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Cats of New Mexico

By Larry Lightner

Last updated on Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Here in New Mexico we are blessed with at least four varieties of predator felines, and I believe there is the remote possibility of a fifth type roaming secretly in the Southwest New Mexico bootheel.

The smallest species of cat that inhabits our state is one you would never suspect of being a vicious killer of wildlife, but it is, nonetheless. I do not know its scientific name, so I will just call it "Fluffy", or the common house cat. It is one of the primary reasons why there are not more coveys of quail around. Fluffy is a very efficient killing machine, and besides quail, it will regularly prey on young rabbits, songbirds, and small reptiles.

Last November, I spied a jet black fluffy on the side of Bear Mountain at least three air miles from the nearest dwelling. It appeared healthy and quite wild.

I have called in more than one fluffy cat while predator calling. The experience that caused me the most trauma happened way back in 1961 in eastern Pennsylvania. I was on my very first week of using a mouth call. I was trying to sound like a dying rabbit. It was 4 A.M. in the morning and about 12 inches of snow blanketed the ground. I had been standing against a tree for about ten minutes when I felt something brush against my leg in the dark. After my body came back down to earth, I looked down to find a large cat brushing back and forth against my leg and purring for all it was worth! No, I did not shoot the cat.

The next largest cat in our state is the bobcat. It is in the genus Lynx, and its formal name is Felis Rufa. It weighs in at 15 to 33 pounds on average. It has stiff fur which is valued for clothing, rugs, mounts, etc. and makes it somewhat valuable and sought after. It feeds on rodents, small reptiles, rabbits, birds of all sizes, and an occasional deer. I have eaten bobcat and found that it is not to my liking.

I have had one or two encounters with this cat. My first happened in 1971 on the Mojave Desert in California. My baby brother and I were on a hunting excursion, and I stationed my brother behind me and somewhat off to the right with explicit instructions to guard my blind side.

Well, after five minutes or so of squawking on a mouth call that was supposed to sound like a jackrabbit in the throes of death, I got a weird feeling that I should look behind me over my left shoulder. I was startled to see a large bobcat padding silently toward me at the distance of six feet! Now I had read that this variety of critter was downright mean and could lick ten times its weight when it got a notion to. This fact was now in the forefront of my mind as I swiveled my head forward and checked my rifle. In seconds I turned and aimed at the cat which was now crouched to pounce on yours truly and only a scant three feet away! It was about to spring on me, I thought, as I fired at the moment it moved. The critter fell inches from my rifle muzzle.

To this day, I can still see those yellow-green eyes staring at me, quite unafraid and saying I am going to eat you!! This is what I call a close encounter of the first kind. Baby brother never even saw the critter.

Another encounter happened just two years ago near Silver City. A distraught lady called to solicit my help. It seems some sort of critter had crawled under her fence and slaughtered all of her exotic ducks. It was a sickening sight; ducks lay dead and uneaten everywhere. They had been killed for the sheer joy of killing. I figured that a stray dog was the culprit. A chow dog had been seen previously doing this very deed.

However, I did some investigating and found some strands of hair snagged on the fence. The color was right for the chow, but they seemed finer than dog hair. So I took some home and on a hunch I checked the pelt from the before mentioned California bobcat. It was a perfect match. Armed with this new found info, I took call and gun up behind said lady's residence. In less than five minutes the only pot bellied bobcat that I have ever seen, came in. I ended his adventures and sure enough, the killing stopped for good.

The next largest variety of New Mexican cat is reputed to live in the northern extremes of the state. It is a kissin' cousin of the bobcat - the lynx. Its formal name is Felis Lynx and is also in the family Feladae. Its size is about one third larger than the bobcat and can weigh 22 to 44 pounds on average. I have never encountered nor seen a lynx in the wild. Its pelt is said to be quite valuable for the same reasons as its smaller cousin. It feeds on birds, rabbits, small mammals and deer. It, too, is supposed to be a pretty fair fighter when it has to be.

The next cat in line is the good old cougar (also called mountain lion or Puma). Its formal name is Felis Concolor and is also in the family Feladae. It is the second largest cat found in North America, weighing anywhere from 77 to 220 pounds and can attain the length of nine feet from nose to tail tip.

A surprise to me, I found that this critter emits a sound an awful lot like a big house cat. It feeds on primarily on deer, but also on rabbits, birds, an occasional elk, domestic livestock, its little cousin Fluffy, dogs, and an occasional coyote. I have seen lions move into a valley one year, and by the next the deer herd is all but gone. They can roam quite close to towns, and as I reported earlier in a previous column, they have been seen within Silver's city limits. I have previously related my encounters with this feline, so I will not repeat them here. I will say that I find them to be quite good eating.

The fifth cat of our fair state has now been officially documented as being recently seen in the Pelloncillos Mountains southwest of here. I speak of the Jaguar, the proper name Leo Onca. It is the largest of North American felines and can weight 220 to 350 pounds. This is one big kitty!! It can attain a length of longer than nine feet tip to tip. And I read that it is one bad killing machine. I have never seen one in the wild, nor do I wish to unless there is some distance between the two of us, and I have a very accurate firearm in hand.

The Jaguar eats just about anything it dang well wants to, but usually it feeds on the same thing as the cougar. I read that it roars, snarls, growls and gives deep throated grunts. It sounds quite fierce to my way of thinking.

A friend of mine has an outfitter friend down in southeastern Arizona. It seems the dude was out tracking a big lion with his hounds a couple of years ago. Only the lion turned out to be a big male Jaguar which the hounds cornered.

The location of this rare event was the Coronado National Forest, less than 100 miles from Silver City. The cat was cornered, and the hunter was taking pictures of it when the cat charged him (something that a self-respecting cougar will not do). The only thing that saved our man from being a cat burger were his trusty dogs. No, he did not kill the Jaguar, but settled on just getting away with his own good hide. I saw the photos of said cat, and they were quite impressive.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the incident and came to the conclusion that it would be no big feat for a wandering Tom to take the notion to follow the mountain chain up from the boot heel to the crossing at Steins, then travel north to the Burros and ford the river and head southeast, all the while never leaving the mountains or hills. Not much of a trip at all considering that cougars have been radio tracked over twice that distance in New Mexico.

Several years ago Rod Chandler and I were scouting the south side of Burro Peak when we came upon a really huge cat track. In fact, Rod commented that it was probably the largest that he had ever seen. We just figured it to be one heck of a big lion track, but what if . . . Yeah well, I always said that I was a hopeless romantic.

Anyway, if they were willing, which they are not, I would bet that the folks living down in the bootheel could tell us some stories about Br'er Jaguar.

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