On an already-hot summer morning in south Texas, a mother bobcat (Lynx rufus) emerges from her den and performs a quick safety check. Sensing no signs of danger, she calls her three kittens to join her on the deck above their lair, where a water bowl awaits. Aside from the obvious advantage of a reliable source of drinking water, a well-trafficked deck may seem like a strange place for a shy animal like a bobcat to raise her young—especially in rural Texas, where bobcats are considered by many to be varmints and it’s legal to hunt and trap the animals on private land year-round. But low-slung decks and porches offer excellent protection from both the heat of the sun and the threat of larger predators, and the seasoned mother has learned that the humans who frequent this particular deck pose no threat to her family.
Bobcats are the most widely distributed and abundant wild cats in North America, with a range that extends from Canada to Mexico and an estimated population of between 2 and 3.5 million individuals in the United States alone. Unlike their larger relatives, which rely on more specialized habitat and prey, these 4- to 18-kilogram (9- to 40-pound) cats can utilize a wide variety of landscapes, and their diets are both diverse and adaptable. Rabbits, hares, and rodents make up the bulk of their prey, but bobcats are also powerful enough to take down young deer and other ungulates and nimble enough to capture much smaller prey, including insects. Because of both their abundance and their hunting prowess, the cats play an important role in their ecosystems, controlling the populations of a number of species that might otherwise go unchecked, including disease-carrying rodents.
While their remarkable adaptability has made bobcats more resilient than other feline species in the face of human encroachment, they aren’t immune to such threats. Habitat loss and fragmentation have taken a toll in recent decades, creating isolated populations that are less genetically diverse and more prone to inbreeding. But hunting and trapping pose the most immediate and growing threat. Trophy hunting for bobcats is currently legal in 40 states, including Texas, where roundup events like the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest offer large cash prizes for killing the most and the biggest bobcats in a 23-hour period. Additionally, the cats’ beautifully spotted coats have made them a target of the international fur trade. Since the 1970s, when CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protections made the commercial trade of larger cat pelts illegal, bobcat pelts have become highly prized. And as fur coats have grown in popularity among the burgeoning middle classes in Russia and China, demand for bobcat fur has skyrocketed. Since 2000, the average price for a bobcat pelt has grown from $85 to a high of $589, and the number of pelts exported from the United States has quadrupled, climbing to a high of 65,000 per year.
When conservation photographer Karine Aigner first started photographing bobcats on a friend’s ranch in south Texas in 2017, she knew most of the community’s human residents were more likely to see the cats as a nuisance—or a target—than as a species to be admired and protected. In the beginning, her only goal was to see if the cats might allow her into their world. But the more time she spent watching a fiercely protective mother raise her always-curious-and-sometimes-precocious kittens, the more she began to hope that showcasing the lives of these animals might change the way they are perceived and treated. “When you’re given the opportunity to observe wild animals on a more intimate level, you end up seeing that their lives are not so different from ours,” says Aigner. “They’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They teach lessons, and they mourn losses. I would love for people to see into the lives of these animals—and to realize that we’re closer to these creatures than we think.”
South Texas Brush Country
Over the course of three months in 2017, Aigner watched—at first through a window and later, once the cats had grown accustomed to her presence, from mere feet away—as a female bobcat successfully raised a litter of three kittens.
“She was an amazing mother,” says Aigner. “She was affectionate. She was caring. And she taught them lessons.”
Learning to hunt was the primary lesson. At the beginning of the summer, the devoted mother would set out in search of prey on her own each day, leaving her kittens behind.
To fill the hours until her return, the restless siblings would tussle and play, sometimes practicing their pounces on startled grasshoppers.
When the grasshoppers—or the heat of the day—wore them out, they’d retire to a tree to continue waiting.
Sometimes they waited for a long time.
But their mother always returned—usually with a meal.
At first, she brought them prey that was already dead. As the kittens got older, though, she started to deliver live meals.
To help them practice catching—and keeping—their food, the skilled predator would drop a still-wriggling mouse or rat near her trio of kittens and watch them scramble to claim it.
Eventually, she started bringing all three kittens out on hunts with her. On one such occasion, Aigner witnessed a lesson that was particularly difficult to watch.
While the two males in the litter were practically inseparable and almost always stayed close to both each other and their mother, the female was more independent and prone to distraction, says Aigner.
That day, while the young female was following a jumping insect instead of her family, her mother leapt through the fence with the boys and left her behind.
Once the kitten realized that she was on her own, she climbed up into a tree to wait for her mother’s return.
She waited all night. “The next morning,” says Aigner, “she was sitting in the dirt just crying, and crying, and crying.” As a wildlife photographer, Aigner had vowed never to interfere with her subjects’ lives. But as she listened to the kitten’s cries, her resolve was tested.
Moments later, the mother bobcat jumped back through the fence. “She stood there looking at me as if to say, ‘How dare you even think about interfering! This is how they learn.'”
The kitten, who immediately ran to her mother, spent the rest of the afternoon snuggled up against her under the deck. And that evening, when her mother set off to go hunting, the kitten was right by her side.
By the time Aigner left the ranch at the end of that summer, all three kittens were thriving and nearly ready to set off on their own. The next summer, she watched the same mother raise two more kittens.
This year, when Aigner returned to the ranch once again, the seasoned bobcat mother was still spending time near the house. But a younger mother was also present, along with four tiny kittens.
“This new cat, she hasn’t growled at me once. She’s completely relaxed around me,” says Aigner. While she doesn’t know for sure, Aigner suspects that the independent little female she watched grow up in 2017 has returned to raise her own litter of kittens—and that the older cat whose life she has chronicled over the past three years is now a grandmother.
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Karine Aigner is a freelance environmental photojournalist, photography educator, and photo editor with nine years on staff at National Geographic. Her photography focuses on the intersections of people and wildlife, and the conservation issues that surround them. Aigner connects youth to their natural environment through Kids Conservation Photography Workshops, and also leads tours and workshops around the world. Her work has been featured in National Geographic, Nature Conservancy Magazine, Audubon, World Wildlife, BBC Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation and various other publications.