A real-life story about keeping a wild cat as a pet
Dorothy, Hubert, and their pet bobcat
The proprietor of the Club Bar in the 1960's was the son of a homesteader, a part time rancher, and a full-time character. He once owned a pet bobcat that was sometimes used as an attraction at his small and dingy tavern. The bobcat grew up around people, but was never really tame. I remember that Hubert was always careful to keep it on a short leash. If you look closely at the pictures you can see the silver-colored metal chain that he used to maintain control. Metal was required because a bobcat can chew through a leather or rope leash in only a few minutes.
So, what exactly is a bobcat? From Wikipedia we learn that a bobcat is about twice the size of a house cat, up to 40 inches long and weighing up to 35 lbs. It's one of the most abundant wild cats and is found throughout the continental United States, Southern Canada, and Northern Mexico. The bobcat hunts twice a day during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, seeking rabbits, rodents, and even small deer. It naps through the brightest hours of day and the darkest hours of night. The bobcat has a tawny coat with dark spots, ruffed cheeks, tufted ears, and a short ‘bobbed’ tail that gives it its common name.
Hubert got his bobcat from the Van Ness boys. They were true sportsmen, happy to shoot at anything at any time, for any reason (or no reason at all). They never worried about little things like game licenses or hunting seasons. I believe their dogs treed the pair of bobcats while they were out ‘harvesting’ an out-of-season deer. They killed the mother cat to obtain a valuable pelt (It’s always been legal to take bobcats for their fur) and her kitten was captured alive just for the challenge. The mighty hunters weren’t really interested in mothering a furry little ball of claws and teeth, so they quickly turned another dollar by selling the bobcat kitten to Hubert.
Hubert and Dorothy were fond of animals and they always had a bunch of dogs and cats around their place. Some were purebred retrievers with papers and some were strays that had been dumped on our country road and just needed a home. Dorothy could never resist a baby animal. She even told us about raising a pet skunk that she had found when she was young (it was ‘de-scented’ by the local veterinarian). She knew how to care for a motherless kitten and the little bobcat soon learned to take milk from a baby bottle. As it grew, Dorothy switched it over to cat food supplemented by table scraps and the bobcat thrived and grew into an adult with a beautifully patterned coat.
Hubert was an accomplished dog trainer whose Labrador Retriever, Serge, won awards at field trials, and his German Shepard mix, Bobo, did amusing tricks for the bar clientele. For example, Bobo would pick up a fifty-cent piece from the floor on Hubert’s command. The coins were supplied by customers, but Bobo brought them to Hubert who then dropped them in the till!
Hubert wasn’t as successful when it came to training the bobcat. It would tolerate being handled by Hubert, but not by the general public. And it gave the other animals at their house good reason to stay clear. He often brought the bobcat to the bar and it was always amusing to see the slashing claws come out to play when an uninitiated drunk tried to pet the 'pretty kitty'.
My personal encounter with the bobcat came when I was in second grade. My family lived about a mile and a half from our rural elementary school and my older sister and I often walked when the weather was good. On this particular day, Hubert happened to come along in his four-door Chevy sedan shortly after school let out. He lived a quarter mile past our house, so it wasn’t too big a surprise when he stopped and offered my sister and I a ride. He told us to climb in the back, so we settled in with my sister on the left, and Hubert stepped on the gas.
As the car gained speed, the bobcat suddenly appeared from where it had been crouching in the front passenger foot well. We had no warning at all and the cat was definitely not pleased to see us. It perched on the back of the bench seat and glared, hissing and yowling occasionally as we tried to press ourselves through the seat back and hopefully avoid being sliced to ribbons. It was the longest one-mile ride I ever took. And Hubert didn’t seem to be in any hurry as we rumbled along the gravel road.
When we got to our house, my sister reached cautiously for the door handle furthest from the bobcat and gently opened the door. She didn't want to make any sudden move that might trigger a bobcat pounce! We slid ever so slowly across the seat and then leapt out to blessed safety. It was only after getting out that we realized it had all been a set-up. The bobcat was on a short enough lead that it couldn’t have climbed into the back seat and Hubert was laughing uproariously at his little joke.
The bobcat lived with Hubert and Dorothy for only a few years. It grew less cuddly and more aggressive as time passed. When a playful or irritated house cat leaves a mark it's annoying, but a full-grown bobcat is actually dangerous. A wild animal simply isn’t suited to be a house pet and Hubert often showed the marks to prove it. He had to use an increasingly firm hand to maintain dominance and Dorothy gave up trying to handle the bobcat at all. It spent more and more time alone, on an outside run that gave it twenty yards to pace back and forth. The sad end came one day when the unattended bobcat got tangled in the chain, and choked itself.
I doubt that the bobcat could have been returned to the wild. Without its mother’s training it probably wouldn’t have hunted successfully. Perhaps it should have been taken to a zoo or a nature preserve, but that was a different time and place. The nearest zoo was far away and giving up on his exotic pet probably never occurred to Hubert.
Even though it scared me as a child, I still feel sorry for that half-domesticated wild cat. It always seemed unhappy and out of place. I feel sorry because, despite Dorothy and Hubert’s good intentions, the bobcat definitely didn’t have the kind of life it deserved.
Author's note: ▼