8 weeks old bobcat being rehabed
Redemption Part 1
SO often in life there are things we regret. It is seldom that we get the opportunity to make up for them.
About five years ago, I was caught in an impossible situation where there were no good choices I could make. Someone or something was going to suffer, no matter what I did. It had haunted me since and not a week as passed that I did not think of it.
I got the call from one of my favorite DNR officers asking if I would take a bobcat kitten. It was about six to ten weeks old and healthy. Some young boys had discovered the den in the woods with the kitten playing outside while the mother was gone. They decided it would make a good pet, chassed it down and captured it. Why their mother did not realize the horror of what they had done and immediately send them back, I don’t know. I try to give her the benefit of a doubt and not judge her, but all I can think is that she had no respect for wildlife, our environment…or her child’s safety.
The children kept the cat for several days, treating it like a toy and letting their friends handle and play with it. The cat did what was natural to instinct. It bit; it clawed and tried to get away. Because the boys and their family bragged about what they had done, word soon got to the authorities. The DNR was sent to rescue the cat. The mother was more than ready to relinquish it.
When they called me, I had to stop and think about taking it in. A bobcat kit is a huge undertaking. In the beginning, they are like any other kitten, cute as hell, playful and absolutely loveable. The problems start when you realize that this is a wild animal and not a house cat. The first thing you notice is that instead of a 16 ounce ten week old kitten, its three to four pounds. Next you discover the teeth. They aren’t tiny little milk teeth; they are teeth capable of ripping apart the rabbits that the mother cat brings home. They have claws to match. I once saw a photo of someone who tried keeping bobcats as pets and they had shredded her furniture and trailer walls like no house cat could by sharpening their claws.
Once you get past the teeth and claws, you have to decide just how you are going to teach this cat to live in the wild. Oh sure, they have innate instincts to fall back on, but they also will lose their fear of humans and start going for easy prey like small dogs and house cats. Bobcats absolutely love chicken. People keep chickens in their back yards. A cat with no fear of humans will automatically head for the nearest chicken coop. He doesn’t care if it’s a commercial operation or someone’s pet hens. They are opportunistic feeders, if it’s in their way and not bigger than them, they will eat it. Just this year, I lost 5 baby peacocks to a young bobcat who thought I was running a buffet line just for him.
The teeth and claws didn’t bother me; I have enough scars from wildlife that no one would notice any new ones. The feeding , I could handle, I have chicken and rabbit in the freezer and it would be like a garbage disposal for any animals that came in to injured to save that had been euthanized. Eventually though, I would have to work up to live food, but that is one of the tougher parts of this job that you simply have to face.
It was the housing that set me back a bit. Bobcat kittens stay with their mother for 9 to 10 months. Starting out in a snug den, they remain there for the first few months, never straying more than a few yards from the opening (unless nasty little boys intervene). After that, they travel with their mother within her approximately 5 to 10 square mile territory. Since bobcats are generally solitary animals unless it is mating season, the kit may never see another cat during this period. First, the mother makes the kill while the kittens are watching and then gradually teaches them to hunt on their own. The rest of the cat’s life should be spent deep in the woods hunting rabbits, birds, wood rats and the occasional slow squirrel or fawn. Nine months… that‘s a long time to keep a cat contained.
Cute and tiny as the kitten would be, it would soon grow into a 10 to15 pound junior and stronger than any of the large pens I already had. It was ok, I’d go out and buy hog panels (strong welded wire steel sheets of caging material) a few 4×4 posts and lots of zip ties and we’d be in business.
Yes, it would be a major undertaking to raise this cat to the age where it could be released, but I was more than willing to take on the responsibility. A bobcat is a magnificent animal and is a species that deserves to be kept at healthy population numbers. It would be a lot of work and expensive, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was what would happen the first time I looked into that kitten’s eyes.
Two Officers came to the house with the cat in a crate in the back of their truck. They donned elbow length leather welders gloves, just to move the crate. (What Was I getting myself into?) The crate was set next to the prepared cage on my studio table and uncovered. There, cowering in the back corner was the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Still with its kitten speckles and huge eyes turning from baby blue to golden yellow, it stared at me. A low hiss and growl emitted from its throat. The officers offered their gloves and backed up. I declined. If this cat was to be with me for the next 8 months, it was going to have to get used to my smell, my voice, my touch.
I started talking to the kitten in a soothing voice, it looked to be closer to the six week side and I hoped it still had milk teeth. It didn’t know how to sheath its claws yet, so I had a full view of that formidable weapon. I kept talking. Pretty soon its ears rose from their laid-back-against-the-head position. It was listening. Quietly, I opened the door. I thought I heard a gasp from behind me.
It snarled a bit when the door opened, and we gained full sight of the teeth. They were big. They were sharp. I hoped they would not be soon sunk an inch deep in my bare hand. I laid my hand in the bottom of the cage a few inches from the cat. It seemed like forever, but finally, it sniffed. I fervently hoped my fingers no longer smelled like the chicken sandwich I had for lunch. Obviously they didn’t and the cat sat near my hand looking at me.
Oh dear God, those eyes! Everything wild and beautiful was in those eves. No longer clouded by fear, they drew me in and never let me go. Even now, I still see them in my mind. Slowly, I reached up and stroked the cat’s leg with one finger. It accepted the touch. I moved further till I was stroking the cat gently. This time I definitely heard gasps from the gentlemen behind me.
Still ignoring everything else in the room and putting my total focus on the cat, I reached in with both hands and slowly picked it up. It tensed and hissed, but made no move to fight back. I drew the kitten out, held it to my chest and it mewed as if I was its mother. My heartbeat returned to normal as I checked to see if it was a male or female. It was a little girl. Its name would be Barbra. After I placed Barbra in her new roomier cage with climbing shelves, fuzzy blankets and a stuffed bunny, I turned to look at the two officers. Their eyes were wide and their mouths open.
“You are a Goddess!” they said.
And so I have remained to these young men ever since.
I worked with the cat for several days, gaining its trust and handling it. Within a few days, it was a playful as any kitten and just as content. As Barbra settled in, she gained nearly a half pound in the first week. Things were working out. Then one morning before I was even out of bed, I received a call from the DNR in Lansing.
A friend of one of the young boys had been bitten by the cat while it was still their captive. Even though the bite was no worse than any from a house cat and showed no signs of infection or problems, the woman heard that a “friend of a friend of a friend from somewhere in Georgia or maybe North Carolina” had been bitten by a rabid bobcat. True, bobcats attacks of humans are almost unheard of unless the cat is infected with rabies or other problems, but this is northern Michigan and rabies is almost nonexistent in anything but a small number of bats. It didn’t matter, days later; she took her son to the doctor for the almost healed, miniscule bite. By law, the doctor is required to report all animal bites to the health department. If it is a domestic animal, it will be confined for a period of time and if nothing is amiss, all is well. If it is a wild animal that can be captured, it is killed and the head removed and sent to Lansing. There it is cut open and a black light is held over the brain. If it fluoresces (glows), the animal is infected and the person must begin the series of Rabies antibody injections. If the brain is clear, then there is no chance of rabies and the animal was killed for nothing.
They wanted me to turn over the cat. In my opinion, the boys deserved the three injections that would be required…preferably with a dull needle. Even though the officer agreed, the law is the law. He would send someone to come for the cat that afternoon. Then began my agony.
How could I turn this animal that had learned to trust me over to be killed? My whole goal is to preserve life, not destroy it unnecessarily. We all know the cat was healthy, the 14 day waiting period was past, but the law is the law and must be obeyed. I thought about hiding the cat and telling them it had escaped, but it would probably cost me my license to rehabilitate and who would help the animals then? I thought about telling them that it died, but that would be a lie and they would want the remains anyway. My morality and my soul were battling, yet all along, I knew what the choice would be. I would betray the cat to preserve my own moral code.
I fed Barbra extra that morning. I warmed her milk and spent extra time wrestling with her and her bunny. At noon, I closed her cage and walked away. I couldn’t bear to look into those eyes any longer. She could feel something was wrong and I did not want my tension and sadness to affect her.
Four times in my life, I have experienced true and total heartbreak. Not the kind where you break up with your boyfriend and cry for a week, heartbreak. This is the heartbreak that becomes a part of your very soul and haunts you in your dreams.
An officer I had never met came to retrieve the cat at precisely one o’clock in the afternoon. I was outside moving rocks the size of my head and as I tossed one aside to shake his hand, he looked a little nervous. I’m sure he suspected something of the inner struggle I had gone through to turn over the cat and he wanted to get it over as quickly as possible. He was no more comfortable with what needed to be done than I. We went in the studio and he saw Barbra, she hissed and growled at him as he got out his leather gloves. I told him it would not be necessary. I’d put her in the carrier for him. She came to me willingly and licked my face as I held her. I told her I was sorry, so very, very sorry and wished that her next life would be long and healthy and abundant with slow, fat bunnies. She looked into my eyes as if she somehow understood and forgave me. It didn’t make it easier.
The officer and I were both in tears as I put her in the carrier with her fuzzy blankie and beloved stuffed bunny. We walked to the truck and that was the last I saw of both of them.
Weeks later, I received a letter that the report had come from Michigan State University and the brain was clear. Just as we all knew it would be. More than anything I wanted to find those little boys and their mother and say “see! Look what happens when you interfere with nature! You caused this! A beautiful animal is dead because of your ignorance and stupidity!”
Of course, I couldn’t. The boys and their mother never knew the suffering they caused. I doubt they would have cared. They broke the law and faced no consequences. I held to the law and my heart was broken. A year or so later I was to face another crisis and suffer at the hands of the law. I realized that truth meant nothing, laws don’t apply to everyone equally and there is no justice in our system. My faith in our judicial system was completely destroyed.
I ask myself now; would I make the same decision? Would I follow my moral code even though it means nothing to the rest of the world? Yes. I would. I would do the same and betray the cat to tell the truth. It’s the only way I know. It’s the only way I live.
Redemption Part 2
It’s mid October and I was in the middle of planning a dinner for 40 people and getting ready for a trip to California. The past four weeks had been tied up in fundraisers that required everything from collecting scrap metal, peeling the aluminum off of discarded windows to recycle and crawling through a mountain of trash and mouse poop, to retrieve 1012 returnable soda bottles. It was raining torrents and I was trying to both shop for the dinner and pick up some things for the trip. My cell phone rang. It was the DNR.
My favorite officer again, otherwise I’d have let it go to voice mail with the rest of the day’s calls. He had a cat. A small cat, he said, Only 10 or 15 pounds. It had been struck by a car and he thought it had a broken leg. It was pretty groggy and in a crate in the back of his truck. Could I take it and find a vet to treat it.
Getting a veterinarian to treat wildlife is never an easy feat. Getting one to treat a bobcat could really be a challenge. Vets don’t get paid for treating wildlife, many of them won’t even allow them in their clinics, a special certification is required to treat them and not many are willing to obtain it. I try not to bother vets with little things. Just because I work for free, doesn’t mean I expect them to. I know rehabbers who will actually take a chipmunk to the vet and expect them to treat it. Maybe that’s the reason willing vets are so hard to find. When I do find a good one, they are a treasure.
If the cat did indeed, have a broken leg, and it was young, then it might be treatable. Rather than transfer the cat to my car and cause more trauma, I told the officer to sit tight and I’d call him back so he could directly drop the cat off with the vet. This way I could finish my grocery shopping and make the medical appointment I had on time. I’d check in at the vet as soon as I was done.
I ran to the nearest vet that I knew to be wildlife friendly. Their orthopedic man only worked one day a week and this wasn’t it. They gave me a list of names and numbers so I didn’t have to go home and get mine. Sitting in the rainy parking lot, I called vet after vet. It seemed like I was chasing the ortho man from clinic to clinic. Finally, I got to one who not only had x-ray equipment on site, but also did orthopedic work. In a brilliant stroke of luck, he also had the necessary certification for wildlife and ….he was willing to treat the cat! Awesome! Even better his office would be on my way home.
The officer was called and directions were relayed to drop the little cat off at the veterinary clinic. Feeling pretty smug, I went back, finished my shopping, made my appointment (on time) and even took a breather for a cup of coffee. On the way home, I called to check on the cat.
“Just how big did they tell you this cat was?” was the first thing I heard over the phone after identifying myself.
“Ummm, 10 to 15 pounds”, I answered. “It’s just a youngster isn’t it? I distinctly heard laughter in the background.
Since I was almost to the clinic, I hung up and figured I’d sort things out when I got there. Still raining, I was soaked to the bone and stood dripping in the entry while they went for the doctor. He guided me into the back recovery room and pointed to a large wire dog crate. I noted that every seam was reinforced by wire zip ties. Still knocked out by the anesthesia was the biggest bobcat I had ever seen. He completely filled the crate and his short little tail was sticking through the bars. I’m afraid I said some very dirty words.
The vet explained that the cat, now identified as a male, had no broken bones or detectable internal injuries, but did have a mild concussion. He wasn’t sure how long the cat would be out as wildlife frequently reacts differently to anesthesia than domestics. Looking at the cat, I fervently hoped it would be a few more hours, at least.
They had weighed the cat and instead of 15 pounds, it was six ounces shy of 40. An average full grown male bobcat is 25 to 30 pounds, tops. (Another dirty word slipped from my lips) What cage did I have that would hold a cat like this when it woke up? We looked at the x-rays on the screen and the vet pointed out several bits of buckshot, well healed over, in the cat’s shoulder. So, this was not his first run in with humans! Then he asked me how old I thought the cat might be. The best way of aging a wild cat is by the wear on its teeth, the condition of it ears (old male cats have battle scars) and its claws. Praying the cat was still unconscious and not faking; I lifted its head and pulled back the lips. The teeth were gleaming white, none broken, no sign of wear. The canines were at least two inches long. (I suddenly thought of saber tooth tigers.) Squeezing the paws to expose the claws, I saw they were also in perfect condition. There wasn’t a nick or scratch on the ears. This was a cat in his prime and he obviously hadn’t the need to fight for the females. They probably took one look at his handsome visage and fell at his feet.
Once again in the pouring rain, I had to move all the groceries to make room for the large crate. It took three of us to wrestle it into the back of my PT Cruiser and lean on the door to close it. I admit, I drove home in a bit of a daze. I was expecting a large house cat; I was bringing home a lion. This would not go over easily with my husband.
It didn’t. I called him out to see the “kitty” as I called it. He blanched. He said even more dirty words than I had when I saw it. I told him I had it all figured out. We could put together my largest, strongest dog cage and then put it inside the fawn pen next to the house (I’d have preferred it IN the house, but I do give in occasionally). The fawn pen of course, would have to be reinforced with hog panels and every zip tie we owned. He was not convinced.
What followed was an ugly hour and a half of putting the cage together (in the rain) only to find it would not fit through the door of the pen. We took it apart and tried to reassemble it at least three times wrong. I kept running to the car to check the cat’s respiration and reflexes to see if it was waking up. I stroked its head and one eye opened. We were running out of time.
It rained harder. We slogged through the mud retrieving hog panels from the garden and turkey pen. We ran out of zip ties and used coat hangers. Finally the pen was as secure as we could make it and we hauled the cage with the sleepy cat into the pen. Now, how the hell were we going to get him from one cage to the other? My brave husband, in his desire to protect me from the unconscious cat, volunteered to slide him from one to the other. He reached in and grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck and …it was done. The cat was fine where he was and we were late for our respective martial arts classes. We changed into wonderfully dry uniforms and headed in opposite directions.
To this day, I am not sure that Sifu believed that I was late for Kung Fu class because I was tending to a 40 pound bobcat. All he would have needed to do was sniff me. I distinctly smelled like bobcat….so did my car.
By evening, the cat was awake and not exactly in a good mood. As any animal coming out of anesthesia, he couldn’t quite figure out why his legs wouldn’t work and everything was blurry. I imagine he had a headache the size of Texas too. After my husband went to bed (he was still convinced that the cat was going to escape and eat us in our sleep) I entered the pen and sat by the cage. There was some hissing and growling, but somehow I knew, unequivocally, that this cat was never going to hurt me. I looked into its eyes for any glimmer of the kitten I had given up. Was it her, come back to forgive me? Was she offering me a second chance? Even if it wasn’t her, I knew that this cat had come for a reason. Redemption. This was my chance to make up for what I had done.
How many times in life, do we do something we regret? A callus remark, an opportunity passed by, a road not taken, if we have a conscience, these things often haunt us. A wise man learns from these events and moves on, vowing never to do them again. But…how often do we get the chance to correct them? How often can we make up for them and truly redeem ourselves? This was my moment. I couldn’t save the kitten, but I would save the cat. I vowed that even if it cost my trip to California, I would stay till he was ready to go.
The next week was spent tending to the cat. There was some mild spinal trauma, so it rarely stood as it should. A bobcat’s natural reaction to people is to retreat. This is why they almost never attack people. When I was younger, I rescued a bobcat from a leg hold trap set for fox and mink. My friend the trapper was simply going to kill it, but I pitched such a fit with crying and threats that he told me if I could get it out of the trap, he would let it go. I used a long stick and as the cat retreated away from me as far as it could, I pressed the release on the trap with the stick. Being a very light trap, it didn’t take much and the cat bounded away, not much worse for wear. It never even tried to swat at me. It was much the same with this cat.
As soon as I would enter the pen, he would back to the corner, there would be growls and hisses and he’d slap his front paws on the floor of the cage. I began to notice that the claws were never extended. Every time I brought him a piece of rabbit (my freezer is pretty full of rabbit), he seemed to calm down even more. I would sit or stand by his cage and talk to him. Soon the hissing and growling stopped with me. If anyone else approached within to feet of the pen, he would still threaten to tear them to pieces.
The fawns (well, now grown deer) were still coming to the door each morning for their bottles and I was concerned how they would react to a natural predator being in such close quarters. But as with everything else in this yard, they somehow seemed to understand that he posed no more threat than the chickens pecking about their feet. It is the magic of this place. I don’t understand it, but I don’t question it either.
By the end of the week, the cat was standing properly. There was still a bit of weakness in one front paw, but it appeared to only be a sprain. Someone brought a cottontail to me that had been struck by a car. It did not survive, so we gave it to the cat. First he slept with it, and then devoured half of it. He was getting fat and lazy and I didn’t want his, now healed muscles to atrophy from lack of use. He was healthy. It was time for him to go.
The night before I left for California we decided to release him. Since he had been shot and struck by a car in his former range, we decided that a more remote location might be prudent. There is a large tract of swamp we knew of, where the nearest paved road or house with chickens was miles away and across a river. (Bobcats do NOT like to swim). Being the biggest boy on the block, he would have no problem with rivals for territory. It was the perfect place. We got a pair of six foot poles to fit through the bars so we would not have to put our fingers too close to those gleaming teeth. We were ready.
We inserted to poles, the cat was definitely NOT happy. The teeth marks in my kung fu staff bear witness to that fact. As we attempted to back out of the fawn pen, we remembered….the cage wouldn’t fit through the door. Luckily it did, if we removed the door. The next surprise was that the cage was ½ inch higher that the taillight on the truck topper. We couldn’t get it in the back of the truck. Ok, I decided he could ride on the tailgate with the door of the topper and several straps holding it in place. I didn’t want him getting the dust from the road or being frightened by the trees whizzing by, so I covered the front of the cage with a tarp. My husband loved this idea; he felt it would prevent the cat from remembering the way home and again…eating us in our sleep.
I can only imagine why we looked like. Somewhat of a circus wagon, I suspect. The cat was only visible to cars if they passed us in either direction, but they did it very slowly and stared. Our neighbors took it all in stride. Not much surprises them about me anymore, so they simply waved as we drove down the road with a huge wild beast tied in the back of the truck.
We drove as carefully as possible over seasonal roads and two tracks to reach our destination. Each bump and jostle upset the cat anew and he did what any male cat does when it is frightened. It sprayed. It sprayed streams of jet propelled urine into the back of the truck. It also passed about 4 pounds of digested rabbit through the cage bars. When we stopped and took off the tarp, we both gagged. The cat was fine.
Setting the cage down and removing the poles once more (more teeth marks in my poor fighting staff), we argued about opening the door. My husband was positive that the cat would come charging out and eat at least one of us on the way. I was not afraid. I knew that this cat understood what was going on and would not attack anyone, least of all me. I opened the door and stepped back. The cat stood there. I tried coaxing him with promises of freedom. He lay down. For a moment I considered grabbing his bunny half and throwing it into the brush hoping that he would go after it, but I realized I wanted to see California with two arms. This would take some tough love.
I poked him gently with the staff. He looked at me. My husband got his staff and poked again. This was a different story. The cat turned and snarled with a sound that sent chills up and down our backs. We crossed the sticks and gave a little shove. The cat backed to the door, still attacking the staffs. Then his back paw touched the grass on the outside of the cage. There was a look of utter surprise in its eyes as it whirled around to see that it was free. Before we could even breathe, the cat bounded off into the brush. We could hear the crashing of his progress. He didn’t go far. I could feel him watching us from some autumn olive off to our left.
There are times, when I feel a connection to nature and its children so deeply; it is if I am a very part of it. I saw us through the cats golden eyes. I felt its joy at being free. I could smell the scents as it took stock of it new home. I felt its gratitude and being given a second chance at life. I heard it whisper….”redemption”. Then it was gone.
We emptied the cage as best we could and planned on bleaching and scrubbing it before taking it apart for storage. Retracing our trail through the woods, we emerged into the sunlight and civilization once more. It was hard to believe that I would be on a jet plane headed for the city just hours after I had been in the heart of a magnificent wild beast. I only hope that my husband received even just a piece of what that cat gave me.
I’m at peace with the kitten now. I know that the bobcat spirit has forgiven me and watches over and guides me when I am in the wild. More important….I have forgiven myself. I have been redeemed.