Lost. I get lost sometimes. Not that it bothers me. Many times I intentionally lead myself astray so I can wander the unseen, the unexplored, the oft forgotten. When it becomes important I will find my way home. Eventually.
Only this time my adventure into nowhere stemmed from a series of wrong turns, not a sense of “let’s see what’s out there…”
Near that ethereal line that delineates the United States from Mexico, I sat upon some rural road unknown to all but local maps, a path whereupon even nature lovers failed to pass by on their search for rare beauty. No great gasping groups of trucks and SUVs poking and prodding their way beyond. No cars full of wide eyes hoping for a brief sighting, hoping for another notch on their life list. No ogling, awestruck, mouths-agape naturalists in a heartfelt quest to find the exquisite hiding amongst nature’s few remaining refuges. For that matter, not even locals bouncing around inside rusty, squeaking pickups leaving a cloud of dust in their wake as a load of hay or feed slides around in the bed.
No, this time I was utterly lost and utterly alone.
I sat glaring at a map for a while before realizing I had no idea what road I was on or how I had arrived there, so a piece of paper with a bunch of squiggly lines on it meant nothing. Instead of worrying about the situation or fearing a Deliverance moment, I rolled down the windows, sipped my water, and looked and listened.
And then I found a rare, endangered, magical thing.
Its patterned coat made it all but invisible. Were I not prone to staring off into space looking for what might be there, I would never have seen the wee bit of movement as it shifted in its perch.
I rolled the car forward ever so slowly and only for a small distance to get beyond two trees that blocked my view.
Peering through brush so thick one might think it a figment of imagination, a feline rested comfortably in the treetops. No busy to-and-fro vehicles interrupted the moment. No planes overhead drowned out the sounds of the environment. While I sat like a stranded motorist on the roadside, this mystical creature slept comfortably with a branch for a pillow.
Then it woke, turned and stared.
The cat gazed at me through half-shut eyes for but a few moments, after which it slowly looked about, pausing frequently to stare into places I could not see. For almost 30 minutes I watched it, a lazy afternoon manifest in the unworried face of this critically endangered ocelot subspecies.
Fewer than 100 Texas ocelots (Leopardus pardalis albescens) survive in the wild, at least as far as we know. About half that number lives within the confines of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in far South Texas. The remainder seek shelter in brush a wee bit north and south along the Gulf Coast.
Once known throughout Texas and parts of New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas, not to mention the northernmost reaches of eastern Mexico, less than 1% of their original habitat remains available to them. The rest: Fragmented, modified for farming and ranching, covered with houses and roads, and otherwise turned into a deadly menagerie of torturous obstacles.
At the height of the fur trade people killed ocelots at the rate of 200,000 per year (it took 13 adult cats to make a single coat). They continue facing illegal poaching, retribution hunting for poultry deaths, and even capture for domestication, yet habitat destruction is their worst enemy. The ocelot struggles to survive as a true wild species. But most especially the Texas ocelot, a subspecies pushed to the brink of extinction—and held there.
Great efforts are underway at federal and state levels to increase the brush habitat this species needs to survive. Plans are in the works to create safe passages under roads; high-speed vehicles kill these animals at an alarming rate. Even ranchers are learning the $2-per-acre income from cattle can increase fivefold if they return the land to its original form and allow eco-tourism and hunting (of legal game such as deer).
Throughout our encounter I never flinched, never took my eyes off the cat, never moved to get out of the car for a better view. I even ignored having a shorter lens on the camera as I feared the creature might disappear if I looked away long enough to load better glass. Besides, just seeing one—especially one without a collar—meant a great deal more pesonally than any picture would convey to others.
Finally the ocelot stood, arched its back, and vanished into the shadows. I stared after it for some time longer, its coat providing the ability for it to remain unseen even when nearby, yet nothing moved in the brush save the occasional bird. If it was still there, it wanted nothing more to do with me.
I needed more than an hour and a half to find my way back to the highway. Partly because a maze of nameless roads kept me circling the same plot of land and partly because I moved slowly, always watching, pausing often, hoping to see another of these gods of the brush. I knew I might never have another chance.
[cross-posted to The Clade]