By Renee Burrell
Photo of a Florida Bobcat courtesy of BigCatRescue.org
Bobcats are the most common wild cats in the U.S. And as development in Florida increases, so will sightings and encounters. The Bobcat is a solitary, nocturnal hunter, but encounters with humans aren't as rare as some may think.
Captain Rick Stahl, the Urban Wildlife Officer at Pinellas County Animal Services, said Bobcats are relatively common in Pinellas County. He recently received a picture of a Bobcat from a Pinellas County woman who discovered one lying on her sidewalk. "I've received reported sightings from south St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. In those cases when I receive reported sightings, it makes me breathe a bit easier knowing that we still have some semblance of a balance between 'wild' Florida and urban Pinellas County. We can all thank the foresight of our various municipalities and the Pinellas County government for setting aside parklands and recreational areas."
Bobcats can't be confused with a large house cat. They're much larger and have distinctive ears. Stahl said, "Male Bobcats generally range from about 38 to 40 inches in length and 22 to 24 inches tall and can attain a weight of 25 pounds. Females are generally smaller-- 34 to 36 inches in length, 17 to 22 inches tall, with a weight of about 15 pounds. If a citizen observes one, they should feel lucky. Bobcats are quite elusive and few people see them in the wild. Anyone that does see one can call me to report the sighting at (727) 582-2628."
According to Stahl, "The habitats they prefer are strongly dependent on prey availability. They do, however, require protective cover from the elements, cover for resting areas and den sites, and sufficient cover for freedom from outside disturbances. All that considered, any parkland, whether adjacent to populated areas or not, could be suitable, including the Indian Rocks Preserve, where incidentally, I have received reports of foxes."
The cats primarily hunt at night and like to dine on rabbits and rodents. "Bobcats are generalized carnivores, meaning that they will avail themselves of any suitable prey. Studies have shown that in Florida, over 60 percent of their diet is comprised of rats and rabbits. For people living adjacent to parks, preserves or other 'green spaces'. Bobcats will help in keeping the local rodent population in check, including fruit rats and moles," said Stahl.
Keep an eye on your pets. Stahl said, "There's a chance Bobcats could think of them as a food source. Since they are generalized predators, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that a small pet could be taken as a prey item. Although the odds against this happening are nearly astronomical, pet owners should always have the best interest of their animals at heart and not allow them to roam freely."
Jeanne Murphy Wildlife Biologist/Pinellas County Extension Education Coordinator gave this advice, "Always keep cats indoors for the health and safety of the pet. Pet owners should also watch their dogs closely too-it doesn't take a dog much time to mouth a poisonous marine toad, roll in opossum scat, flush a nesting bird or chase one of Florida's venomous snakes."
Murphy cautioned, "People should never attempt to get too close to any wildlife, including Bobcats. Enjoy watching one of nature's predators from a safe distance with binoculars or a camera."
The recent news story concerning a Pasco man strangling a rabid Bobcat that attacked him in his urban neighborhood has caused concern for some Floridians. For the last 12 years though, Pinellas has taken measures against rabies.
Pinellas County has had an Oral Rabies Vaccine program since 1995; Pasco has had one since 2005, a 10 year difference in treatment. Since the endemic strain of terrestrial rabies in Florida is the Raccoon variant, addressing the prevalence of raccoon rabies through the Oral Rabies Vaccine program also mitigates the spill-over of the virus to those animals that come into contact with raccoons; e.g. dogs, cats, fox, otter, bobcat. Pinellas County has seen a reduction in positive cases from high of 30 in 1995 to a low of 0 in 2006.
Anyone interested in seeing results of the Florida program can access the information via the internet at…www.aphis.usda.gov/ws/rabies/orv/index.html
Stahl said his most unusual experiences working as the urban wildlife officer have pertained to Bobcats. "I would have to say it is those reports that I receive periodically where people describe sightings or encounters with phantom cats. I use the term 'phantom cats' to describe those occasional reports of cat-like animals exceeding the size of a large house cat. Some of those reports have been investigated by me and I have found Bobcat tracks in the vicinity. I attribute the majority of the unsubstantiated sightings to Bobcats, because they frequently have tails in excess of 4 or 5 inches longs as opposed to the "stubby or bobbed" tails that are normally depicted in photos. Additionally, "melanistic" (black) Bobcats have been observed in Florida, and, since they do swim, anyone seeing a wet bobcat might mistake it for something else because the wet coat might appear dark brown or black."
Although Bobcats are not a protected species, they cannot be hunted or shot in Pinellas County under Pinellas County Codes (86-71, 86-72 and 90-6).
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