Jim Schroeder rounded a bend in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in September, the side of his van grazing the tall grass emerging from the dense thickets of South Texas. Schroeder’s sister, Linda, and her husband, Bob Carroll, who were from Idaho, were seated in the truck next to him. They had come to this expanse of the vast 115,000-acre refuge near Austwell to search for alligators, so the group drove slowly, their eyes scanning the coastal scenery.
Then, as they rounded the bend, they saw him: a striking black cat that appeared to have an elongated neck, an odd, narrow head, and a long tail. The creature stopped, looked at them, and paused for a moment.
” What is this thing ? Schroeder said, stopping the truck. Carroll threw a camera at him and Schroeder quickly took a few pictures through the windshield. At that moment, the cat leapt into the undergrowth, disappeared in a flash.
Schroeder has verified the photos. Had they all imagined the unusual sighting? But there he was, a black cat diving into the bushes. He sent the photos to the rangers at the shelter, convinced he had witnessed something rare and unusual. A ranger named Laura Bonneau responded by email, polite but contemptuous.
“She said, ‘Well that’s a bobcat,” Schroeder said. “But I sure don’t think so.”
“We would swear in front of anyone that it was a jaguarundi,” Carroll added.
The jaguarundi is a cat at times red, usually gray, with a gangly body, stocky paws, a long tail and a slender, weasel-like face. Shy and stealthy, he is easily mistaken for a house cat and is only slightly larger, weighing around sixteen pounds. Jaguarundis eat rodents, lizards and birds. They can chirp, hiss and chat. The species is native to the jungles of Central America, with a range extending from northern Mexico to central Argentina. Overall, it is not threatened.
But that’s about the extent of what scientists know about jaguarundi. The cat’s elusive nature makes it difficult to study, and it doesn’t attract the same level of attention and funding as its more charismatic cousins, such as the ocelot or the jaguar. The few studies that have been done on jaguarundi tend to focus on Central America; Very little is known about the history of the species in Texas. One of the rarest and least understood animals in the state, the jaguarundi has become a litmus test for your opinion on the reliability of citizen sightings and the sometimes blurred line between science and cryptozoology – the study by ‘animals that might not exist.
In Texas, the jaguarundi is listed as endangered, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has only confirmed five sightings in the state’s history. The most recent dates back to 1986, when a road-killed corpse was spotted along a Brownsville freeway. More than three decades later, most experts are convinced that the cat simply no longer exists in Texas. It’s a similar story in Arizona, where a 2009 study “found no recent evidence of a breeding resident population.”
“For me, this is more of a public, psychological, or sociological phenomenon than the status of the animal,” said Jonah Evans, Nongame and Rare Species program manager at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Evans, formerly the state mammalogist, originally worked on the assumption that jaguarundis were abundant in South Texas before the 1920s, when humans began to encroach on their habitat and clear away thick, thorny brush. that cats call home. But the more he delved into the evidence (or the lack of it), the more Evans became convinced that Texas had never been a significant part of the jaguarundi range.
Unlike the ocelot, another rare cat from Texas, which has had confirmed sightings in large swathes of the state, the jaguarundi simply does not have a historic record in the Lone Star State. There are thousands of surveillance cameras all over Texas. According to Evans, state agencies and university researchers have conducted massive studies of trails and cameras looking for ocelots in the Rio Grande Valley, throughout what is believed to be the primary habitat of jaguarundi. . None of these efforts ever captured the creature on camera.
Yet every year Evans receives dozens of reports of people claiming to have seen a jaguarundi. He is not the only one. Reports abound on social media, and Pat Bumstead, director of the Canada-based International Society for Endangered Cats, hears of sightings in Texas almost every month. Most people remain fully convinced that what they saw was a jaguarundi.
“You wouldn’t believe the photos we receive,” Bumstead said. “It’s a fox; it’s a squirrel climbing up a tree! Frankly, I hope we find one, and then we can go looking for a yeti, or the abominable snowman.
Many sightings crossing Bumstead’s office involve animals that do not match the characteristics of a jaguarundi or come from areas where the cat’s presence is highly unlikely. But some reports seem more credible to him. These, Bumstead says, come from park rangers with a background in biology and include very detailed descriptions that match those of a jaguarundi. Others come from pastoralists who have worked their land all their lives and know what lives there. Jaguarundis have been spotted in the Sierra de San Carlos mountain range in northern Mexico, and individuals can travel over twenty miles. Is it really so unlikely that some have crossed Texas?
Michael Tewes, an expert in wildcat studies at Texas A&M’s Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, thinks so. This mountain range extends a hundred miles into Mexico, and most of the land between that country and Texas has been cleared for agriculture. It’s theoretically possible that a jaguarundi crossed the southern Texas border, but it’s a stretch.
As for sightings elsewhere in the state: “In recorded human history, there has never been a single jaguarundi found north of the Rio Grande Valley,” Tewes said.
So how do you reconcile the wave of reports with scientists’ confidence that there are no jaguarundis in Texas? The answer depends, in large part, on researchers’ tenacious belief that citizen observations are the least reliable form of evidence. An animal’s memories can become distorted once people start searching for photos online, and two very common species, the house cat and the bobcat, are both easily mistaken for a jaguarundi. More importantly, observations are typically not documented, reproducible, or verifiable. There are also plenty of websites with full reports of Bigfoot sightings, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to finding one. Rather than contributing to a wider understanding of Jaguarundi, the sightings become more of a kind of folklore.
But there are a few scientist-lawyers who remain open to the possibility of jaguarundis in Texas, in large part because of public reports. The two researchers from this camp who spoke with Texas monthly both work for nonprofit wildlife organizations.
“This whole idea [that jaguarundis don’t exist in Texas] is based on completely flawed reasoning, ”said Anthony Giordano, president of the Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES). “‘If they were there, we would know’, no! “
Giordano conducted field studies in the Big Bend area that were unique in their willingness to consider the plausibility of citizen observations. Ultimately, Giordano’s approach is to take the audience seriously. If a lot of people say they saw something, he said, maybe they saw it. Other areas of wildlife biology, such as ornithology, have a long tradition of using public observations to determine the range of a species. TPWD staff often talk to hunters to get an idea of the type of wildlife they see. And camera traps, argues Giordano, are not enough. Even in parts of South America where jaguarundis are more abundant, he says he rarely captures them on camera.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service took the viability of South Texas as a jaguarundi habitat seriously enough to produce a recovery plan in 2013, although, according to Evans and Tewes, it did little or nothing. progress over the past eight years.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, believes it is a mistake to declare Texas inconsequential for the jaguarundi’s survival. When habitats are fragmented, individual populations are disconnected from each other and become vulnerable. Even widespread species can decline quickly. The bighorn sheep, for example, was once widely distributed in the western United States. But as competition with livestock, hunting, and development shattered their range, their populations rapidly declined.
” Just because [Texas] is on the outskirts doesn’t mean it’s not prime habitat, ”said Robinson. “I don’t think we should write them off so quickly. “
Whether or not there are jaguarundis out there, lurking somewhere in the thorny brush brush, will not ultimately change the course of history. But for people who believe they have seen them, the experience is significant. As a discipline, science demands healthy skepticism. Folklore allows us to believe that the world maybe a little bigger than we think, and that a day trip to a wildlife refuge can turn into something strange and beautiful.
“I admit there might be a romantic element to me,” Giordano said. “But at one point, every scientist was a cryptozoologist.”
Evans, the TPWD’s rare species expert, is still not a believer, though he adds, “I’d be the happiest person in the world to be wrong about that.”