Game warden Matthew Waggoner found a dead ocelot along a highway near Mineral Wells, more than 400 miles from the nearest documented wild population of the endangered cats. Strange. A phone call received by Texas game warden Matthew Waggoner took two weeks ago was like one game wardens and wildlife biologists get every year — somebody saw, found, or hit something and they are not sure what type of wild animal they have stumbled across.
People regularly contact Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) with reports they have seen, photographed or found some dead unusual animal — one that doesn’t exist, is extinct in Texas or is so rare and the report coming from so far from the animal’s range that it’s unlikely the caller saw what he thought he saw.
Almost without exception, they are mistaken. The black panther turns out to be a large feral house cat or bobcat. The jaguarundi is really an otter. The wolf is a big coyote or a feral dog. The chupacabra is just a dog or coyote with a bad case of mange.
So when Waggoner got word a woman claimed to have found a dead ocelot along Highway 180 between Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto in north-central Texas, he was properly dubious. The nation’s entire population of ocelots consists of fewer than 100 animals in two small patches of habitat in Texas’ Cameron and Willacy counties near the mouth of the Rio Grande. That’s a long ways from Palo Pinto.
While the medium-sized cat’s range once covered coastal and eastern Texas before habitat destruction and unregulated hunting reduced them to the two remaining pockets at the tip of Texas, there are no historical records of wild populations anywhere close to Palo Pinto County.
But the woman was persistent and sincere. She had retrieved the cat carcass, which she at first thought was a bobcat, and took it home. It was an ocelot, she was certain. Waggoner went to check it out.
He found a dead ocelot.
“It was quite a shock for all of us,” said John Young, a TPWD mammalogist who headed the agency’s handling of the deceased cat.
Ocelots are a federally-protected endangered species, and a dead one draws a lot of interest from scientists, law enforcement and the public.
“We had a lot of questions, of course,” Young said.
Was this a wild ocelot? Did it somehow manage to travel 400 miles across Texas from the nearest ocelot population? Or is there a previously unknown and undocumented wild population of them along the upper Brazos River?
Or was it something else? Was this out-of-place ocelot an abandoned or escaped pet? Or could it have been a wild ocelot from Mexico, Central or South America (where the gorgeous cats are more numerous) that had been captured, smuggled into the US, then released or escaped? Had it even been hit by a car, or had it died from some other cause?
To answer those questions, Young and other scientists conducted what might be called a “CSI: Wildlife” operation.
Young took the ocelot to Brownsville where he and staff at the Gladys Porter Zoo conducted a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy.
The cat was a big male, weighing about 36 pounds. That was a clue.
“When I saw the ocelot, I said, ‘That’s a chubby boy!,’?” said Dr. Michael Tewes of Texas A&M-Kingsville’s Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and arguably the most knowledgeable and experienced ocelot expert in the nation.
A large, wild ocelot will weigh a little more than 20 pounds. A huge one might hit 25 pounds.
“Chubby” was much heavier, and was carrying considerable fat in his belly. “You don’t see fat, wild ocelots,” Tewes said.
The animal didn’t have the marks often seen on pet ocelots — a tattoo or collar with a tag, filed teeth, filed or removed claws. But he didn’t have the usual nicks and scars and other marks wild ocelots get, either, Tewes said. The pads of the cat’s feet were smooth and it didn’t have the ear notches wild ocelots get when they fight or rip their ears on thorns or other hazards they encounter.
Additionally, an X-ray showed the ocelot had, indeed, died from injuries consistent with being struck by a vehicle — broken ribs, punctured lung and hemorrhaging.
The necropsy revealed something else. The cat’s colon was empty and its stomach contained only a couple of shrews (tiny rodents).
Wild ocelots are efficient hunters, taking large rodents (rat, rabbits and squirrels) along with birds and reptiles. “An honorable ocelot would not have shrews in his stomach — they’re too small a meal to be of real interest to him,” Tewes said. “It’s an indication of a novice hunter.”
For Chubby to be a wandering member of the South Texas ocelot population, he would have had to have travelled much farther than any of the dozens of radio-collared wild ocelots Tewes has studied. The farthest any of those wild cats travelled was 23 miles. Palo Pinto County is 400 miles from the closest known ocelot population.
Folks at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute are using tissue samples from Chubby to produce a DNA profile of the cat. Scientists can use that genetic profile to see if Chubby came from one of the two South Texas populations or has genetic similarities to wild ocelots from other parts of the cat’s range. But all indications are that Chubby was not a wild ocelot. Most likely, he was a pet that either escaped or was abandoned.
Ocelots raised in captivity are allowed as pets, although under strict federal permitting. But, so far, no one in the Palo Pinto County area has come forward saying they lost their ocelot.
“You can never say never,” Tewes said. “But everything I’ve seen supports the view that it’s a non-native cat.”