Why I rescued a wild bobcat kitten and raised him as family

Is it fair to tame and keep a bobcat as a pet? Or should I have released him back to the wild?

Published March 24, 2018 8:30AM (EDT)

Trooper: The Bobcat Who Came in from the Wild by Forrest Bryant Johnson (Skyhorse Publishing)
Trooper: The Bobcat Who Came in from the Wild by Forrest Bryant Johnson (Skyhorse Publishing)

Once upon a time, not long ago, I had a most unusual friend. We met in the Mojave Desert near the glittering city of Las Vegas, when he was very young, and I not so young. And we re­mained close companions for 19 years. And as all friends need to do, we learned many things from one another.

This friend was a cat. He was not an ordinary feline, but a kitty from the wild — a bobcat, as such creatures are called in many parts of the U.S.; they are wild animals, even when captured very young, are not easily domesticated and seldom make good pets. Keeping a wild critter is illegal in some states; others have strict restrictions or require specific permits for their live possessions.

One question bothered me about my buddy. Is it fair to tame and keep a bobcat as a pet? Or should it be released, returned to the wild once it is strong enough to survive on its own? I had seriously considered all options before deciding to raise this particular feline as a member of my family, to live in my home, which, as it hap­pened, is located at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Our family bobcat (as he became) would always be given freedom to come and go as he pleased. And then decide whether to return to the wild or remain with us.

My considerations also included knowing that genetically the bobcat is closely related to domestic felines. Could our cat eventu­ally behave like a house pet if offered the same environment? Bob­cats are loners once they leave their mother’s care. Unlike African lions, for example—such as Elsa, forever immortalized in the film Born Free—a bobcat does not belong to a pride, nor does it need any group to help learn survival skills. And then my cat had lost his own mother before he reached the age of two months. Could he remain alive in a desert that provided such limited food and water?

The deciding factor came from alarming statistics supplied by the Nevada Department of Wildlife Conservation. Over 10,200 bobcats had been trapped or killed in the year before I found my kitten. There were mostly shot by hunters or poachers lacking permits and functioning out of hunting season. Beginning in the 1990s, a growing middle class in China and Russia had created the demand for luxury furs, the then favorite being the bobcat’s shiny and beautiful pelt.

And so I decided that returning this cat to the wild was tantamount to a death sentence. But how would anyone domesticate a wild creature? Would it be an impossible task undertaken in the effort to save him? I understood that each situation and each animal is different. Like humans, cats possess their own personalities and function at different intelligence levels. To my delighted surprise, I discovered in only a few weeks that my cat possessed a superior brain. This I concluded by judging his response to various situations and his ability to learn and react to verbal instructions.

One of the greatest questions of mankind has been, can ani­mals and humans communicate? In 1978 there was a celebrated ex­periment with Koko, the gorilla, and his person where each seemed to “know” what the other wanted. The ancient Greeks with a special form of communication they called “telepathy,” when a perception or feeling was believed to be transmitted by thought or feeling. And the Japanese relied on an expression called e-shin, den-shin, or mes­sages sent from one mind to another through shared feelings. Did I “talk” to my cat? Not exactly . . .

Ask anyone who has ever been owned by a cat and you’ll learn that these remarkable animals seem to sense when a person is anxious or depressed or even ill. And then proceed to help as best as a cat can, with warmth and love, cuddling and closeness.

My special friend and I shared much during our time together. Soon after we met, I decided to call him Trooper. It is an army name I picked up during my years in the military. It refers to a soldier (or anyone) with an especially tough fighting spirit who overcomes difficulties despite all odds. Just as Trooper did, and taught me to do. I had never owned a cat before Trooper. And so, I had imagined felines to be fuzzy little things that hunted birds and mice, preferring to prowl the neighborhood at night. But I always hated to see any animal suffer, certainly including a cat.

“I don’t know if you’ll live or die,” I told my unresponsive bundle as we hustled through the doors of the animal hospital. “But you deserve a chance, and I’m going to see that you get it.” And then we both proceeded to the receptionist.

“I have a wounded cat,” I told her. “Found him in the desert in a cholla patch.”

“Yes, Mr. Johnson,” she said, leading the way into an exami­nation room. “Your wife called. Doctor Marg will be in to see you in a moment. She’s our resident cat expert.” The girl tossed a wide grin at us. “And she can make the meanest cat calm down, using only her voice.”

And so I was left alone with the little cat with the big feet. Doctor Marg entered the room within minutes, turning out to be a large woman well beyond the age of fifty. But when she spoke, her voice was soft, very different from her masculine appearance.

“Put the little fellow down on the table so we can look at the damage,” she said. And then, with a single gentle motion, removed my T-shirt from the cat.

“Well, now,” she exclaimed. “What do we have here? How interesting!”

“He’s a neighbor’s cat,” I said. “Maybe caught by a coyote. There aren’t any big dogs in our area to cause this kind of damage.”

The doctor was quiet as she examined our patient. “I’m giving him a shot as a relaxant so we can go to work. You’re lucky he didn’t regain consciousness and claw you to ribbons. This kitty doesn’t belong to one of your neighbors. He’s not a house cat.”

“So where did he come from?”

“From the desert, Mr. Johnson; where you found him. This is a bobcat kitten, not a fully-grown domestic cat. See? His spots are beginning to fade. I’m guessing he’s about six weeks old.”

“A bobcat! But his ears are not pointed and . . . and, well, his tail seems too long.”

“He may look like a full-grown cat, but he is only a young­ster,” Dr. Marg said. “Like people, not all cats are created the same. Some have big ears, others small. Still, they are people—same with bobcats. Some have pointed ears, some have tufts of fur at the top. This particular one has slightly rounded ears. As for the tail, feel here.” She guided my hand to the cat’s tiny backside.

“Feel the bones,” she said. “His tail should have ended here, at the last bone, and should be much shorter.”

“But can you save him?”

“Oh, certainly. First we need to get X-rays to check for frac­tures and look for internal damage.” She wrapped the little cat in a fresh white cloth, scooping him up in her arms. Then turned to me. “You understand that this is a wild creature. He has never known human attention or love . . .”

“But,” I interrupted, “he was purring while I carried him from the desert.”

“Even mountain lions purr. Cats purr under stress or if they are content and comfortable.” Then she added, like an afterthought, “He may be a hybrid.”

“A what?”

“Hybrid. Once in a while a wild cat will mate with a domestic one. It’s rare, but it does happen. I must tell you, as well, that this work may get expensive.”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “I want you to do everything to save him.”

“You may wait in my office if you like. I’ll be back shortly to review everything.”

She returned in less than fifteen minutes, with a clipboard tucked under her arm. “He’ll pull through just fine,” she said. “He’s a tough kitty—comes from felines who survive in this desert against difficult odds. The x-rays show no broken bones. No damage to or­gans that we can tell. We cleaned the puncture wounds . . . should heal in a week. We’re injecting fluids and other medicines into him now. In two or three days he’ll be strong enough for vaccines.”

She paused, staring at me for a reaction. I swallowed to control my nerves.

“Doctor . . .” I hesitated to ask the question, fearing rejection. “May I keep him?”

She was clearly curious about a motive. “You need to know some things before making that decision.” And then she listed them: the law in Nevada that governed wild animals; the enormous patience needed to train them; the fact that they may return to the wild, regardless of human love and care.

And then she explained, “You realize that he won’t remain a cute little kitty forever. He’ll gain maybe twenty or thirty pounds. His claws will also grow, and he’ll need lots of things to scratch on. A cat post will help, but he could soon start on your furniture.”

“I understand,” I said, although the details were becoming a little worrisome.

But still I said, “I saved him. I’m going to pay to patch him up, make sure that he’ll have plenty of freedom to come or go.”

“Do you have other . . . pets?” Dr. Marg asked.

“No. And I was never a cat person. But this fellow is different. I would like to stay in touch with you and your staff, keep you posted on our progress.”

“Of course, and thank you. For us and medically speaking, this will be an opportunity to study a wild cat while he is in our care. For you, there is a list of what you need for the new arrival: First, find a strong crate to transport him, one that can hold, say, thirty pounds; never use cardboard since he’ll claw that to pieces in seconds.”

“OK,” I said, nodding. “But by the way, do you have any idea as to how he escaped and ended up in a cactus patch?”

“Most likely a pack of coyotes attacked his family. A grown bobcat can whip a single coyote with ease. But those brutes usually attack in pairs or as a pack. Coyotes possess an excellent hunting system. One or two will distract the largest victim, then the others attack from the sides. It seems that our little cat was shaken by a single coyote, who was trying to kill him that way. But then the attacker lost his bite—his grip. So the cat went flying into the cholla. No doubt the coyote waited for his prey to emerge, then finally gave up. No way would a coyote willingly enter a cholla patch. You know how dangerous those needles can be and so do coyotes.”

“I sure do. You can pull the needles out, but the sheaves will remain and cause a great deal of pain.”

Then we set the next day for another visit and agreed that he should be neutered during the several days he remained in her care.

Leaving the vet, I knew that a great adventure awaited me. Raising a bobcat would be no normal feat. But driving home, I also realized something else; something much more pressing. How would I tell my wife that I had just adopted a baby bobcat?

“How big will he get?” my wife, Chiaki, inquired with serious concern.

“A little larger than a house cat,” I replied.

“How much is a little?” she asked me knowingly.

“Maybe twice as much,” I confessed. “But,” I added, “I don’t think he’ll get that big.”

“Oh,” she said with no emotion.

My wife, who was born in Japan, was unfamiliar with bobcats. She thought it strange that a wild animal would be named “Bob.”

I had to explain that “bob” referred to the species’ normally truncated tail. Trooper’s tail, I noted, was longer than a typical bobcat’s, but not as long as one belonging to a house cat.

After a moment of silence she asked, “Suppose he bites someone?”

“Bobcats don’t attack people, not even in the wild. They are very shy. Like any cat, he may hunt rats, mice, birds, and rabbits. But if we feed him hearty cat food, maybe he won’t need to hunt.”

“I can fix him some chicken now and then,” she suggested with lukewarm enthusiasm, “and I’ll share the fish that I eat.”

“I’m sure he’ll like that,” I replied. “He’s really very cute. Big ears, big feet, and fuzzy face. The doctor had to clip his fur to treat the wounds, but it will get thick again just before winter. He purrs and is playful like any other kitten. Of course, he’s very curious.”

* * *

How does one begin to domesticate a baby wild cat? In my saga of the relationship between man and feline, it became my most interesting challenge.

First, I considered the environment my little friend once thought of as home, and what he might have learned before we met. His mother would have provided everything for him, from food to a warm and comfortable den for shelter. Bobcats, like all cats, are trained by their mothers in the art of stalking and hunting, as it is a path to their future survival. True, this is an instinct the cats are born with, but it is perfected for practical use by the mother.

After much thought, I concluded that Trooper’s mother was apparently killed by coyotes before he had the opportunity to learn much of anything. If she had survived the coyote attack, then she would have returned to search for her young. But the day I found Trooper I saw no evidence of that, no cat tracks in the dirt, which would indicate she had not been in the area. I did see coyote prints, easily identifiable by the extended claw marks. A bobcat would leave no such print, as their claws are retracted when they walk. Sleeping and playing had probably occupied most of his time. I thought this relative lack of education might work to my advantage. He had had little experience living “wild.” I guessed that his family had been training or hunting when they were ambushed by a pack of coyotes. No doubt his mother had put up a fight to give her kittens time to escape to the safety of their den. The evidence suggested that only Trooper, by a twist of fate, had survived.

So, at first, my job seemed simple. All I’d have to do is provide him with food, a safe, warm place to sleep, and supervision during play. (Play is essential to the development of most animals and it usually involves siblings.) Though Trooper invented many of his own games, which he alone enjoyed, when he and I played together, things often got a little rough. (I still have small scars on my arms, which were unintentionally caused by his sharp claws and teeth.)

Chi and I planned to impose some restrictions on Trooper when he was in the house, but could not agree on what these should be. Clawing on wooden furniture would surely be forbidden and climbing drapes a big no-no, as well. We knew what to expect from a spoiled child, but had no idea how a spoiled cat, especially a wild one, would behave.

That first day with Trooper at home, I was reading at the kitchen table, still trying to calm my nerves, while my wife cooked dinner. A quick glance towards the small bamboo grove outside our sliding glass doors confirmed that Trooper had us under observa­tion. The bamboo stalks moved from time to time, revealing the cat’s fuzzy face peering out.

Finally he broke from the bamboo and moved slowly to the pond. The goldfish swimming about captured his attention. How strange a picture it must have been for him. He had never seen fish before, nor a pool of water. There had been no rain in our part of the desert for months. As a kitten, the moisture he needed came from his mother’s milk and whatever he ate.

Trooper crouched low as he studied the fish. He reached out his paw and cautiously touched the surface. He withdrew the paw quickly, studied the drops of water on his fur, and then licked it dry. He repeated the experiment and the fish responded by darting about and breaking the surface with a splash.

What a wonderful discovery for the cat! He had found a large source of water and interesting creatures in it to play with.

* * *

Three additional months passed, and it had come time to visit Doc­tor Marg for Trooper’s checkup. After quite a struggle to get him into his travel crate, Chi and I loaded him into the car for the brief journey to the hospital. But before I started the engine, my wife hit me with a strange question.

“Did you read about the big cat?” she asked.

“What big cat?”

“It’s here in the morning Review-Journal. I brought it for you to read.”

I quickly read the article, which told of an eight-year-old girl reporting to her father that a “big kitty” was sleeping under the family car in the driveway. The father took his daughter by the hand and led her outside. There he froze. Stretched out on the driveway, enjoying the morning sun, was a mountain lion. They quickly returned to the safety of the house and phoned 911.

Police officers, news teams, animal control agents, and repre­sentatives from the US Department of Wildlife flooded to the yard to see this unusual visitor to Las Vegas. The lion was tranquilized, examined at the nearby wildlife hospital, and then released high in the wooded Spring Mountains west of town. Mountain lions, mostly young ones recently separated from their mothers, have occasionally visited the suburbs of Las Vegas but neither cat nor humans have ever been harmed.

When I started the car, Trooper began to growl and his crate rocked until we reached the hospital.

During the short trip I thought of how relieved I was to be caring for a young bobcat and not a cougar. My kitty was still, at least temporarily, a manageable weight and size.

* * *

While he would certainly grow over time, and consequently become more dangerous to cohabitate with, I always retained that image of the tiny bobcat kitten stuck in a cholla patch in the Mojave Desert. Trooper remained my friend, my companion, for over 19 years until his death, and I’ve never looked back.

Excerpted with permission from "Trooper: The Bobcat Who Came in from the Wild" by Forrest Bryant Johnson. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

By Forrest Bryant Johnson

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