Not your average travel blog
Bobcats have light grey, yellowish-brown or reddish-brown fur with a white belly. Not quite a very large big-cat, they are still recognisable. They have short ear tufts, cheek ruffs, a dark tip to their defining stumpy tail and most young have spots or tabby stripes. They are heavily built cats; healthy adult males weighing roughly 12Kg and females slightly lighter. They make your average household cat look like a kitten and would easily size up a small child for dinner.
Following some research, I am certain that in Sandford Wood, North Somerset, England, near the house my family lived in for about a decade; I was observed by a Bobcat (let’s call him Geoffrey). I often walked home from the park through the forest before dusk and on one occasion I had an unnerving feeling that I was being followed.
Geoff lookalike: Maybe Steve
Bobcats live in forests in North America, swamps around Florida and desert and scrubland in south-west areas of the US. Geoffrey however, was in rural England, looking healthy and hungry in woodland filled with deer, foxes, badgers, rabbits, other small rodents and plenty of grub-munching bird life. In the area, there are also dozens of chicken coops, which I’m sure Geoffrey might have done a bank job on, only to be assumed, a cat-burglarising fox.
Without dramatising our meeting, I felt a little nervous. I turned around and he was glaring at me, inquisitively silent just off the footpath. Geoffrey was too large to be a domestic cat and his features were distinctly those of a creature that just isn’t listed on the British wildlife list (I haven’t seen a list…but if one exists, Geoffrey most certainly is not in the native section). I froze as Geoff (we became tentative mates) stared at me and without knowing what to do; I gauged his eyes and body language. Unknowingly, I marvelled at Geoff’s stature and revered him. He had a slight tabby look about him but with distinguished tufts on his ears along with large cheek ruffs to compliment his deeply set eyes under a golden, groomed, steely brow. He was illustrious and well-regarded. His face would have looked out of proportion if he didn’t have a wide-set jaw line and moreover, the size of his shoulders made me anxious. Geoff was more than curious; stalking me, pondering if I would be sensible prey. I’m grateful that Geoff decided I either might be a slightly too large to take down, or that he would catch up with me when I wasn’t so aware of his presence…
There are many wild creatures in the U.S. which pose a threat. Thousands of different web pages suggest various actions should you encounter specific dangerous animals and unbeknown to me, I did the right thing the day I met Geoff. When greeting any big cat in America, it’s advised to stand up, look large, stare at them in the eyes and give the impression that you are not small prey (almost the opposite of what to do when greeting a gorilla). Obviously bending over, turning your back and running or crouching down means you resemble lunch and therefore taste like a bunny rabbit, or better still, roast venison with bone marrow gravy or a game pie with English mustard or some pheasant and juniper pâté or a steak tartare or a wild boar smoked chorizo or a braised lamb shank with mint sauce or a bacon bap.
“Hakuna Matata“…..except for a Geoffrey
I will be navigating both inhabited areas and wilder tracks and both ends of the populated spectrum pose various threats from nature’s beasts. Bears are normally the first danger which people mention when I tell them about my adventure. Sure, they are massive predators, dangerous killing machines and I don’t want to upset one or look like a tasty bar snack.
Road-kill pie and mustard: A British staple
In the last century, American predators have had bounties on their heads of hundreds of dollars. This isn’t anything new, throughout history man has tasked himself with eradicating natures threats. In England, King Edward I employed a wolf-hunter-in-chief to clear central and western England of wolves. By the end of the 15th century, he had done himself out of a job… Around the time of the second world war, many American states reported that they had destroyed every Mountain Lion within their borders. Success? We also wiped out over 100 million buffalo to accelerate the demise of the buffalo-dependant Native American people. Buffalo suffered not just in the crossfire of war, but through their elimination, were manipulated into possibly the most powerful weapon the non-natives “possessed”. The American landscape has never been the same since and arguably, no wild buffalo remain.
Pile of Bison skulls
Research on removing apex predators from ecosystems is still relatively vague in America, but across the globe its evident that losing meat-eating, apex predators from the food chain has huge consequences. We now know that ironically, our intended, predator-killing objectives backfire and increases in “mesopredator” populations, further down the food chain have catastrophic effects on our environments. Our farming and “safer/convenient” lifestyles become hugely problematic without the beasts we initially thought were a threatening pest. In Europe, huge increases in grazing deer – mainly due to lack of predators – has resulted in devoured woodland, loss of crops on arable farm land, problematic development of forest ecosystems and rapid spread of disease. This quickly results in farmed cattle following suit. Currently, badgers are a huge problem in the UK and we lose thousands of cattle each year to an untreatable strain of bovine TB which the lovable and unfortunate badgers carry. Culling them hasn’t solved the issue as its simply too difficult. It also is almost impossible to monitor, takes too many years to repeat-vaccinate all badgers and extremely expensive. As well as that, some badgers are immune to the vaccines.
Woodland problems: The Cray brothers
This research has led to talk of trying to reintroduce apex predators into many of surviving wildernesses; wolves into the Scottish highlands for example. Deer are ruling the roost as there are no top end predators and the landscape that once was covered in broad-leaf forests is being eaten. Wiping out more deer through gun-hunting simply removes another link in the chain and would therefore only increase the problem somewhere else down the system. In Africa, the loss of so many big cats, leopards and lions has resulted in a boom in baboons; creating a rapid rise in violent baboon/human interaction, the menacing apes foraging from people and of course the spread of disease.
The Hitcher 2007, sequel
There are however, success stories, in European mountain regions (the Alps, parts of Scandinavia), bears and wolves are making a strong comeback due to economic growth, “re-forestation” and a changing attitude towards conservation. The same can be said of previously cougar-drained regions in the Americas. If we don’t respectfully encourage this resurgence of some of our most dangerous, but revered beasts, we risk creating huge holes in our environment, not just in the o-zone layer, but down here on the ground. The dinner-plate meats AND vegetarian matter we directly rely on will become more difficult to cultivate and much more expensive to protect and grow. Scale up the problem and the results are devastating. Imagine trying to farm say, sugarcane with an uncontrollable, un-dying, “zombiefied” race of toads that can no longer be eaten by the predators around them…oh wait….Australia? For us all, even if we don’t look at the research, sentimentally we lose natural heritage and a sense of belonging in our environment; it’s serious. Solution? Respect natural selection and balance. Re-introduce and support apex predators where we need them. If we’re stupid enough to remove them entirely, disrespect them or attempt to domesticate them, we deserve the repercussions. Which includes being over-run by the creatures we leave behind or being attacked by the big boys – It’s what we should expect them do, it’s nature!
Off the soap box and back to the cats…..who have also appeared to be more sociable than they used to be when we first started eliminating them. Once solitary creatures, patrolling territories of roughly 200 square miles (males), they have more recently been seen dining together and sharing kills, adopting each others young and returning to ranges that we had driven them away from (the plains and the woodlands, back from their mountain retreats). It’s not clear whether cougars were always so sociable or nurtured these traits, but we certainly haven’t been able to record them. We may have driven them to act differently, forced to resort to desperate (although social) survival measures; removing wolves from their shared territories also seems to have effected the cougar expansion – Note, remove a wolf, you get a cat…karma? I can’t wait to see one, but hopefully not come as close as I did on my previous encounter with Geoff. There are some odd facts about the comparably low number of, certainly fatal cougar/human encounters, even though their numbers are rapidly increasing across the continent. The cougars are smart, elusive, adaptable, almost nocturnal and arguably the most successful big predator in both North and South America, if not in the world since the start of any large carnivore purge programs. What I admire the most, much like elephants, is that they appear to be surviving so well because they have learnt to fear and avoid human interaction. They know we are dangerous and have adapted to survive alongside us.
Let’s make babies with the lights off and move to the country.
If nature decides to remind me on my trip of my vulnerability, I only have myself to blame. Nature will always be a foreseeable threat, and it should be. Ultimately though, by far the biggest danger I will face is man, and unfortunately, we are a lot less predictable.
Mr Predictable: Hello Ladies