When Ollie the Bobcat went absent without leave from her enclosure on a snowy January day, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. put out a missing feline bulletin. The wild-born 25-pound cat was believed to have taken a gap in her enclosure’s mesh.
Skilled at stealth and concealment, she could have gone anywhere — up one of the many trees in the 160-acre zoological gardens, or perhaps into the adjacent and much larger (1,750-acre) and deeply forested Rock Creek National Park, native habitat for a bobcat. Sightings of Ollie were reported in the surrounding residential areas, but after two days she was recovered on the Zoo grounds, in a trap baited with her favorite treats.
Ollie is a carnivore, Zoo spokeswoman Johanna Watson noted at the press conference to report the missing bobcat. “So for small birds and animals, which could include even small cats and dogs, she could be a threat. I think the best way for people to think about this is, I would treat her the same way I would treat a stray dog. She’s the same thing: she’s not a threat unless you become a threat to her.”
Bobcats are not known to be threats to humans. They are ubiquitous in North America, and the wildcat most commonly seen in the U.S. But how much do we know about them? Here, from experts, are some things you probably don’t know:
–Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are about twice the size of a domestic cat, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which adds: “They are generally tan to yellowish brown with dark brown or black streaks. The under parts are usually white with black spots and the insides of the legs are marked with black bars. The bobcat’s ears are pointed with short, black tufts while the tail is short and gives the appearance of being “‘bobbed.'”
–Bobcats are largely solitary and territorial and live 10-14 years.
They are widely-distributed through most of the United States, southern Canada, and Mexico where the state of Oaxaca remains the southern-most limit for the species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
— Approximately 725,000 to 1,020,000 bobcats remain in the wild, says Defenders of Wildlife. “Bobcat habitat varies widely from forests and mountainous areas to semi-deserts and brush land,” Defenders of Wildlife adds on its website. “A habitat dense with vegetation and lots of prey is ideal. Bobcats are excellent hunters, stalking prey with stealth and patience, then capturing their meals with one great leap.”
— Bobcats are fierce hunters that pounce on prey, even much bigger animals like deer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports. They are “good swimmers and climbers, with excellent eyesight and hearing.” A bobcat has even been documented catching a shark.
But while they have been known to take small farm animals (poultry, lambs and young pigs), for the most part bobcats eat rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice and a wide range of other small animals.
Fur Trade and Rodenticides Threaten Bobcats
— The IUCN lists the bobcat (Lynx rufus) as a species of Least Concern “because it is abundant and wide-ranging and is not suspected to be declining at a rate that would qualify it for Near Threatened.”
However, IUCN adds, “local threats may present challenges for long term persistence in some regions including market hunting for the fur trade, direct habitat loss caused by increased urbanization, and indirect effects of urbanization such as genetic isolation and lethal/sublethal exposure to anticoagulant rodenticides (southern California).”
— In rural areas in Florida, bobcats can range five or six square miles and generally cover their territory in a slow, careful fashion, the Florida Fish and Wildlife conservation Commission reports. In urban to suburban areas, the range of territory usually decreases to 1 or 2 miles. “Bobcats are stealthy animals and not often seen even though their numbers are abundant,” the Commission notes. “Catching even a fleeting glimpse of this secretive and beautiful creature can make anyone’s outdoor experience more enjoyable.”
— Fun Fact from the Smithsonian National Zoo: Bobcats can run at up to 30 miles per hour and they put their back feet in the same spots where their front feet stepped to reduce noise when hunting. (Get more facts on the Zoo’s Bobcat page)
This post was produced in support of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The bobcat is one of them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,
Bobcat (National Geographic profile page)
Bobcat (Smithsonian’s National Zoo profile page)
Living With Bobcats (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission pdf)
Bobcats: Living on the Urban Edge (National Park Service)
Basic Facts About Bobcats (Defenders of Wildlife)