her release back into the wild.  First, though, we have to finish building the cage!  It was originally intended for Tigger, but although he passed away just a few days before we admitted this bobcat into TreeHouse, we are still rushing to complete the cage so that we can use it for her rehab.

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