Officially, he is known as bobcat No. 15, but you can call him Sweetwater.
The young male wandered into a trap on the west side of Tucson on Feb. 11. Now he’s a test subject in a research study of bobcats living at the fringes of the community, where paved streets and housing developments meet the open desert.
Sweetwater will spend what could be his first mating season with a tracking collar around his neck, though researchers don’t expect that to slow him down much.
His species seems to do quite well in the Tucson area, which might have one of the highest densities of urban bobcats in the U.S.
“They’re not just on the edges,” said wildlife biologist Cheryl Mollohan, lead investigator for the study. “They occur throughout most of Tucson.”
Yet little is known about the habits and habitat preferences of these urban bobcats. Researchers hope to learn more about where they hunt, rest, give birth and raise their kittens. The information they collect will be used to develop strategies for reducing conflicts and increasing appreciation for these other Arizona wildcats.
“The purpose of this study is to tie together humans and bobcats, because that’s what we have here,” Mollohan said. “I think it should be a point of pride for Tucson that we have what we have here.”
Working under a permit from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the research team has placed tracking collars on nine bobcats — five females and four males.
The females are of particular interest, Mollohan said, because they are responsible for raising the young and ensuring the future of the species.
“All bobcat moms are single moms,” she said.
Giving them names to tell them apart
The cats were captured along the east side of the Tucson Mountains between El Camino Del Cerro and 36th Street.
Sweetwater got himself caught in a wash in Sweetwater Preserve, roughly 1,000 feet from the nearest homes.
The cat thrashed and growled in the trap as his captors approached, but he was soon sedated with an injection from Dr. Ericka Johnson, a veterinarian from Tucson’s Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital who is assisting with the study.
The almost-17-pound animal was still growling faintly about 10 minutes later when Mollohan removed him from the cage and carried his limp body to a nearby mat to be examined and fitted for his collar.
The all-volunteer research team is mostly made up of former state wildlife biologists.
Kerry Baldwin worked for Game and Fish for 30 years and served as the department’s chief of education before he retired. Now he is a coordinator for the Bobcats in Tucson Research Project.
He said the cats are given names as well as numbers — usually something in reference to where they were caught or in honor of someone important to the team — so the researchers can more easily tell the animals apart. Along with Sweetwater, there’s Jack, Bunny, Hal and Minnie, to name a few.
“We have found it far easier to use names to talk about individuals,” Baldwin said. “Our brains sure seem to remember names better.”
Samples collected to study diet, health
Before turning the collared cats loose, the team collected blood, feces, fur and DNA samples, then weighed and measured the animals down to the lengths of their famously short tails.
“All bobcats have unique markings, and the tail is the most distinctive thing,” Mollohan said.
The blood is being tested for diseases, including a virus now spreading among bobcat populations in Mexico.
The fur is being put through a mass spectrometer to tease out chemical clues about the animals’ diets.
“It not only tells you what they’re eating but in what proportions,” said Allie Burnett, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona who is using hair samples to study the eating habits of coyotes and javelinas as well.
Mollohan said almost all urban conflicts involving bobcats involve attacks on people’s chickens or small household pets, so it will be useful to get a sense of just how often that sort of thing really happens.
The research team has also set up a website — bobcatsintucson.net — to survey residents about their wildlife interactions and collect reports of bobcat sightings from around the community, not just in the Tucson Mountains study area.
Mollohan said they have already received a number of reports of bobcats raising their kittens in people’s backyards, which seems to be “a fairly unique aspect of this population.”
Sightings have come in from across the Old Pueblo, including such far-from-the-fringe locations as Prince Road and Tucson Boulevard, 22nd Street and Pantano Road, and the parking lot of Sun Tran’s northwest bus maintenance yard near Roger and Romero roads.
Welcoming place for urban wildlife
Mollohan said bobcats and other wildlife tend to thrive in Tucson thanks to its network of green spaces, natural washes and other travel ways that allow animals to safely move from the open desert to the urban core.
And it doesn’t hurt that so many residents are happy to have wild animals in their midst, she said.
Gale Sherman is one such Tucsonan. She lives along the golf course at Starr Pass, and she loves her frequent bobcat visitors.
“I’m always thrilled when I see a mom and her babies,” the retired children’s literature specialist said. “And I’m excited about this study.”
She’s so enthusiastic that she invited Mollohan and company to set traps on her property in hopes of roping some of her own neighborhood bobcats into the test group. All they ended up catching at her place were javelinas, so Sherman had to settle for the chance to serve as the team’s official photographer earlier this month, as researchers trapped their last few cats.
The study is being conducted under the umbrella of the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale. Funding was provided through the Game and Fish Department’s Heritage Fund, which uses Arizona Lottery proceeds to pay for conservation work around the state.
Mollohan said nearly all of their $33,000 Heritage Fund grant went to buy satellite tracking collars at about $2,300 a pop.
The pricey devices transmit the cats’ movements several times a day and can be used to pinpoint the animals in the field using a hand-held antenna. The collars can be remotely triggered to fall off. Otherwise they are designed to open on their own and drop away when their batteries run out after two years or so.
If a cat stops moving for four hours or more, the collar will send out a signal indicating a possible mortality.
Researchers hope early losses were a fluke
The study got underway in November when the first crop of nine cats were collared.
Mollohan said they didn’t expect to be setting traps again so soon, but three of their original test subjects have turned up dead in the past two months.
Though all three collars were recovered, only one of the cats’ remains was ever found. It’s unclear how they died, but the researchers have reason to suspect that humans were to blame.
Mollohan said such a high mortality rate is “not sustainable” at a population level, but she thinks what they’ve seen so far is a fluke that doesn’t reflect what’s really going on with urban bobcats in Tucson.
Baldwin said there is no evidence that the collars had anything to do with cats’ deaths.
“Obviously, this level of mortalities so early in a project is of concern. You never want to lose a collared animal,” he said. “This just might be an artifact of living in the urban habitat with people, roads and situations where bobcats and humans are in conflict. Time and the study may help answer our questions by allowing us to compare urban and wildland mortality factors.”
The three collars were refurbished and returned to the field earlier this month.
Over the course of a week, the study team put out 20 live traps at various spots where bobcats had been seen.
Then the traps were checked early each morning and cleared of unwanted captives, including javelinas, young bobcats too small to be fitted with collars, or cats that had already been caught. One female managed to get herself captured twice more after the first time she was caged and collared.
Sweetwater was the second-to-last bobcat to be added to the study. Mollohan thinks he is probably about 2 or 3 years old, based on his size and the condition of his teeth.
After being poked and prodded, the cat was put back into the cage to keep him safe while the drugs wore off. The collared cat was feisty and fully awake when Mollohan finally opened the cage almost an hour later. He bolted through the door and disappeared up the wash in a flash of spotted fur.
Baldwin and Mollohan saw Sweetwater again two days later. He was coming out of someone’s yard as the researchers collected the last of their traps from the cat’s namesake preserve.
“He trotted across the road in front of me at about 25 yards without a care,” Baldwin later wrote in an email to those who took part in his capture. “He was alert, tail was flicking and all movement was healthy (and) cat-like.”