Endangered Ocelot Seen in Arizona

February 24, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Officials from the Arizona Fish and Game Department have confirmed a sighting of one of the Southwest’s rarest wild cats in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona.  Earlier this month a man was outside in his yard when he noticed his dog barking at a large cat that had climbed into a tree.  Realizing the animal was something truly unusual, the man called the Fish and Game Department.  When a department officer arrived on the scene the cat was identified as an ocelot, a species very rarely seen in the wild anywhere in the United States.

Ocelots are found throughout undisturbed areas in Mexico, Central America, and the northern part of South America, where they have adapted to life in both dry brush-lands and tropical rainforests.  Originally their range extended into the Southwest United States as well, but today ocelot sightings north of the Mexico border are extremely rare.  The ocelot was listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act in 1982.  Until this month there had been only one confirmed ocelot sighting in Arizona since the 1960s. 

The specimen seen recently in the Huachuca Mountains appeared to be in good condition, and was unharmed by the dog that chased it up a tree.  The Fish and Game Department officer who identified the animal inspected it from the ground to see that it was in good health, but for the cat’s own safety chose not to risk attempting to capture or tranquilize it to conduct a more thorough health survey.  Once all people and dogs had left the area, the treed ocelot eventually climbed down and went on its way unharmed

From a conservation point of view it can be hoped the Huachuca Mountains ocelot was a naturally occurring individual, which might even be part of a breeding population in the United States.  This is quite possible, because while the species is certainly very rare there is a strong possibility Southwest ocelots may be more common than recorded sightings would suggest.  Because they are shy, solitary, and secretive wild ocelots are not often encountered by people even in parts of their range where established populations are known to exist.

However there is also a possibility the ocelot from the Huachuca Mountains backyard could be a former pet released into the wild by its owner.  The illegal pet trade is one of many pressures on ocelot populations in Central and South America, and some ocelots taken from the wild as babies end up being sold to the pet market in the United States.  As these wild animals grow older, larger, and more dangerous their owners are likely to let them go.  It is possible the Huachuca ocelot could be such a former pet that has managed to survive in the wild.

The Arizona Fish and Game Department recommends that anyone who sees an ocelot in the wild should not approach the animal and should immediately notify authorities.  Ocelots are not dangerous to an adult human, but every time one is spotted presents a valuable chance for conservation officials to learn something about the species’ distribution and behavior.  Records of sightings like that of the Huachuca ocelot can ultimately help ensure the species a future in the US by alerting conservationists to its presence. 

As for the Huachuca ocelot itself, the cat would probably never have been seen at all if it weren’t for the dog that chased it up a tree.  The ocelot now is most likely still living in the Huachuca Mountains, a rare representative of one of the most elusive large mammals found in the United States.

Photo credit: Tony Hisgett

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