Tottering on the Brink of Extinction, Texas Ocelots Must Overcome a Myriad of Obstacles If They Are Going to Survive
"You really hate to lose any of them when there are so few of them."
-- Jody Mays, United States Fish and Wildlife Service
The death earlier this month of a male Texas ocelot at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR) near the Mexican border has reduced the number of the endangered cats to around one-hundred. More importantly, he was one of only thirty to forty breeding-age adults left in the more than sixty-five-thousand-acre preserve.
By the time the body was discovered it was so badly decomposed that a necropsy was unable to pinpoint the cause of death. A bite inflicted by one of Texas's abundant supply of poisonous snakes is nonetheless thought to have been the likely cause of death.
"You really hate to lose any of them when there are so few of them," Jody Mays of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) told Reuters on July 16th. (See "Dead Ocelot Bad News for Falling United States Population.")
Although the cats used to be found in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona, they are now restricted to a small corner of southeast Texas and even much of that area has been chopped up into farms, factories, and offshore condominiums. Subspecies of the Texas ocelot, found from Mexico to Argentina with the notable exception of Chile, are generally thought to be doing better than their Texas cousins.
Leopardus pardalis albescens are medium-sized cats that weigh between seventeen and twenty-four pounds, stand between sixteen and twenty-four inches tall, and are four to five feet in length. Their coats are distinguished by chain-like blotches and spots that are bordered in black but have lighter-colored centers. Background colors vary from light-yellows to reddish-grays. Their stomachs are white and the backs of their rounded ears are black with yellow spots. (See photo above of one at LANWR.)
Although those held in captivity are said to have high-strung, unpredictable, and comedic personalities, in the wild they lead solitary, nocturnal, and territorial existences. On the range they have a life-span of only seven to eight years whereas in captivity they have been known to live for as long as twenty years. (See photo below of an ocelot at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.)
Being carnivorous, they will eat just about anything that they are able to catch but in general their diet consists primarily of mice, opossums, and armadillos. If available, they also will prey upon anteaters, deer, squirrel monkeys, tortoises, crabs, fish, birds, and reptiles.
Of the myriad of factors conspiring against the cats, the demise of their desolate thorn brush habitat in the Rio Grande Valley is not only the most formidable but also the most difficult to reverse. "We've flown over south Texas and found that less than one per cent has this very special habitat of thorn brush," Texas A&M's Michael Tewes told The Dallas Morning News on June 25th. (See "Ocelots Hanging on to Small Part of Texas.")
The loss of habitat also has led to inbreeding. For instance, the two known colonies in south Texas are not only cut off from each other but from their Mexican cousins who reside about one-hundred miles south of the border.
According to Mays, inbreeding is not only causing the cats to become smaller but it is also noticeable in the uniform coloring of their noses. On a more practical level, it reduces the cats' fertility levels and makes them more susceptible to disease. Coupled with traditionally small litters, long gestation periods, and a high infant mortality rate, inbreeding could prove to be the ocelots' coup de grace.
Unlike bobcats, coyotes, and other more adaptable animals, ocelots do not like to leave the safety of the brush and seldom hunt by day. This, quite naturally, further restricts their habitat and food supply.
As destructive as habitat loss and inbreeding are, they pale in comparison to the number of ocelots that are deliberately run down and killed each year by motorists. "The primary form of mortality for ocelots is being killed on roads," Tewes told The Dallas Morning News.
In this respect, the ocelots' plight mirrors that of the Iriomote wildcat whose ranks also are being decimated by motorists and developers. (See Cat Defender post of November 27, 2006 entitled "After Surviving on Its Own for at Least Two Million Years, Rare Japanese Wildcat Faces Toughest Battle Yet.")
Taken separately or altogether, none of these factors could have reduced ocelots to their precarious state had it not been for the wholesale carnage inflicted upon them by fur traffickers and purveyors of exotic pets. For example, at one time as many as two-hundred-thousand of the cats were killed each year for their pelts.
Since the pattern found on each pelt is unique, fur coats made from thirteen of them used to retail for as much as $40,000. More startling, this was still going on as late as the 1980s even though ocelots have been protected by the Endangered Species Act since its inception in 1972.
Always on the lookout for a fast and easy buck at the expense of the animals, purveyors of exotic pets soon found that individuals, such as Salvador Dali, would pay up to $800 for an ocelot. Although buyers were willing to pay dearly for an exotic-looking cat, they had no intention of living with one that was truly wild. Consequently, they had their pet ocelots sterilized, declawed, defanged, and their scent glands removed.
Just as wildlife officials and other conservationists failed to protect the cats' habitat from dismemberment so, too, did animal rights groups fail to protect the cats against the hideous crimes of fur traffickers and marketers of exotic pets. Had either of these groups fulfilled their responsibilities, ocelots undoubtedly would be in far better shape today.
In addition to captive breeding programs at zoos, wildlife officials are working with private landowners in south Texas in an effort to preserve the cats' remaining habitat. With both development and population growth showing no signs of abating anytime soon, this does not look particularly encouraging. In fact, the ocelots' habitat will more than likely continue to contract.
Although ocelot crossing signs and speed restrictions have been put in place at LANWR, this has not stopped motorists from running down the cats. (See photo above.) The Texas Department of Transportation is considering digging underpasses to enable the cats to safely bypass busy roads but time is running out fast and these safe passages are needed now as opposed to later.
Most controversial of all, wildlife officials are planning to trap, tag, and import ocelots from Mexico to bred with the Texas cats. It is hoped that this will not only increase the number of ocelots living in Texas but also expand their gene pool.
This plan will not work, however, unless a secure habitat can be established for the cats. Otherwise, the imported cats are likely to meet with the same fate as those already living in Texas. It is also likely to reduce, and possibly even weaken, the Mexican colonies as well.
The proposed immigration control fence along the border will cut through seventy miles of the cats' habitat and this could possibly also adversely affect their chances of survival. Although the cats do not venture across the border all that often anymore, construction of the fence will take another sizable chunk out of their rapidly dwindling habitat.
"We know as habitats become fragments whether by roads, fences or walls animals become much less capable of roaming widely," Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society told Reuters on July 25th. (See "United States Border Fence Seen Harming Ocelots, Butterflies.") "As these restrictions occur animals become isolated and with isolation the risks of local extinctions greatly increase."
Imprisoning additional ocelots in zoos is not the answer either. Already forty-two American zoos own ocelots and dozens more of the cats are serving life sentences at similar facilities all around the globe.
As a last resort, it would be preferable if the Texas cats were relocated to Mexico as opposed to vice versa. After all, the welfare of the species should trump parochial interests.
This is not about to happen, however, and as the cats continue to slide toward extinction Sue Booth-Binczik of the Dallas Zoo and the USFWS are squandering precious time and resources trapping, tattooing, and releasing mice. (See photo above of Booth-Binczik at work.) Since there is nothing in the record to indicate that the cats are perishing from hunger, this research is of dubious merit.
Caught between the capitalists and their unchecked greed on the one side and wildlife officials with an agenda all their own on the other side, it is going to be extremely difficult not only for the cats to survive but also for them to retain an iota of their precious freedom and dignity.
Moreover, deadly hurricanes, droughts, fires, and disease could spell imminent doom for them.
Photos: USFWS (ocelot), Wikipedia (ocelot at Woodland Park Zoo), Janet and Gary's Web Page (ocelot crossing sign), and G. Daniel Lopez for The Dallas Morning News (Booth-Binczik).