One of the most important and endangered animals to occur in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is probably the animal that no one sees. Well, I have actually seen it but since that special occasion has happened just three times over the course of 16 years, I think it’s safe to say that you have to be lucky enough to win the lottery to catch a glimpse of an Ocelot.
Yes, that small, wild cat with the spotted coat lives in the Lower Rio Grande Valley with most of them frequenting the subtropical habitats of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County and areas just outside the refuge. You won’t see it anywhere else in the country either because the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the only place where this beautiful little feline can be found in the USA.
Laguna Atascosa NWR was created following World War II to help preserve the wintering redhead duck population but no one knew that it also harbored a population of Ocelots!
I saw my first nine months after moving here. It was about 3:30 p.m. on a Friday in October on a trail at Laguna Atascosa. In the distance, I could see a major storm rolling in from the northwest and knew it would be here in a half hour or so before heading back to the car.
Strangely enough, I was actually looking for an Ocelot. I was so naive that I thought if I stood on the trail long enough, one would just come walking by. How absurd. Things like that just don’t happen.
But, that’s exactly what happened. I was concentrating on the north part of the trail, but every so often I would turn around to see if there was anything in back of me. As I turned around, sure enough there was an Ocelot 20 feet away staring at me! As we made eye contact, the small cat quickly slipped into brush on the eastern side of the trail.
My second sighting came about seven years ago while in my car on Bayside Drive at the refuge. I saw a cat try to cross the road which didn’t surprise me since a week ago I had seen a Bobcat at practically the same place. But this cat was different. For one thing, it was very nervous, not certain if it wanted to make a dash across the road or turn around. Bobcats are a little more self assured.
It was about this time I noticed that this was no Bobcat. It had a long tail hanging to the ground and much shorter legs. Finally, the Ocelot did cross the road and disappeared into the thick brush.
The most recent sighting was a few years ago at the visitors center. We knew a juvenile Ocelot had been spotted drinking at the visitors center water features and knew there was a chance we might see it. I was inside the center at the time when friend Seth Patterson burst through the door and said “Steve, the Ocelot’s here!” Along with other photographers, I snapped off several pictures of the ocelot drinking.
There are less than 50 ocelots in the United States, all living in far South Texas.
Unfortunately, the young cat was very sick and was found dead the following day. Most young cat species have a fairly high mortality rate. They die because they don’t learn how to hunt well enough, are killed by larger male cats, or can’t catch enough prey due to illness or injuries. We don’t know what happened to this cat but the good news is that refuge employees and volunteers, as well as other groups, are committed to ensuring Ocelots will be a permanent fixture in South Texas.
Ocelots face formidable obstacles, but not having them around is simply unacceptable. Watch the trails at Laguna because who knows, you just might end up seeing an Ocelot!
Jody Mays, former biologist at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, carries a young male ocelot that had a radio tracking collar attached to its neck to help wildlife experts learn more about the secretive cat’s movements.