Retired state Environmental Police Officer/administrator and practicing raptor rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway phoned last week and left an interesting message well after I had already launched into a piece on the Patriots’ scintillating Feb. 5 Super Bowl LI win — that record comeback for the ages from which Pats fans are still tingling to the core.
Ricardi, who lives on rural Poland Road near the Ashfield line, was driving Route 116 east approaching the Burkville Covered Bridge when an interesting, midday, roadside wildlife sighting unfolded before his eyes. He thought it would be of interest to me, given all the recent discussion here about Franklin County bobcats and the possible influx of Canada lynx. There, bounding across the road in front of his vehicle was a stressed, running doe, nervously looking back, tongue hanging from her mouth, visibly alarmed and exhausted. On the other side of the road, hot on her trail, was a large pursuing bobcat. So large, in fact, was the cat that, according to the trained wildlife observer, Ricardi, “You could have at first glance mistaken it for a cougar. I first mistook it for another deer.”
Intrigued once he understood precisely what he was watching, Ricardi pulled to the side of the road and reached for a pair of binoculars he keeps handy as the doe headed toward South River. Most interested in the cat, Ricardi focused in and got a splendid look when it wisely decided against crossing the road under obvious human observation. Instead, the creature sat down like a household kitty-cat in front of the parlor woodstove, watched the deer briefly, did a 180 and headed for cover in the pines from which it had flushed the deer.
“There’s no question in my mind that that cat would have caught the doe had I not been there to interrupt the chase,” opined Ricardi. “That was a helluva big bobcat, and it was only 50 yards behind.”
My, how that informed opinion from a sage observer got my wheels spinning about the possibility of bobcat deer predation. It’s an especially ripe concept nowadays, when leghold trapping is a distant memory and cat hunting, too, has gone the route of Edsels and DeSotos with hound-hunting forbidden. Like Edsels and DeSotos, there are still a few cat hunters around, though now they’re relegated to still-hunting and calling them into range with rabbit squeals and other prey distress calls. Still, cat hunters are a dying breed to say the least. Thus our bobcat population continues to grow and, because mature cats now survive longer, they can grow larger ... and potentially more dangerous to deer.
It is no new revelation that opportunistic bobcats will await young, unsuspecting deer and occasionally kill them by pouncing off a ledge or tree limb. Plus, there’s always the possibility of random bobcat kills of newborn fawns in their brushy nests. But one mature bobcat chasing down and killing a mature deer? Hmmmm? Why not?
If a coyote or domestic dog can chase down and kill deer, then why not a big bobcat, which is faster and more athletic than canines, be they domestic or wild? And were you to place a healthy 40-pound bobcat in a steel-cage with a healthy 50-pound coyote, which do you suppose would emerge from a battle? In my opinion, the bobcat would prevail every time.
Please, don’t interpret this discussion as a blood-lust, clarion call to thin out bobcats for the benefit of our deer herd. No, that is not my intention. Predators and prey have forever coexisted in the same ranges, and smart wildlife experts will tell you prey is smarter, healthier and overall superior where predators are routinely pursuing and killing them. Look it up if you don’t agree. It’s a fact of nature.
Speaking of wildcats as we await Arizona lab results to confirm a summer cougar attack on a horse in the Quabbin-periphery town of Petersham, cougars have been in the national news of late, showing up in a couple of respected literary magazines. First a heartfelt “Orion” piece about the necessity of Floridians learning to live with their burgeoning panther population, then a similarly sympathetic “New Yorker” article from Greater Los Angeles, where cougars are up against long odds of preserving a sustainable breed of cat, so to speak. There, in the ever-shrinking forested hills overlooking LA, where freeways prevent a good genetic mix from faraway disperser males, an in-bred population has put the cats in peril.
Anyway, when I read such pieces and think to a future I may or may not be here to experience, I suspect the time will come when our farmers and hikers and bikers will have to learn to be wary of occasional cougar encounters, similar to how we must these days be wary of bears, which were not here when I was a South Deerfield lad, fishing streams, climbing mountains and patrolling bottomland woods and swamps.
While there are those who’ll tell you it’ll never happen, I am in the “never-say-never” camp. To me it seems the rewilding process is here, and has been underway for decades.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.