I arrived in Texas burned out on conservation. I had been studying orangutan habitat loss in Borneo. The palm oil companies are infringing on orangutan habitat through logging and burning. On top of that, El Niño dried out the land allowing the fires to burn out of control. It’s an environmental disaster threatening orangutans with extinction. The carnage devastated me. I saw injured and ill animals and orphaned babies everywhere. For many, there were no forests to go back to, and the population at the rehabilitation center overflowed.
On my hours’ long flight, with the help of a couple of glasses of wine, I mulled over the consequences of abandoning my research and giving back the grant money. I was no longer certain that I could take the suffering I saw in the field. With a drink on board, walking away from my career as a field biologist sounded relaxing and appealing. I could start a yoga studio, or enroll in culinary school. Downward dogs and pastries can’t break your heart.
I spent a couple of days near San Antonio at a spa resort I couldn’t afford, but sorely needed. The yoga and the amazing food, coupled with some hiking and bird watching, patched up my soul enough that I was able to reconsider.
I picked up my long-term rental car and drove out to the wildlife refuge near the Mexican border. I needed to get my bearings to start this phase of my research on habitat destruction. I would spend it studying ocelots.
Ocelots are spotted wild cats about the size of a medium dog. In the United States, their range is limited to the Lower Rio Grande Plains and Valley. Agriculture has replaced the shrublands, diminishing ocelot habitat to small patches that can’t support animals for a long period of time. Males migrate to new territories and die on the roads.
Texas had begun recovery efforts, and I had come here, in part, to study if it would help. It was early days yet, so this would be baseline data. A small population of ocelots called the wildlife refuge home. It was a great place to start.
The biologists I met there were sharp, and I looked forward to working with them. Paul gave me a tour of the refuge and showed me their system of camera traps. I also got to see how they baited the live animal traps. Traps allowed them to place radio collars and track some of the cats on the refuge. I was impressed with their data so far. Angela took me to the new wildlife crossing sites, essentially large culverts under the road. The sites would allow animals to move from one patch of habitat to the next in safety. I set up camera traps of my own near these sites and at other areas of prime ocelot habitat in the region.
So far, I hadn’t seen an ocelot. I reviewed the refuge’s camera trap photos, but I also hoped to spot them with my own eyes. Ocelots are most active at dawn and dusk, so I lost some sleep in this pursuit. I saw thousands of birds, plenty of deer, coyotes, peccaries, and the occasional fox, but it was a few weeks before I finally saw the animal I had come to study.
My first sighting was outside the refuge, in the headlights of my car at dusk. I swerved just in time, narrowly avoided hitting the cat I was here to research. I caught a quick glimpse as the animal darted across the road. I hit the pedal and the antilock brakes kicked in. Adrenaline flooded my system, and I felt sick, as I realized how close I had come to killing it. This was the essence of the problem here. Despite their small numbers, it was too easy to hit ocelots on the road.
I pulled over and turned on the hazards. I hopped out with a pair of low-light binoculars and scanned the area just in case, but as I expected, it was gone. Inside the thick patch of brush by the road, it was completely invisible.
My second sighting was under the worst possible circumstances. Paul called, and asked me to meet him at the refuge.
“Bad news,” he said when I arrived. “Someone called in a dead ocelot on Highway 186. I’m headed out if you want to take a look.”
“Right,” I said. “Male or female?”
“Don’t know yet. Happened about 5:30 am.”
It was 7:00 am now. We got in Paul’s SUV and drove out to the site. He slowed when he spotted the dead cat on the side of the road. It was a small sleek male. The stripes and spots contrasted starkly with the graveled shoulder. He didn’t wear a radio collar.
“Sure looks like a vehicle strike,” Paul said.
“Sure does,” I agreed. My mind flashed back to the body of the orangutan I had seen in Borneo, beaten and killed as a pest, for looking for food on a plantation. This wasn’t intentional like that, and I knew firsthand how it could happen, but the end result was the same.
I helped Paul load the animal into the vehicle on a tarp. We drove it to the vet who completed the necropsy. As we suspected, he confirmed that it was a vehicle strike.
In the wake of my near miss with the previous ocelot, this male’s death hit me hard. It was even possible that it was the same cat.
We believed there were only around fifty ocelots in Texas, and cars had killed a half dozen animals in the last year. The wildlife crossings were being built so slowly, and development in the region continued. Would it be enough? The peace of the yoga studio called to me again.
That evening, the group went out for dinner and drinks.
“How do we keep doing this?” I asked the others. “Some days, I just can’t handle it, and I want out. How do you wrap your head around watching the demise of a species like this?”
“It is like watching the locomotive advancing on the baby carriage,” Paul agreed.
“But we are all they have,” Angela said. “That’s it. There is no one else out there for them.”
I nodded. I still wondered if it was enough.
Then Paul said, “We’re super heroes. Remember that when it gets tough.”
I took another few days off in San Antonio to clear my head again. Disconnecting from my thoughts helped, but it was a small bucket of water on the fire burning my soul.
I came back feeling a little better. Over the next few weeks, I got several hits on my camera traps, and the refuge team radio collared another animal. This was a female that they had collared previously, who had managed to slip it off in the brush.
As my time in Texas wound down, I went out to visit my camera traps again. I popped out the cards, downloaded the data, and reset them for one last round. I spent the rest of the day reviewing the photos.
As always, there were lots of deer and coyotes, but there were five shots of ocelots. I looked at reference photos to figure out which cats these were. Ocelots have unique coat patterns, like a fingerprint, so we could easily identify them from the pattern. I identified four, but the last one didn’t match.
With growing excitement, I showed the photo to Paul and Angela. They agreed that this was an unknown cat. It was small, so it might be a new kitten. I went out with the team when they set up the live bait trap in the area the photo was taken. Day after day, nothing happened, but they didn’t give up. Identifying the sex and getting a tracking collar on it would be important.
I had gathered my baseline data at the refuge and was three days away from leaving when they trapped the kitten I had spotted. I went with them, eager to see it. It was one true privilege of field biology to see a wild animal like this alive and up close outside of a zoo environment.
It was a female, and she was healthy and well nourished. They sedated her and placed the collar. Then we monitored her until the drug wore off and she scrambled out of sight down the trail. There were high-fives all around.
In the next couple of days, I collected my camera traps, analyzed my remaining photos, and packed up. I’d be back later in the year for follow-up.
As I drove back toward San Antonio, the young ocelot I’d helped to find gave me hope. Maybe I could keep doing this. That fragile population needed all the caring human beings it could get to counter the danger they were facing. Paul was right. We’re conservation super heroes and sometimes that feels really good.
Catherine Brown has been published in The Oakwood, The Offbeat, Havok Magazine, and 2 Elizabeths' print anthology, Love and Romance. She was a runner-up in The Offbeat's Flash Fiction/Prose Poetry contest in Fall 2016 and placed tenth in Writer’s Digest’s Annual Writing Competition in the Genre Short Story Category in 2018. She resides in the Seattle area with her husband and their large orange cat.