Bobcats are Everywhere
Two years ago Christine Clement looked out of her office window at the Connecticut Historical Society and spied a bobcat sauntering across the lawn, not 50 feet away, in broad daylight, like it had a membership. It would not be the last time the feline frequented the “wilds” of Hartford between Asylum and Albany avenues. Clement says she has seen it a handful of times, once when she was outside having lunch. The bobcat, acting much like its domestic cousins, did not acknowledge her presence.
Last fall the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection live-trapped the animal in a wire cage, along with her kitten, on the society’s property, tranquilized and radio-collared mom, and let them go the next day. She is one of nearly 90 bobcats collared statewide, part of a two-year study of the species. She weighed in at 18 pounds; males can reach 40 pounds.
Every four hours the GPS collar documents the location of this “society cat”— and momma sure gets around. She has been to the Mark Twain House during the day, Elizabeth Park at night, and both day and night at the Hartford Golf Club, the University of Hartford and Mount Benedict Cemetery, among other urban environs on either side of the Park River.
“They are certainly far more adaptable to urbanization than we previously thought,” says Jason Hawley, a DEEP wildlife biologist who is leading the ongoing study. “There used to be this idea that bobcats required wilderness, unmodified landscapes, but they are extremely adaptable; In fact, there may even be a preference for some level of urbanization and suburbanization because that’s where there are more prey species for them, such as squirrels and rabbits.”
An earlier DEEP study of the stomachs of road-killed animals revealed that the species’ diet in Connecticut consists mostly of squirrels (43 percent), rabbits (20 percent) and deer (10 percent). Not normally scavengers, bobcats will feed on fresh road-killed deer in the winter, Hawley says, as well as taking down smaller deer on occasion. He adds that one of the best places to find squirrels and rabbits is in suburban backyards.
Until fairly recently, there also was a widespread belief that bobcats were “seldom seen”— DEEP’s website uses those words. Another stereotype shot to hell. At a recent presentation for the East Haddam Land Trust, DEEP wildlife biologist Paul Rego asked the roughly 100 attendees to raise their hands if they had seen a bobcat: more than half had.
Robert Comtois sees them in the eastern part of the state where he lives and also in Hartford, where he works. He is one of the licensed trappers who have volunteered to help the DEEP catch bobcats so the state can examine and radio-collar them. Comtois has nabbed six so far for the study, all close to his home near the Rhode Island border, but in February he began setting live traps in Hartford—and in the most unlikely places, such as culverts beneath I-91 and I-84. Although he had not caught one in the city at this writing, his critter-cams have documented the species taking subterranean shortcuts to get to their hunting grounds. One hangs out near the MDC sewage treatment plant in south Hartford, less than a quarter mile east of I-91.
“They are traveling from one small eco-zone to another and using culverts to avoid crossing the highways, as well as to keep out of sight,” Comtois said. “They’ll go after pigeons or set up around birdfeeders; there’s plenty of protein around for them. They don’t get rattled, they’re pretty much fearless.”
Paul Fusco has seen bobcats often in wild places all around the state. The DEEP wildlife biologist and photographer reports that they aren’t the least bit afraid of him: “I’ve had one walk right past my car and when I opened the door to get a photo of it, it was right in front of the car. It turned around and looked at me and then continued on, just walked away, like it didn’t care what I was doing.”
Fusco, who took the photos for this article, added: “People send [the DEEP] photos from all over the state — bobcats in their back yard, bobcats sleeping on their lawn, even walking across their deck. Bobcats are very unconcerned. They just go about their business. If they see you, they’ll look at you and continue what they are doing.”
What bobcats are doing most often is looking for food and they are not considered a threat to humans. Rabid individuals have on very rare occasions attacked people. Even before the DEEP study began in 2017, it was clear that the species was doing well and expanding its territory south and east from northwestern Connecticut, according to Hawley, who said that bobcats now inhabit every city and town in the state. He pegs their population at between 800 and 1,000 individuals.
The species has been protected in Connecticut since 1972; before that the state offered a $5 bounty for a carcass. New Hampshire and Rhode Island also protect them, but they can be hunted and trapped in the rest of New England and in New York. Vermont reports that some 20 to 30 animals are taken there annually. Several years ago, pelts were fetching more than $100 apiece.
Could a season be established for them here? DEEP officials don’t rule it out. What they hope is that the study, which may stretch into a third year, will help the species thrive even more.
“We are learning how these animals are adapting to highly urbanized landscapes and the information will help us to conserve the species by, for example, preserving travel corridors and connectivity between suitable habitat,” Hawley said.