Conserving a Ghost Cat

A black and white trail cam shows a Texas ocelot walking past, its coat is speckled and spotted.

I step into the thick humidity typical of the fall season in South Texas. Even early in the morning, my shirt immediately adheres to my back, sticky with sweat. Despite the heat, I wear long sleeves and pants, a hat, thick gloves, and heavy tall boots—all necessary protection in the Tamaulipan thornscrub forest I’m heading into. The thorny plants create a dense, spiky wall of vegetation—and many of the creatures who reside therein are similarly spiky when accidentally disturbed . . . hence the snake boots and gloves.

As I set out from the town of Harlingen in the direction of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the neatly arranged geometry typical of so many small Texas towns gives way to homes set farther apart and back from the road. Soon, they are intercut with tracts of low-lying thornscrub and remnant patches of coastal prairie. My eyes scan the horizon in front of me, ever wary for the sudden appearance of resident wildlife. My mind flashes back to the dark, early morning when I encountered a large adult alligator casually making its way across this road—a sight not soon forgotten.

I turn at the sign for Laguna Atascosa and, out of habit, immediately ease off the accelerator. While the speed bumps along the long entrance to the refuge intend to deter the lead-footed, I crawl even slower. Soon, a yellow road sign faded by the Texas sun announces why I am here, and why I am taking such care: “Ocelot Crossing.”

Leopard of the Valley

The Lower Rio Grande Valley (known simply as “the Valley” to many Texans) is a unique meeting place. These landscapes have held importance to many cultures over time, from the Coahuiltecan to the Comanche, Lipan Apache, and Carrizo Comecrudo, as well as the Spanish, Mexicans, Texans, and Tejanos. It is also an ecological confluence zone where the neotropical realm meets northern temperate biomes along the southernmost Texas coast. It is home to a fascinating mix of landscapes and species: rare ocelots live alongside common bobcats, five species of endangered sea turtles make their nests on nearby beaches, and a stunning array of birds stop over each season during their hemispheric migrations.

A yellow sign reads "ocelot crossing" and has an image of the cat. Below it is a "speed limit 25" sign.
Cars are the leading cause of death for Texas ocelots. Photo by author, 2020.

Ocelots do not look like a species expected to be living on the fringes of society anywhere in the United States. They are marked with a distinctive chain-rosette pattern that Ernest Thompson Seton described as “the most wonderful tangle of stripes, bars, chains, spots, dots and smudges . . . which look as though they were put on as the animal ran by.” Many people express surprise and disbelief to learn that the strikingly marked cat calls the southernmost tip of Texas home. “They live here?” is one of the most common questions I hear when I give public presentations across the state.

Ocelots have long called these landscapes home, roaming as far east as Louisiana and north to Oklahoma. The cats still occupy a range stretching from South Texas to Argentina, preferring dense forests for protection, denning, and hunting. While ocelots occupy a diverse range of habitats throughout their range, the Texas cats exclusively reside in pockets of Tamaulipan thornscrub. They are habitat specialists, which poses specific challenges for their conservation and protection. The remaining ocelots north of the border are encamped within the protected landscape of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and a second, separate population lives approximately 20 miles away on private ranch lands. In total, an estimated 60 to 80 cats hang on for survival in Texas.

Arriving at the refuge headquarters ready for a day exploring remote corners of thornscrub in search of these cats, I jump into a white U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pickup truck alongside an intern. We slowly bump down dusty backroads shielded from public access by rusting gates that creak loudly in protest each time I open one to make way. This day is, by South Texas standards, in the cooler-weather period ideal for monitoring. During this time, humane traps are strategically set deep in the thornscrub in the hopes of temporarily catching a resident cat. In conjunction with year-round remote camera trapping, this trapping is an important part of monitoring the population at the refuge, which number between 12 and 20 cats in a given year. It affords biologists an opportunity to assess the cat’s health, record vital statistics, take genetic samples, and affix a temporary GPS monitoring collar. The cats are sedated and handled briefly before being brought safely out of twilight and released back to the spot they were captured.

A black and white trail cam photo shows a Texas ocelot up on its hind legs playing with a plant.
Even wild cats like to play. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2020.

We reach a location with a trap set, and I press into the thornscrub to see if the effort was successful. My shirt, hat, and pants are immediately snagged in the thorns. A branch scratches my cheek, and I screw my eyes closed, fearful of an injury. I feel threads in my shirt give way as I press forward. It is slow going, and it becomes difficult to see as we move through the brush. I keep an ear out for the warning rattle of a perturbed snake. The trap remains undisturbed, so we close it for the day to avoid catching any animals active during the daylight hours.

The traps in total yield no ocelots on this day, which is not surprising. This is part of the challenge of conserving a ghost cat—their spectral images show up on night-vision camera traps strategically placed around the refuge—but rarely does the cryptic cat put in an appearance in the flesh. Hanging on by a toehold, they have every reason to be cautious.

Spotty Chances of Survival

Up close, ocelots are disarmingly small. Ranging from 15 to 30 pounds, they are bigger than a large housecat, but not by much. Owing to their small size, the cats prefer proportionally sized prey, opportunistically dining on rodents, small mammals, birds, and lizards. Ocelots are not conflict animals, meaning their natural behaviors do not drive them into fraught relationships with landowners in South Texas, who tend to run beef cattle on working lands—a far too ambitious-sized meal for a small wild cat! Rather, ocelots encounter direct and indirect pressures from their human neighbors that significantly impact the viability of their populations.

How do we incorporate the unseen and very wild into our collective circles of concern?

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ocelots were eliminated from much of the Texas landscape as part of larger, widespread predator eradication measures. These killings were not so much due to direct conflict with human communities as arising from a wholesale idea that predators—all predators—were impediments to the settlement and “taming” of the West.

Today, ocelots are listed as an endangered species in the U.S. and the IUCN Red List, both of which afford the cats some protections. Now it is largely indirect, unintentional anthropogenic pressures contributing to the loss of these cats. The Rio Grande Valley is experiencing unprecedented development fueled by economic growth, leading to loss of native habitat at an alarming rate to agriculture, urbanization, and industrial development, including proposed liquid natural gas export facilities and an experimental rocket launch facility run by SpaceX. This is a very urban set of challenges for a decidedly non-urbane cat.

The threats to ocelot survival in Texas are related directly to the loss and fragmentation of their thornscrub habitat. Lack of habitat creates natural limits on how many cats can live on a landscape. Worse yet, the lack of connectivity between habitat patches limits the ability for individuals to move safely on the landscape and for the flow of genetic diversity at a population level.

A sleepy ocelot wakes up from sedation, eyes half closed as it's held by a white person.
A juvenile male ocelot trapped and released at Laguna Atascosa. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2020.

The expansion of road networks, and an increase of traffic on those roads, is also a direct result of expanding development. The leading known cause of death for ocelots in Texas is being hit by a car. These cats find themselves hazarding to cross in the dark of night, darting across to sometimes disastrous ends.

I am among the lucky few who have had the opportunity see an ocelot in the wild. My chance came during a successful trapping day at Laguna Atascosa. On that day, a juvenile male ocelot was caught and then prepared for release. As the cage opened, the cat bounded out, his spots camouflaging him in the tall grass in an instant. As the cat disappeared in little more than a rustling of the tall grasses, I felt fear sweep over me. I irrationally wanted to call out after him, “Stay off the road!” I felt helpless, knowing that within a year he would be moving away from his mother to establish his own territory—and with that would come many challenges.

Ocelot Crossing

The biologists and ecologists working to save these cats focus their efforts on restoration—of cats and lands. The project will require genetic restoration: from introduction of individual cats from viable populations in Mexico to newer strategies like artificial insemination that can bolster genetic diversity and resilience.

Tamaulipan thornscrub must be protected, restored, and reconnected into viable corridors in order to support ocelot recovery. Without these efforts, there is not space for the population to grow into and to reconnect. This is no small feat, necessitating a community of experts in soils, botany, and ecology. Sourcing and growing the plants has not proven to be an easy task. This initiative also involves a complicated array of land protection arrangements, from conservation easements and cooperative agreements with private landowners to the acquisition of lands to expand the federal refuge.

A sign reads Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge with an image of a Texas ocelot.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge sits at the most southern tip of Texas. Photo by author, 2018.

Restoring corridors will connect cats to new territory—and to one another. The cats must have safe passage in these corridors to avoid meeting their fates on the sides of roads in the dark of night, and this requires specially designed underpasses for ocelots. To date, a series of 15 of these underpasses have been installed on roads around the refuge at a cost of $8 million. When images of ocelots using these crossing were released to the public in 2020, the response was overwhelmingly positive. These crossings work to ensure safe passage for animals and safety on the roads, and they enjoy significant public support.

It is a landscape-level, multiplayer game of chess. Unlike most of my colleagues, I am not a biologist, ecologist, or geneticist. I am a cultural geographer and social scientist by training, and my challenges are a bit different. Days in the field like this are crucial to what I do, as I work between scientists on the ground and stakeholders, policy makers, and the general public. At the heart of my work is building public awareness of the presence of the cat: to influence behaviors of people that may result in negative outcomes for cats, to garner support for public measures like the construction of road crossings, and to foster public support for prioritizing the need for landscape restoration alongside other needs like economic growth and scientific exploration.

Rarely does the cryptic cat appear in the flesh. Hanging on by a toehold, they have every reason to be cautious.

While these cats are incredibly charismatic, they remain quietly tucked away from the eyes, and heart and minds, of the public. How do we incorporate the unseen and very wild into our collective circles of concern? How do we balance care for the last vestiges of wild places with economic priorities? Ocelots challenge us to consider what happens to the species that are not of the Anthropocene but very much live within it—to develop multispecies communities that embrace those that require distance and space. It asks us to prioritize the needs of others who cannot advocate for themselves and to place investment in restoration and restitution alongside economic needs and wants. It asks us to admire from afar, selflessly, without seeing.

In the twilight, my eyes scan the thornscrub lining the road as I slowly drive away from the refuge at the end of a long day in the field. I imagine the cats creeping just out of sight, going about their ocelot business. As I reach the main road I stop, and a truck crosses in front of me with such speed that my car rocks on its wheels. At that moment, I sit on top of one of the underpasses specifically designed to afford the cats safe passage under this stretch of road—and I have never been so grateful for them.

Featured image: Texas ocelots are rarely seen in the flesh. A trail camera captures an image of this notoriously shy cat. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dr. Shari Wilcox is the Senior Texas Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, where she leads the organization’s ocelot conservation program as well as many other initiatives to conserve, protect, and restore threatened and endangered species across the state. Shari is the past associate director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was “The Animals’ Guide to History: A Conversation with Stephanie Rutherford and Shari Wilcox” (August 2018). Twitter. Contact.