Domestic Drama at 1 Sabroso Place
An abridged version of this article appears in the current issue of The LAFF Society’s newsletter.
It was lunchtime. Sunday, April 25. I brought lunch to the table and started to settle in with the New York Times. But just as I was about to sit, I saw through the glass door opening onto the west portal and courtyard a large cat. A very large cat. Hadn’t seen one in years. Figuring it belonged to one of the neighbors, I went to the door and shooed it away. (Neighbors’ cats have sometimes left unwelcome gifts of half eaten entrails at the door.) It jumped up on the wall and disappeared. I went back to the table and had my meal.
As I was clearing the table, I again saw the “cat”. She had settled into a low spot below the honeysuckle. The wall must have been warm and welcoming. Her face was in the shade, but the rest of her body in the sun. She lay with her back to the wall, her underside facing the porch.
As I watched, I saw something small squirm. It was dark gray. With her paws she alternately nudged it and held it. I thought she’d caught a bird or mouse and was toying with it. But she kept lying there rather indolently and from time to time the little creature squirmed and moved about. Before long, as I watched, a second creature appeared and it too began to move around along her tummy. This is when I realized that she was in fact giving birth! (Duh!!!) She stayed in the same position for a long time, sometimes with one hind leg raised and propped against the honeysuckle. The kittens continued to move around under her belly and occasionally she used a forepaw to push them or bring them closer to her belly. They were obviously nursing and took turns suckling.
This went on for a long, long time. I fetched binoculars and a digital camera and took a seat at the door where I could watch. She often sat up and stared directly at me. Could she see me through the glass door? If so, I didn’t seem to disturb her at all.
All in all, I spent three hours or more watching this little domestic drama. At one point, perhaps about 2:30, the mother got up and walked about a yard and a half away, leaving the kittens by themselves, nestled in a low kind of trough below the honeysuckle. I hadn’t yet read anything about bobcats—in fact, it hadn’t yet registered on me that she was a bobcat, rather than a domestic cat—so I thought maybe she was letting the kittens have space to begin fending for themselves. I had no idea that they were blind and would be for eight-nine days. She watched her young from a position behind a clump of lilies. Occasionally the kittens would rise up and squirm, then lie back down out of sight. Mama was obviously keeping guard, alert to the possibility of a bird of prey—and indeed eventually a large bird (a hawk? not a raven, I’m sure) suddenly swooped down, but its pass was so swift and unexpected that I couldn’t identify it. It proved to be a one-time event.
As the afternoon wore on she went back to the nest. This time she lay down facing the wall, her back to the house, head to the north, protectively snuggling the kittens between her body and the wall. It was about 4 p.m. or a little later when she took up this position. I retreated to do other things, but checked on her from time to time. She’d obviously decided it was bedtime for the family. Having concluded by now from the shape and coloring of her ears and the spots and markings on her legs that she wasn’t a domestic cat, I did some preliminary investigation on Google and determined that she must be a bobcat. They have been known to visit Eldorado houses.
Monday, April 26, between 6:00-7:00 a.m.
The sky is light and the sun has just come up. Mama bobcat is still lying as I left her, facing the wall, her back to the portal, though at some point she has turned; her rump is north, her head now pointing south. But she’s quiet, still huddled with the kittens.
I Googled bobcats again and read a great deal more, learning that they can go without eating for a long time. Also, that it may be 10 days before the young open their eyes! So I’ll have to keep the yard workers who come Thursday at bay, to say nothing of the exterminator who’s supposed to come later this week. I may just postpone him for a while.
There are now three babies!!! I think the third arrived this morning, an hour or so ago. I could see Mama’s flank heaving at one point, but I thought she was just breathing heavily after yesterday’s work. However, she spent a long time nursing, her hind leg raised against the wall. She also engaged in a lot of licking. Eventually, a little after 9:15, she turned over facing the portal. A little while after that, babies began to emerge—crawling, wiggling, squirming all over and around her! The family was in a quiet, sunny spot. After half an hour or so, mother slowly got up and moved about half a yard away toward the porch, leaving the babies alone together. She looked calm but tired. The babies climbed all over one another for at least half an hour, before finally settling down quietly. Mama watched from a distance.
After about 10:15 a.m. she spent a lot of time grooming herself, licking her underside extensively, then her legs and paws—over and over and over. The babies were not active, but she checked on them from time to time. Eventually, she moved to a shadier, more sheltered spot where she could keep watch from a distance. The babies lay all in a pile and seldom moved.
Forty-five minutes later
They’re all still lying where they were when I last looked.
As I was finishing lunch, Mama slowly, languorously got up from her shady refuge, stretched, groomed a bit, then went over to her family. They headed straight for her tits, though she kept one (the youngest?) aside to lick. They were feeding when I came to the computer. Gotta get going and do some errands. I’ve spent the whole morning observing.
Before leaving, I put a “DO NOT ENTER” sign on the courtyard gate. Wouldn’t do to have the mailman or a neighbor come in unawares, even though later I learned that she wouldn’t attack humans, just hiss. Still, Mama Bobcat (shall I call her “Belle”?) probably chose this site because she knew it to be monastically peaceful.
More later . . . .
When I got home about 5 p.m., Mama Bobcat was nursing and intermittently licking her kittens. She rested a while. I put some water out at the other end of the courtyard in case she moseys around looking for a drink. She keeps on licking the young, and was busily doing so when I looked just now as the light is failing.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
At 6:20 a.m. it’s light enough to see Belle under the honeysuckle. She’s still asleep, but twenty minutes later she’s lying on her back, hind legs up, nursing. 7:10 a.m. she’s lying flat, very quiet. 7:30 a.m. Belle is on her back with a baby climbing on her. Not a lot of action over the next couple of hours, though she spent time sitting up facing the house, then resting quietly, looking up occasionally. Triplets began moving around about 9:30 a.m. and she raised her leg to nurse. At 10 a.m. the babies became very active, scrambling all over her and nursing. When they come toward her head she licks them a lot.
Half an hour later Mom had had enough of the kids and moved away from the nest to a rock a yard away. With mom gone, the babies settled into a quiet heap, though tussling with one another from time to time.
A little past noon Mom was back with her brood, licking them fiercely while one or the other nursed. An hour later she retreated to the shade of the lilies, spending a long time licking her legs and paws. After that exercise she moved even farther to the vinca below the juniper tree, where she indulged in a long rest.
At 2:15 she rejoined the babies and spent the rest of the afternoon alternately nursing and licking them. By 7:30 she was asleep on her back, but then roused around 8 p.m. for another round of licking babies and herself.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
While my guests were lazing about, I spent the day agonizing about their future. My Internet readings had told me that the babies would not open their eyes for nine or ten days. They had also revealed that it’s four weeks before the young begin exploring their surroundings and two months before they are weaned. Then it’s several months before they begin traveling with their mother. O-o-o-ff!!!! How could I play hostess for that long? The upside of keeping them would be that bobcats are strictly carnivorous—no greens—and can go a long time without feeding. While that would be good for keeping the rodent population down and saving on exterminator expense, it seemed unrealistic that I could act as den mother for so long. Yes, I feel very hospitable toward this animal who has honored me with her trust—but conflicted too. When she settled on 1 Sabroso Place for her accouchement, she somehow knew (did she reconnoiter? when?) that her nest would be nicely sheltered, free of traffic and free of domestic pets. Ideal. And she has been able to enjoy a very peaceful few days with her brood. However, all good things must come to an end.
Worried about their long-term care, I began to investigate potential relocation agencies. My first recourse would have been to seek advice from a naturalist neighbor who knows about animal life. But quite inconsiderately he had chosen this week to be in Europe! A yellow pages search revealed only commercial pest control companies, which I doubted would be likely to handle the situation humanely. Prior experience with Animal Control led me to fear that even if they could capture the mother, they would only destroy her and the family. Finally, at the end of a long day of worry and anxiety, I was able to talk with two friends, both of whom independently recommended the same solution—the New Mexico Game and Fish Agency, experienced, they assured me, in relocating wildlife. By then, however, it was after 5 p.m. and the office was closed, so I had to wait until this morning to call. Sure enough, the agent I spoke with assured me that they could remove Belle and her babies humanely and relocate them to a suitable environment, probably in consultation with the Espanola Wildlife Center. As I write (Wednesday a.m.), I am awaiting their arrival.
Here is how the day went:
6:15—7:30 a.m. Belle lying back to the wall, babies nursing. 9:45 a.m. Lying quietly facing the wall. 10 a.m. Babies crawling all around but mom sitting at a distance looking at the house.
10:15 a.m. Game and Fish agents arrive: Cary Mauer (Wildlife Disease Specialist) and Stewart Liley (Elk Programs Coordinator), accompanied by photographer Dan Williams (editor of New Mexico Wildlife Magazine). We trouped inside to view the nest from the living room, while discussing possible solutions. Ideally, they would have liked to get a noose around her neck using a “catch pole”, but decided she would be too skittish for that. (Later on they did try, unsuccessfully.) Shooting her with a tranquilizer dart would, they said, have its drawbacks, as the shot doesn’t take effect instantaneously, and in the 6 minutes before it knocked her out she could be half way to Santa Fe. The most realistic solution, they concluded, would be to trap her, using the babies as bait. However, the trap they had brought was too small, so Stewart, who lives nearby, said he would come back in the evening with a bigger one. Meanwhile, just to test her, Stewart and Gary walked around outside the wall and peered over. The instant she heard them, she was on her feet poised for flight. Indeed, as they came closer, she fled over the wall and cowered nervously under a nearby juniper for 20 minutes.
After they came back inside, she approached again, but cautiously lay on top of the wall, half hidden by juniper branches.
10:50 a.m. Game and Fish guys left, but Belle stayed on the wall above the babies for a while, though by 11:30 she was back in the nest nursing her babies. When I left for town at 12:45 Belle was lying down facing the house nursing the kittens. When I returned at 4:15, she was sitting facing the porch, nursing. Between 5 and 6 p.m. she lay peacefully, licking herself.
Stewart returned with the bigger cage at 6:15, set it up and placed the babies in the back of it on a bed of leaves and bark. Mama, of course, had taken off lickety-split across the open land to the northeast when he approached. He doubted Mama would abandon her babies, however, as they’d been together long enough for bonding to occur.
After Stewart left, as I was sitting in the office on the east side of the house watching TV, at 7 p.m., I suddenly saw Belle arrive inside the east garden, carrying in her mouth what looked like a rabbit. She sat down directly opposite my desk window up between the east coyote fence and the railroad ties bordering the path. When she settled down, she looked straight at me for a long while (Stewart and Cary had said earlier that her vision is very acute and that she can indeed see through windows into the house), then fussed with the “rabbit” quite a bit.
After a while it finally dawned on me that what she had brought was no rabbit: Rather, she had recovered one of her babies from the trap!!! How?? She nursed it for a while. Forty-five minutes later she got up, sauntered down the steps and headed around the house to the trap over in the west courtyard where she had nested. I followed her progress from the windows. Sure enough—very delicately, very carefully, very skillfully—she reached into the open trap and extracted a kitten! Eureka! After bringing it back to her new east side nest, she spent 45 minutes nursing it. And then, resignedly—as if thinking “What do I have to do to keep the family together?”—she got up once more, walked back around to the trap in the courtyard and plucked out kitten #3!! Watching, I was on tenterhooks, worried that this time she might spring the trap. Never underestimate a determined bobcat mama, though. Back at her new nesting place, another round of nursing ensued for kitten #3 before the whole family settled down for the night at about 8:15.
Or so I thought.
The next morning—Thursday, April 29
At 6 a.m., by early light, I looked out from my desk to the spot where she’d settled last night with her babies—AND SHE WASN’T THERE! Come full light I scoured the area with binoculars. NO MAMA. Where is she? Has she taken the babies elsewhere? If so, WHY? Has she abandoned them? Surely not. After pondering the implications of this situation for a while, I took my tea back to the kitchen on the west side. Passing through the living room, I saw to my astonishment—SHE WAS IN THE TRAP! Sans babies. Why did she go back to the cage? She’d already gotten all three babies out O.K. Had she forgotten her handbag? What was she thinking?
7:00 a.m. Babies all OK, huddled together by the path on the east where she’d brought them last night. Occasionally sitting up, squirming.
7:15 a.m. Stewart Liley of Game and Fish arrived. We examined and photographed the babies, then put them in a box lined with leaves and grass. They had grown quite a lot in just 3½ days. Really big babies about 8 inches long.
Before going to Mama and the trap, Stewart took a look from the living room to make sure the rings locking the trap door were closed. They were, so Mama was secure in it. Not happy, but secure. We found a blanket to put over the cage before he moved it so that she wouldn’t go totally ballistic.
He’d decided against putting the babies in the cage with her through a back door, because she was already too agitated. In fact, as he carried the trap to the truck, she urinated the whole way.
Stewart, the trap, the bobcat and her babies departed about 8:10 a.m. On the way to the Wildlife Center in Espanola Stewart planned to stop by his office to pick up a mild sedative for her so she’d be relaxed enough to nurse her babies when they were reunited.
After the babies have been weaned and are ready to begin hunting, they and mother will be tagged and released, probably in Valle Vidal.
The Wildlife Center, I’ve learned, is having open house this weekend. Perhaps I’ll drive up on Sunday to see what’s become of “my” bobcats.
So the drama is ended. The excitement over. It now seems very lonely without my visitors.
As consolation, however, the wisteria is blooming! First time in five years.
Nancy Dennis began work at the Ford Foundation in 1959 as a secretary and worked in several offices, including as a program officer, before retiring in 1996 and moving to Santa Fe, N.M.