One of the most challenging things about studying, conserving and advocating for ocelots is that they are a very difficult animal to see in the wild. Small and well camouflaged, they stick to dense foliage and prefer to prowl at night. I have spent my career studying and advocating for the wild cats who call the U.S.-Mexico borderlands home, including the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, mountain lion and bobcat. Armed with decades of experience, I’ve only seen a few ocelots in the wild and then only when they’ve been (humanely) trapped as a part of an approved scientific monitoring program.
Much of Defenders’ work to help save the ocelot in South Texas over the past year has centered on Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, one of two locations in the state where these charismatic cats are fighting to hold on. Only about 60 to 80 wild ocelots remain in Texas, with approximately 15 cats living at Laguna Atascosa and the rest on private ranchlands. Defenders partners with the USFWS and local organizations to raise awareness about the plight of these little-known cats and to advocate for their continued protection on federal and private lands.
The Ocelot Research and Monitoring Program at Laguna Atascosa, led by Dr. Hilary Swarts, traps and releases on average a couple of cats a year. The program evaluates the health of the individual cat, assesses the genetic health of the resident population, and studies ocelots’ use of the landscape through radio collar or GPS tracking.
The examination of an ocelot by the monitoring team takes at most a few hours before they are released to reduce stress for the cats--meaning that unless you happen to be near the site when a cat is trapped, you likely do not have time to make it out to the remote corners inhabited by ocelots to see that individual.
By a stroke of luck, I found myself at Laguna Atascosa in January on the day that OM342 – a young adult male - was caught. This was the second time this particular cat wandered into the monitoring team’s cage within a few months, having first been trapped in last November, providing the monitoring team the rare opportunity to examine a juvenile ocelot at two stages of his development.
I am without words to describe the experience of peeking in on this kittenish ocelot, bearing all the promise of the future on comically large paws he had not yet grown into, and witnessing his release back into the wild. As I stood there, eyes trained on the spotted coat quickly blending into the coastal prairie grasses, I was awash in gratitude. I reflected on the paths that lead me to that place--the opportunity to center the issues (and animals) I am most passionate about in my life's work and to work alongside some of the most incredible people who have also dedicated their lives to the fight to save our wild spaces and the incredible diversity of species that inhabit them. Since January, I have thought back often on that moment, watching the ocelot scamper back into the wild, as a beacon of hope in dark times. I know that there are people out there every day working to build a better future for our planet and to protect important habitat for imperiled wildlife like this little ocelot.
If you are interested in learning more about our work on ocelot conservation and many other species across Texas, join the Defenders Texas Facebook page.