Notre Dame Magazine

Published Spring 1996

Wood Ghost

by Kerry Temple
It is just before dawn. The damp air is cold -- late-autumn-cold -- with frost on the tall, brown grasses and ice and patches of crusty snow. Most of the stars have faded in the east, but a half-moon shines in the west and Venus and Jupiter twinkle like jewels against the cobalt sky. But there, beneath the celestial canopy, in the shadows of maple and birch and sycamore, the rabbit lies belly-open. Steam rises from the bloody mess.

The wildcat is eating, ripping apart his prey, leaving only skull and bone and scraps of fur. A black crow twitters and caws in the tree nearby. The eastern sky is brightening.

The cat has been up all night. He has covered almost 10 miles, maybe more, on his nocturnal ramble through his home range, for he digresses -- scouting for prey, investigating unusual signs and smells, nosing around, ambling about, leaving his marks upon the territory he calls his own. So his course meanders, delivering him finally to the swift, lean rabbit that provided the last nourishment he needed before the crack of day.

Now full and slow and sleepy, the cat recoils into a harbor of brush and licks the sticky blood from his whiskers and his paws.

* * *
As a boy growing up down South, I dreamed of seeing bobcats in the woods. In a land of squirrels, raccoons and opossums, they -- not wolf, lion or bear -- were the wild things. The solitary carnivore. Meateater and mystic. A deadly blend of elegance and cunning, tooth and claw, ferocity and grace. An animal whose shadowy presence loomed large in our landscape and in my imagination, informing both with the scent of elemental danger, predatory wildness, beguiling apparition.

Its wraith-like nature had prompted some old-timers to call it "wood ghost," for it is a reclusive, almost secretive animal so rarely seen that many doubt that it prowls their neighborhood -- until they hear its banshee cry. As a teenager backpacking in Texas or canoeing in Arkansas, I would lie awake at night listening for that other-worldly wailing, the caterwauling that Thackeray described as "a shriek and a yell like the devils of hell." But I never heard it, and in time I began to wonder if any such creatures were still out there in the few remaining wild spots east of the Rockies.

It was important to me then, as it is now, to think that such elemental wildness still vitalized the countryside where I lived -- however curbed, fenced or civilized. So I delighted in the occasional sightings of this pint-sized descendant of the saber-toothed tiger -- though these were reports of something lurking in the shadows before dissolving from sight, glimpses of the haunting amber eyes blazing in the twilight. Still, the idea that this distant cousin of the panther, this wily remnant of untamed America might roam my boyhood's rolling, piney hills infected that landscape with a hint of joy and peril.

Lynx rufus traces its lineage to an ancestral lynx that prowled the Asian high country four million years ago. About 200,000 years ago these cats crossed the Bering Straits eastward to give rise to the Canada lynx, the bobcat's closest relative but clear subordinate in territorial wargames.

The bobcat's reputation as a ferocious predator had an immediate impact on the whites who descended upon this continent 500 years ago. To colonists, who must have been fidgety about all the strange and fearsome creatures lurking in the woods, the wildcat made a singular impression.

"The wilde cat," wrote William Wood in New England's Prospect: A True, Lively, and Experimental Description of that Part of America, "is more dangerous to bee met withall than any other creature." The chronicler also expressed admiration for the bobcat's hunting technique that it "useth to kill Deare": "Knowing the Deares tracts," he explained in 1634, "hee will lye lurking in long weedes, the Deare passing by he suddenly leapes upon his backe, from thence gets to his necke, and scratcheth out his throate."

Tales of bobcats bringing down 200-pound deer are passed down by those who marvel at the cat's bold venery. Aware of the game trails within its territory, the bobcat will climb a tree (usually on the side away from the trail in order to conceal its claw marks) and wait for a passing deer. Pouncing on its prey, it will go for the throat. The relentless snapping action of its jaws, which has been likened to the rapid firing of a sewing machine, enables an adult bobcat, wrote one naturalist, "to pulverize the throat, including the major blood vessels and trachea, in a matter of seconds."

Because of its fierce and independent nature, its wild and crafty ways, the bobcat rests prominently in the anthology of our national folklore, its snarling visage on the same pages as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and other pioneer heroes. Its reputation has prompted some observers to exaggerate the animal's size. As early as 1637, Thomas Morton wrote warily of bobcats and said they were as "bigg as a great Hound."

In truth, the bobcat is slightly larger than a housecat and usually weighs about 25 pounds. Although vicious when cornered, the wildcat's relatively small size makes its ability to prey upon deer all the more impressive.

More often the bobcat, who cannot supplement his diet with plants because his stomach physiology is specialized for meat, settles for smaller game -- rabbits, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, gophers and such. But it is also admired for its ability to survive by taking third and fourth choice -- snakes, frogs, birds, porcupines (it apparently can pass the quills through the intestine), fish, cave bats, lizards . . . whatever it takes to get along.

Where humans have cultivated its territory, bobcats have shown an appetite for livestock, most notably poultry. In Ohio a farmer lost 35 domestic rabbits, 23 ducks, several chickens and one lamb to a sly bobcat he could not trap -- but that he shot when it had made one trip too many into the barn. In Colorado one night a bobcat removed a rock from the foundation of a henhouse, feasted on 51 chickens, but was then too big to sneak back out his entry hole. Raids such as these put a price on the bobcat's head long before the American Revolution. And its notoriety as a bandit almost cost the bobcat its very existence.

* * *
Americans have never really known what to do with the wild animals that flourished here before the European onslaught. Some were taken for their meat, some for their pelts, and others -- like the wolf, the bear and the wild cats -- were killed like outlaws. They were a nuisance; they threatened the safety of those carving a civilization out of the great American wilderness. But, as was the case with the native peoples who were also in the way of westward expansion, their populations were more severely decimated by a reduction in habitat.

By the end of the 19th century, the bobcat had become more of a character in our cultural mythology than a main player in the territory once its own. Still, in 1915, reacting to the bobcats' threat to livestock, a government Predator and Control Agency was created within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over the next several decades literally thousands of bobcats, wolves and mountain lions were killed through a carefully orchestrated poisoning program. It was not until 1972, when President Nixon prohibited the use of toxic chemicals on federal lands, that societal forces slowed the wholesale slaughter of American wildlife. By then at least half a million bobcats had been killed.

And yet, although its habitats have been radically reduced by the encroaching civilization and it's still hunted as a threat to livestock and trapped for its pelt, the bobcat has survived. Give credit for this hardy resiliency to the cat's belligerent nature, its knack for being there one moment and gone the next, and for its gritty adaptability. While the grizzlies, wolves and panthers have receded into the closets of America's frontier, the bobcat dug in its claws and hung on.

Though it prefers scrubby country and broken forests, the bobcat has made a niche for itself in each of the lower 48 states. The "wood ghost" has persisted because it has made a home in soggy swamplands, throughout the arid Southwest, even amid Midwestern farmland. It is, in essence, all around us -- somewhere between 700,000 and 1.5 million of them, although its reclusive nature makes a census difficult. Even naturalists who study the creature may go a lifetime without spotting one. It has largely faded into the modern American landscape like a phantom prowler depositing signs of its sweet trespassings, somehow eluding the noose of homo sapiens.

* * *
When I was younger, exploring the fields of my ever-widening universe, I was on the lookout for wildcats in the backcountry of Colorado and Utah, in New Mexico, Wyoming and the Adirondacks. I saw their claw marks near the bases of trees, which they use to sharpen their claws and mark their territory; their scat, which is similar to a dog's but which they bury during summer to conceal their presence; and their tracks, which also resemble a dog's. But I found no bobcat on these travels.

And yet, as I sought the elusory wildcat and hiked its uncultured domain and read about its habits, I learned a lot about the cat and its country and my place in it. I learned, for example, that the cat places its hindfeet into the tracks of its forepaws, a practice biologists attribute to its instinct to stalk unnoticed.

I learned, too, that the bobcat can spring eight feet into the air, that it makes its den in rocky ledges or caves, in abandoned fox dens, even hollow logs. Male and female find each other in early spring, spend some courting time together (howling wantonly) and mate. The male then wanders freely off to continue his solitary existence. The kittens, usually three or four in a litter, appear about two months later and stay with the mother throughout the summer, learning bobcat ways. By late fall the young also will wander off, will first mate when they're about a year old, and will live about 15 years. Their isolated existence makes it easy for them to evaporate into the landscape, upholding their ancestral charm.

They are largely but not exclusively nocturnal. They get their name from their bobbed tail, and their ear tufts help them gather sounds. They use their whiskers as a navigational device when stalking, and females are much more combative than males when defending their territory. Their eyes glow in the dark because wildcats are eerie, phantom-like creatures -- and also because light hits a reflective layer behind the retina, called the tapetum, which bounces the light back, gives the eyes' rods a second chance to absorb the dim nighttime rays.

Except for man and his dogs, which really are no match for it, the bobcat has no serious enemies. If tracked, the cat may vault into a tree and wait in ambush. Or it may loop back, appearing behind its hunter, reversing the predator-prey relationship. Such is the stuff of myth and fact, fable and truth, both literal and figurative, which tell of bobcats.

At some point I learned, as anyone does who studies animals long, a certain humility in the presence of wild things -- the bobcat, or owl or pronghorn antelope. They are so fast, their senses so keen, their genius so remarkable that humans, turned loose upon the land, seem clumsy and dumb in comparison. To say nothing of their beauty and grace. Their power. Their rightness. Their capacity to slip into the landscape and to live there unencumbered. I envy them their intimacy with the earth. I have looked for bobcats everywhere.

* * *
I saw the bloody remains of rabbit first. My dog had sniffed it out in the woods where we walked religiously every day for seven years, rain or snow, midnight or dawn -- a place along a river where we slipped easily, unobtrusively into the countryside inhabited by deer and fox, hawks and coons. This was several years ago -- at daybreak -- but I recall it vividly. The dried blood, the tufts of hair, the ivory bone.

After a few moments I walked on, leaving the dog to scavenge the carrion. Emerging from a copse of trees, I was looking across a grassy clearing when an animal appeared some 30 yards in front of me, having stepped out of a hedgerow -- as surprised to see me as I to see it. So we watched each other for a moment while I, stunned by its appearance, took inventory -- and assured myself that it was indeed a bobcat staring back at me.

Although I stepped several paces closer to it, it did not appear threatened. In fact, I sensed that it was content to meet there like that, to stand face-to-face, to hold each other in a gaze, before moving on, easing into the thicket from which it had come, in no apparent hurry to get away.

Since that morning I have thought of that encounter many times. It seems significant now, as I recall that meeting, that the bobcat came to that place, those woods, that intersection of my world and his.

Spring 1996 contents page
Notre Dame Magazine home page.