Biologists were called to the Veterans Affairs building in Lincoln, Nebr., last week to evict an unusual visitor. A 20-pound bobcat somehow found its way into the VA but was quickly caught in a cage and relocated back to the wild. While that's unlikely to happen in Greater Cincinnati, the namesake of Ohio University's mascot is back on the prowl in Southwest Ohio.
Squatting in a dry creek bed at Shawnee Lookout park in North Bend, Nature Interpreter Paul Seevers moves leaves aside to discern if the animal track before him was made by a bobcat.
"You're looking for a couple of characteristics," he explains. "One, there will not be any claw marks on the tips of the toes. They retract their claws when they are moving. It's typically a circular pattern, so it's going to be as wide as it is long if not wider. And the third thing is you have the four toes, then the foot pad behind the toes and relative to the size of the toes, the foot pad is fairly large - almost like you could fit the four toes inside of the foot pad."
Bobcats are native to Ohio but were extirpated from the state by the 1850s, meaning while they weren't extinct, there weren't any here. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reports the wild cat species began repopulating in the mid-1900s, but sightings are more frequent in the south and eastern parts of the state.
Great Parks of Hamilton County first became aware that bobcats were in Shawnee Lookout a few years ago when a kit was struck and killed by a car. "A couple years before that, they were seen on trail cams at the Fernald Preserve so we knew they were in the general area but we had never confirmed them at Shawnee Lookout," Seevers explains.
He says they've also been spotted at Miami Whitewater Forest and Campbell Lakes Preserve.
In mid-September, Conservation & Parks Manager Adam McCosham found fresh bobcat tracks a short distance off a trail at Shawnee Lookout and posted the image on the Great Parks Facebook Page.
Seevers says bobcat numbers are seemingly increasing in recent years, though he points out trail cam usage has also increased. "Bigger numbers don't necessarily mean bigger populations, it just means more people are looking."
He points out sightings dropped after the bobcat was removed from the state's endangered and threatened species lists in 2012 and 2014 respectively, probably, he theorizes, because less people were looking.
Car strikes are another indicator used to estimate animal populations. "Some researchers say the car strike numbers have not necessarily increased, so they think that, yes, they are coming back but their populations might not be increasing as much as we originally thought," Seevers says.
Data from the ODNR's Division of Wildlife suggests there were nearly 500 verified sightings in 2017.
The ODNR in 2018 considered reopening a bobcat trapping season but those plans were indefinitely put on hold after public opposition to the proposal.
Seevers says there's no reason to be afraid of bobcats.
"On a scale of one to 10, our concern for bobcats should really be about a zero. One, the are nocturnal; two, they are elusive; and three, they're going to know you're there long before you know they're there and they're going to skedaddle. They're not going to stick around to see what a human is doing. They're very skittish as well."
For those same reasons, you're unlikely to spot one. Plus, Seevers adds, they're good climbers so they may be hiding out in trees while you're looking at ground level.
The medium-sized cats are typically uninterested in long dinner chases.
"When they hunt, they kind of just wait for things to come by and then pounce. A lot of research shows that they rarely chase anything much more than say, 60 feet. You think of this graceful, elusive cat stalking through and chasing things down, but they really just sit and wait and pounce. But if you ever look at your house cat, that's kind of what they do, too.
"It's kind of neat to think about bobcats being this beautiful wild animal that you might never see - I hope we do - but you just might never physically see one, but you can still see some of its behaviors in our own domestic cats. It's kind of an interesting link."
Bobcats usually are between 15 to 30 pounds and stand a few feet tall, they're smaller than coyotes for example. They have short, soft, gray to brown fur with black markings that puffs up around their faces.
"Lynx and bobcat are often confused for each other," Seevers says. "Lynx have tufts of fur on their ears, bobcats don't have that. The other thing is their tale is only about four to seven inches long, so it's a shorter, stubby tail."