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Rarest Cat of All

With no confirmed sightings since 1986, the jaguarundi may have fled to thornier pastures in Mexico.

By E. Dan Klepper

Several years ago, back in the 1990s, I worked a stretch for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a seasonal park ranger. I loved the job as much as I loved the parks I rangered — the 6,368-acre Kickapoo Cavern State Park and a bat haven called the Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area. The parks were in their developmental infancy throughout the time of my employment, which meant that baseline studies of their flora and fauna were in full swing, giving me a unique opportunity to associate with a number of knowledgeable scientists who had been contracted to carry out the work. Also, the parks' facilities were at best rudimentary as their restructuring was still in the planning stages, thus providing me with a living environment of unfettered primitiveness. They were ideal conditions for a wilderness lover like me who disdains regimentation and control of nature. If truth be told, I would have performed the job for free.

The directives attached to the job of seasonal park ranger and similar jobs like it such as fire tower lookout or assistant field biologist may seem overwrought with simplicity — identify the bird, watch for smoke, count the butterflies. But, in reality, they are jobs for the mindful, allowing the task at hand to act as a mantra for coaxing deeper, penetrating thought. My time as a seasonal ranger represented perhaps the most profoundly transformative period of my life because, by its end, I had become a writer.

It was also my first introduction to endangered-species monitoring. Several endangered critters occupied my parks' territories, including the black-capped vireo. Despite its high-profile status, however, the little tweeter wasn't really all that interesting. Neither brilliant in color nor particularly distinct in behavior, the "Cap" was perpetually difficult for me to spot despite its loud, garbly taunts. Much worse, however, was the seasonal ranger's nightmare — the Tobusch fishhook cactus.

"Is that an Ancistrocactus tobuschii I see or is it merely another microscopic fleck of gray limestone?" It was a question I would ask myself throughout each February, when Tobusch counting season commenced and the little Tobusch fishhook cactus put out its tiny yellow flower. But the hours of monotonous focus also brought with them a special gift for patterning. Once I finally programmed the image of a Tobusch in my mind's eye, I would never mistake it for another dull, itty-bitty nondescript cactus again.

Patterning, or inuring an image to the brain, is an ideal way to enable quick and correct identification of species in the field. We all have the capacity for it. It's simply a matter of putting the process to work.

This process came up again the other day when I heard a rumor that a Gulf Coast jaguarundi, or Herpailurus yaguarondi cacomitli, had been spotted along the Rio Grande corridor southeast of one of my river haunts. It would have been quite a trip for the animal, considering that its historic range in Texas is limited to the extreme southern Rio Grande Valley and I live west of the Pecos River. Animals however, like humans, stray occasionally from routine, so I thought it prudent to be prepared. But, having never seen a jaguarundi, I wasn't sure how to go about establishing a mental pattern of one. If and when I finally caught sight of a jaguarundi, I wanted to make sure that I was seeing the actual animal rather than a skinny raccoon or a small dog or a neglected house cat instead. Which, I discovered in my preparations for spotting the real McCoy, are the typical errors made by most first-blush jaguarundi spotters.

In fact the jaguarundi, I learned, has suffered more than its share of mistaken identity. Slender in body and short in the legs, the typical jaguarundi is equal in weight to a good-sized domestic cat at 8– 10 pounds, except that its tail is longer, giving it a larger appearance. It is diurnal, more so than most wild cats, engaging in much of its activity during the day, thereby reducing the competition for prey with other, more nocturnal species. This also increases its chances of being seen.

Reports of jaguarundi spottings crop up with some regularity in Texas. But the similarity in size and appearance to a house cat, rather than its population density, is the most likely reason for the frequency of sightings. Proof is in much of the Yeti-style snapshots and shaky videos that capture, in the final analysis, only fleet-footed Fluffys. However, a jaguarundi sighting usually doesn't involve just any old house cat. Rather, it is a house cat gone wild.

"We had a videotape sent to us from a hunting lease a few years ago that the person described as being taken in an area at least 50 miles from any houses," TPWD mammalogist John Young recalls of one jaguarundi alert. "The cat in the videotape was a house cat that was running wild. Wild house cats do not look the same as our pets. They are much more muscular, and walk and act differently, giving them a different appearance."

Despite the similarity to our wandering strays, a straightforward distinction can be made between a wild house cat and a jaguarundi. Unlike the infinite varieties of pelage found on domestic cats, the jaguarundi's coat has only two color phases. The gray phase, a salt and pepper coloration called "grizzling," lacks any spots or patterns; a fact that may allow the mind to engage in one of its other tricks — projecting the characteristics of whatever animal it would like to see onto whatever animal it is actually seeing (such as turning a scrawny cow into a 12-point buck).

The jaguarundi's second color phase, however, leaves nothing to the imagination. Called the red phase, its distinction garners a name all its own — the eyra. It is a word borrowed from the Brazilian Tupi language and suggests an avatar unlike any other. In this phase the cat turns a burnt or light Tang red and, in certain light, the animal appears to be lifted directly from the paintings of the English Romantics. One glance of the eyra and I believe the pattern would lodge firmly in my mind's eye — fantastic and concrete at once.

There is another, more compelling reason why a real jaguarundi is difficult to spot in Texas: It is endangered throughout its range. The last confirmed sighting in the state took place in 1986. The fact that the particular animal was road kill made the confirmation simple and definitive.

"The rarest of all the native cats," states David J. Schmidly of the jaguarundi in his most recent edition of The Mammals of Texas. A hundred years or more of habitat destruction have reduced the state's population of jaguarundis to possibly as few as 15 cats.

"That's an optimistic number," says Michael Tewes, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at Texas A&M University, Kingsville, "although it is my number that I gave to Dr. Schmidly some years ago. Today, perhaps there might be a small pocket of cats left in the Rio Grande Valley … that is, if any jaguarundis still remain in Texas at all."

Tewes should know. He is coordinator of the Feline Research Program for the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. Tewes and his students have been studying wild cats, including jaguarundis, ocelots and mountain lions, for 25 years. In fact, Tewes considers one of his own graduate students, Arturo Caso, to be the premier expert on jaguarundis. Caso's work in the 1990s in Mexico, where jaguarundi populations are more prevalent, has since provided most of what is known about the wild cat.

"Jaguarundi populations still exist in Caso's study area of Tamaulipas because conditions haven't changed," explains Tewes. "It is ranching country where much of the native brush has not been removed." In Texas' Rio Grande Valley, once part of jaguarundi range as well, approximately 95 percent of native habitat has been replaced by agriculture. "Ranching, however, is compatible with maintaining jaguarundi and other wild cat populations such as ocelots," says Tewes, "as long as native brush cover remains." Tamaulipas ranchers and their ranch country have shown that ranching and predatory wild cats can coexist. In fact, they have been doing so for centuries.

But in Texas, the jaguarundi's only real hope of repatriation and survival is sensible land management practices.

"The efforts by private landowners, various private conservation organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to preserve and restore significant areas of dense thorny native brush in South Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley," explains Ron George, TPWD's program director of wildlife science, research and diversity, "offer the best hope for maintaining viable breeding populations of jaguarundis, ocelots and other rare native wildlife in that area."

Will I have the chance to spot enough jaguarundis in Texas during my lifetime to secure a pattern for them in my mind's eye? It's doubtful. Will a future generation of seasonal park rangers in our south Texas parks and wildlife management areas have the chance to? That is up to all of us. Spending money and resources for saving endangered species from extinction is often a complicated argument to make, especially when it seems like life moves forward anyway, despite their absence. But nature, like life, is a complex collection of interrelated actions and their consequences. And loss, sudden as well as cumulative, seems like a very simple concept to grasp. For the jaguarundi at least, mistaken identity may be as much about rarity as similarity. But I believe it is, above all else, about hope.

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