Pets, like humans, don’t expect the call of the wild to arrive in their faces.
Last summer, Kiwi the house cat, a one-year-old, all-black, adventurous female, made the unfortunate decision of crossing the road. An inside-outside feline, Kiwi probably knew to look both ways over the asphalt because she made it intact to the other side, as she had many times before in suburban Denton, Texas.
Denton is a haven for professors and librarians, a college oasis just north of the ever-sprawling Dallas metroplex. Kiwi’s neighborhood is the kind where you wouldn’t blink twice at a backyard chicken coop. Every lawn sprouts trees, canopies covering street lengths. A creek runs through it. The waterway abuts neglected fences, which in turn shield dilapidated sheds and woodpiles. Meanwhile, rodents, ducks, rabbits, and house pets run amok. If this doesn’t sound like a perfect wilderness for a carnivore, it should.
Kiwi probably sniffed around the grassy and shaded areas across the road from her home. She might have caught the smell of dead things as a sniffer dog sent to find her later did. Maybe she saw another cat charging towards her and reacted in disbelief as pets caught on trail cams often do when bobcats appear out of the ether. Pets, like humans, don’t expect the call of the wild to arrive in their faces.
Maybe Kiwi didn’t understand she could be a meal to another feline that outweighed her by only ten pounds. One sporting brownish-red fur with a white underbelly and short-cut “bobbed” tail, who shake prey so violently they snap necks. Their fury sends kitty collars and body parts flying.
That day, Kiwi lost her haunch in the carnage, which was what was found later. After hiring a pet detective, Kiwi’s owners learned what a lot of other pet owners have—that their verdant, creek-filled town hides what probably every large Southern metropolis harbors: dens of cunning, four-legged, opportunistic flesh-eaters, right under their noses.
Ian Finseth, a balding, mild-mannered professor of American literature at the University of North Texas, sat overseas when he got word from his house-sitter that Kiwi had not arrived home that night. He conferred with his wife Stephanie, also a literature professor, and their daughter. Step two was to call a pet detective.
Bonnie Hale has heard the surprise before. “What, a pet detective? They exist?” is a response she says she gets a lot. Hale, rail-thin, bookish, owning the voice of an aged stoner-rocker, has worked full time at finding pets for 13 years. October was the busiest she’d ever been. She did three pet searches in one day in November, a record for her. Autumn is her busy season, when a lot of predators stockpile. “It’s a bad time to own a pet,” Hale says.
Hale operates two sniffer dogs, both she trained herself. Bodhi, her most used, is a boxer mix, short, mocha-haired. Hale and Bodhi were only ten minutes at the scene searching for Kiwi, walking up and down the lush yards and sweeping trees in front of Finseth’s house, when Bodhi popped his head up. His eyes and ears jerked to the green space that a neighbor’s backyard opened into, a dense forest with a creek. “If I were a bobcat,” Finseth said, “I’d probably hang out there as well.”
Bodhi sniffed a couple more houses before Hale pulled the dog over to the green space near the creek. His ears stood at attention. “But I pay attention,” she says. “Dogs don’t have voices, but they can tell me all kinds of secrets with their ears.”
After 30 seconds of exploring the deep grass, Bodhi sniffed Kiwi’s hidden haunch. “It’s stuff you would miss with your naked eye,” Hale says. Once Bodhi taught Hale where to look, she bent over and got on her hands and knees, dug through the brush, and found the unlucky cat’s foot.
Given the dense cover, no human would have found the severed leg for a long time, but Bodhi’s nose located it from across the street. “There’s usually not much left at this point,” Hale says. Two days is the opportune time to locate a living, intact animal. After that, Hale usually finds pieces. “Closure is a big part of my job,” she says.
Their verdant, creek-filled town hides what probably every large Southern metropolis harbors: dens of cunning, four-legged, opportunistic flesh-eaters.
Urban bobcat and coyote populations are on the rise, despite all the factors that would seem to go against them. The animals were once confined to forests and wildernesses. Now as cities keep expanding, they encroach into wild cat and dogs’ habitat. They, in turn, make human neighborhoods their home.
Apex predators have probably lived in Dallas-Fort Worth for 40 years, says Julie Golla, a lithe, freckled, perpetually pony-tailed wildlife biologist who performed a radio collar study of Arlington, Texas’s bobcats, the first study of urban bobcats in the world. Golla spent two years researching a population of wild feline hunters that had been urban dwellers for generations. Her study helped show that there are two different kinds of urban predators: those old-hand bobcats who have survived in cities for decades and eat wildlife and avoid humans, and the new guard engulfed by sprawl, who are encountering towns and people and their pets for the first time. Golla says it’s this second type that causes trouble.
Golla captured, collared, and trailcammed Arlington’s bobcats. What she found was a high-density population living in a fragmented habitat surrounded by highways, houses, and inhospitable humans. “These bobcats do well,” she says, “and seem to share space because there is an abundance of food,” meaning squirrels and rabbits and unsuspecting ducks; not, as it turns out, pets. (Golla, a thorough scientist, also dissected their feces.)
Golla’s radio-collared bobcats followed human-made features such as bike lanes, high-tension wires, and railroads, which is why one of her collared males was hit by a train. Thus the creek in Denton, so scenic, is most likely a predator thoroughfare.
Part of the reason for urban predators’ success is that they follow their meal ticket. Squirrels, rats, ducks, rabbits, possums, raccoons, and mice now live in metropolises in abundance and are often reasonably docile. Also, few people hunt bobcats or coyotes in city limits, and it’s usually illegal to do so. What’s more, there are no mountain lions or bears or wolves to compete with. Golla says, “These populations have figured out how to make a good living in cities.”
To aid their urban invasion, bobcats, like coyotes, sleep almost anywhere. They dig beneath residential foundations, making every home a piece of potential predator territory. The cats are willing to snuggle close, living behind dumpsters and in sheds and greenhouses. According to Brett Johnson, an urban biologist based in Dallas, bobcats will bed down under houses and porches with homeowners who never know a wildcat is right beneath their feet.
Few bobcats attack humans, but they have teeth and claws and are experts at dismantling flesh. Attacks do happen, as with a man named Logan Ortolf in Plano, Texas, in 2016, who defended his off-leash dog and wound up in the hospital with a forearm ribboned by bobcat claws. Or DeDe Phillips, the 46-year-old grandmother in Hart County, Georgia, made famous when she fended an attack by a rabid bobcat, managing to strangle the raging creature with her bare hands, breaking a few fingers in the process. There are no reported deaths at the fangs of bobcats.
What’s clear, though, as anyone familiar with urban predators knows, is that bobcats and coyotes aren’t going anywhere. Somehow, in the last 40 years, the predators began scampering about urban areas across Texas, even in the middle of downtowns. Denton is a good representation of the merging of humanity and wildlife. In distant memory, rural space extended between Denton and Dallas-Fort Worth. But as wildland and farmland were chewed by development, the felines and canines moved in. On either end of Ian Finseth’s neighborhood, what used to be private, spacious wildland was bulldozed for housing. Since then, several citizens reported seeing things they would never have believed. And their pets started disappearing.
Later, in November, Hale arrives on-call for another missing cat in a North Dallas subdivision in McKinney with her sniffer dog. I arrive having driven across town as Hale unloads her dog. Bodhi whines like a worn belt fan to be let out. I’m not supposed to pet him. Hale straps on his chest harness attached to a 12-foot shock cord and dons a neon-orange vest emblazoned with Pet Specialist on the front.
She and Bodhi have driven to McKinney to find Alex, a male almost identical to lost Kiwi, all black with green eyes. Alex once enjoyed sleeping in windows and soaking in the afternoon. He went missing five days ago. “There’s a bobcat problem around here,” Hale says, “a big problem, too.”
The subdivision in McKinney sports all-brick houses with narrow, concrete streets and grass as brown as sand. The homes strike me as, at most, four years old. Skeletons of framing lumber line several blocks. Across from the neighborhood spans an open field with bike trails that slither into the distance.
Jenny, the blonde, fast-talking pet-owner in black Uggs, is probably the reason Alex escaped during a garbage haul. She walks with us with a clipboard, checking off houses to search. She’s taped missing cat fliers to mailboxes and telephone poles, as well as left fliers at the doors of neighbors. Lots of people mention when we visit that they’ve already checked their yards, lawn shacks, and garages for the absent feline. Even the mailperson who winds her way around the neighborhood brakes to say hello and ask about Alex the Missing.
“I’m kind of at my wits’ end,” Jenny says.
A neighbor in his 40s dressed in jorts answers the first door we visit, stiff-arming a toddler and letting us into his backyard, which is carpeted in cat turds. Hale lets Bodhi sniff the plastic shed, the garbage cans, and playpen. Bodhi rolls in the cat feces. “It’s marking behavior,” Hale explains. “He’s still just a dog.” But she jerks him up and says, “Okay, act professional.”
With this suburb so new, there are few places a cat could hide. The garages appear OCD-level organized, only a few ancient toys or derelict power tools. None of the new homeowners own piles of unmentionables. Tidiness does not a cat frolic in.
As we search, Hale instructs Jenny to walk along the hedges like a fellow feline and leave her scent for Alex to follow home. A Hail Mary, but that’s where Hale is on day six of a missing pet search. “I wish they would have called me earlier,” Hale sighs. “There would have been a much better chance.”
Back at the house with the cat turds, Bodhi’s ears stand up, cartoon-like. His body stiffens, nose points. “Tracking posture,” Hale explains. Passing over everything in the neighborhood as we search is a cold wind that washes from a nearby field newly tilled for condos.
On the ground we spy rabbits sprinting through almost every yard. Even from Google Maps, the satellite image accessed that week reveals empty fields that are now lots circling the subdivision. It is not hard to imagine a newly homeless bobcat chasing a bunny tail and finding declawed Alex, alone, bewildered, and vulnerable outside. He would be the laziest meal.
“John was pretty devastated,” Jenny says about her husband. “Alex was a lap cat every night for the last few years,” she says.
At another house, Bodhi dives through the bushes. A rabbit zips like a rifle shot from the other side. Bodhi noses rubble and checks under the construction port-a-john. Bodhi leads Hale under wedges of laid concrete, and inside sewers and sheds, tall grass, even under nativity scenes. “I hate doing this near Christmas,” Hale says, “because he gets mixed up with ornaments.”
The neighborhood fills with sleighs, animatronic reindeer nibbling grass, and highways of blinking lights. In one tree still hangs a Halloween garbage bag ghost.
I wish they would have called me earlier. There would have been a much better chance.
About ten years ago, Professor Stanley Gehrt realized no one was studying the urban coyote phenomenon, so he began what would be a decade-long project profiling their invasion. He and his team with Ohio State University have tagged nearly 700 coyotes around the Chicago metropolitan area, making his the most extensive urban wildlife study of its kind.
The very first night, Gehrt and his team radio-collared a coyote, who they’d tranquilized in a green space. They followed the coyote as she wore off her drugs through five municipalities in one night. They followed the collared canine in burbs, in dense city, through yards, over major roads. Right away, Gehrt realized that he and his team “were totally underestimating coyotes and what they could do.”
Gehrt has discovered that urban coyotes have adopted human qualities. Coyotes in cities will use human features like sidewalks and roads to delineate territory. Often home ranges are square in nature, like a city block. Coyotes will literally stay on opposite sides of the street. Generations of these canines have been born and raised among people. Gehrt is now curious how their behavior will change. Have they become more human? he wonders.
“Do urban areas naturally select for certain behaviors in coyotes? This is still an experiment,” Gehrt says, “one started by coyotes.”
One night, he followed that first radio-collared coyote as she prowled a subdivision. At one point, she hid in a field as three men strolled near, each with a dog on a leash. The men stood and talked and smoked cigarettes. The dogs used the bathroom and whined. Gehrt said the party of six were feet away from the coyote, and none of them, neither men nor dogs, knew she was there.
One coyote, labeled 748, raised a litter in Chicago’s downtown. The coyote denned on the top level of a parking garage. “That really opened our eyes,” he said, “to a city landscape we didn’t know functioned that way.”
The family unit, Gehrt said, is why coyote removal not only doesn’t work but actually backfires. First, it is notoriously hard to trap a specific coyote. Second, the den will split up, and the youngsters will go their own ways, make their own families. These young are more likely then to have pups sooner. By killing one adult, you’ve released perhaps six youths who can repopulate the neighborhood. Also, coyotes, when stressed, will have more kin. Coyotes are hydras. Or, as Gehrt liked to put it, “They’re like a lawn. If you keep mowing it, it keeps coming back quicker.”
Gehrt is sympathetic to people in Chicago and Dallas who find out an apex carnivore is living in parking garages. “I totally understand the fear or uncertainty, because this hasn’t happened before.”
For anyone who would like to see coyotes eliminated, Gehrt warned that there have been zero regulations on hunting coyotes outside cities, and this fact—and the resulting attempts at extermination—have done nothing to decrease their numbers. In fact, coyote populations have mushroomed. “Not only have we not lost them, they’ve expanded their range across the continent, without any federal protection,” he said. “Anyone betting against coyotes is probably going to lose.”
Hale switches modes. “Find bones,” she says, the command for Bodhi to track the dead. We depart the subdivision, following the sewer out past the busy road to an open grass field and creek that extends two blocks: the predator highway.
Bodhi hunts for ten minutes, picking up nothing. On our way back to the house, Bodhi tracks something into bushes and xeriscaped grass within throwing distance of Jenny’s backyard. Bodhi’s tail rises up like a question mark, and his nose fires into a plant. He paws, leaves bludgeoned away. He sniffs and snorts and grunts.
“Good job!” Hale shouts when she peers over. “Good job.” Bodhi has radared a dead bunny. Hale unholsters a lamb jerky stick and lets Bodhi devour it. “When he finds a pet, he gets a whole can of cat food,” Hale says.
Looking at the corpse, I am not sure what I am witnessing. It resembles stuffing disemboweled from a vacuum cleaner. The innards of a cotton gin. The whole animal exploded. Plants shadow the kill and conceal it from the sidewalk. Torn tufts leak out around the edges, and I detect the shape of an ear.
Bobcats don’t leave much, just entrails, sometimes, and fur. Coyotes seldom leave anything at all. When Hale finds a fresh kill so close to a missing pet’s home, she expects the lost kin had a similar fate. Hale tells Jenny to keep up hope; she’s had missing pets come back weeks after they’re lost.
Later she’ll admit to me, “That cat’s a goner.”
Anyone betting against coyotes is probably going to lose.
Author Barry Lopez writes, “Humans forget that animals are always testing their environment.” Fifty years ago, bobcats were roaming the countryside, broadsided by cars, poisoned by ranchers, sniped by sportsmen. A few competed with cougars and coyotes. Eventually, some got the idea to try life as a city slicker.
According to Golla, bobcats prefer prey that doesn’t bite or make a fuss as pets do. Rabbit is their favorite, though they have a taste for duck. She said that golf course owners wondered aloud to her if there was any way to get the wildcats to prey on windshield-besmirching geese. That hasn’t happened yet.
The most surprising thing Golla found was how concentrated the bobcat population is, something you wouldn’t expect in the wild. The bobcats overlap patrols, treating the neighborhood like a timeshare. There is plenty of prey to go around, so the bobcats literally spend all day eating.
The bobcats stay because of the same abundance of food that humans use, willingly or not, to attract songbirds and shade their homes. When you leave out birdseed or tree seed, you get rats and squirrels. When you get rats, you get cats and dogs, of a kind.
Golla says that the cats she studies are old-timers, who rarely eat pets or encounter humans because they know better. “When you see wildlife encountering new urban expansion, you get more conflict,” Golla says, “because they’re testing their boundaries.”
One such probe occurred in Richardson, where a bobcat poached a backyard Yorkie and came back later to the same house to snag the dog’s replacement. A security camera video of the twice-bereaved pet owner chasing the bobcat over his fence made the nightly news.
Animals test their boundaries as well as the available menu if it keeps changing.
Kelly Bryant moved to Denton, near Ian Finseth, two years ago. She is a realtor and University of North Texas alumna, soft-spoken, perpetually tired, and a mother of two. Bryant and her family loved their new neighborhood. “We would take family walks in the evenings,” she says, “and there’s all these trees all over and a creek that runs through and splits around. It’s a great neighborhood.” After moving in, she got used to seeing house cats outside, as well as a population of about 12 stray felines living in the storm drain nearby.
The houses that face Bryant’s back up to a creek that trickles by. And within easy walking distance is a fork in the waterway, a nexus of two wildlife corridors, both of which are filled with tall grass and reeds. Bryant once took her family on strolls here to see the critters, songbirds, and flowering trees. A few times, Bryant noticed cat remains. Then Fufu disappeared.
Fufu was an all-black cat, like Alex and Kiwi, and only a year and a half old. Friendly, curious, indoor-outdoor. “Fufu was extraordinarily friendly for a cat,” Bryant says. “When he disappeared, he met a bobcat and probably thought the damn thing wanted to be its friend.”
House cats vanish all the time. Car wheels churn them into roadkill, and people kidnap kittens. But a few weeks later, Bryant’s other cat Scat, an 11-year-old, declawed, white fluff, also disappeared. And the same week Scat vanished, Bryant’s next-door neighbor’s cat disappeared. And another neighbor found a weird, furry pile of poop in her backyard. Then all of Bryant’s neighbor’s chickens were massacred. And the alley cats in the storm drain stopped appearing.
Finally, two months later, Bryant adopted a third cat, Robert, who promptly walked outside one day and never came back.
Bryant went door-knocking all over her neighborhood, asking people if they’d seen her cats. That was when she started hearing firsthand stories of missing pets and predators. Since then, she’s noticed that at least once a week someone is announcing a missing animal on the Nextdoor app or on telephone poles. “The whole neighborhood is constantly posting about their cats missing,” Bryant says.
The full-circle irony of all this is that coyotes and bobcats are annihilating prey, which themselves are wildlife killers. House cats, feral and domestic, are responsible for shredding somewhere between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year. That’s according to a famous (perhaps infamous for cat-lovers) paper in Nature Communications, which made headlines just about everywhere in America in 2013. The controversy stems from authors Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra’s estimation of house cat numbers at 80 million, which, given that felines do not scratch a census, is arguable. But cats are predators however many they are. A single British cat named Tibbles doomed the Stephens Island wren to extinction after she sailed with her owner to New Zealand in 1894 and was let outside to hunt.
If Americans own 80 million cats, that’s one furball per three houses. They are more popular than dogs. That bobcats and coyotes have thinned out the strays and pets, which Bryant finds distressing, almost assuredly aids the bird population.
A simple solution: keep Felis catus indoors. Other reasons to keep furry loved ones home are that cats attack each other, territorial and mating tiffs leading to abscess-mounting wounds. Cats pass each other diseases, including FIV, the feline equivalent of AIDS. Cars flatten them; people steal them. Even PETA, the all-cat-protecting megaphone, thinks owners should all keep their felines indoors.
Bryant’s trouble with her pets was that they kept sneaking out. With two kids, a husband, and a career, it’s easy to miss a feline who lightning bolts from a corner, brushes past your leg, and escapes out the cracked door. Especially since the cats were habituated to the outdoors before bigger cats began stalking them. Bryant says, “I’m hoping to find a cat that is disabled so that they are less likely to fight to go outside.”
The most common reason for releasing pet felines is that it’s cruel to corral them indoors if they are meowing for the wild. But four-legged Death is cruel or at least indiscriminate. In some ways, coyotes and bobcats are fair and faultless in their hunting. Unlike Mr. Kitty, they do need the sustenance from their prey. They cannot settle inside a home, fisting string, rubbing pants legs, mincing a couch, staring languidly through a window. Because humans have morphed cats into part of the domestic sphere, they almost assuredly belong there now.
The full-circle irony of all this is that coyotes and bobcats are annihilating prey, which themselves are wildlife killers. House cats, feral and domestic, are responsible for shredding somewhere between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year.
When she was freshly mourning her housemates, Bryant looked into bounty hunters. But after calming, she decided against revenge. “I’m not going to do that. I feel sorry for them,” she says about the predators. What helped Bryant through her anger was realizing that around the time Fufu disappeared, two new housing developments sprang up, replacing a forest near the creeks. The coyote and bobcat housing market was squeezed. “I wish they would not develop the neighborhood any further and not destroy any more habitat,” Bryant says.
Near the creek fork and all over that area are elephantine trees and dense, mazelike bushes, an ideal spot for bobcats to live. And there are bones of cats around that Bryant has seen. Bryant no longer likes walking along the waterway that reminds her family of three lost pets. She once romanticized that creek.
“It’s really a pretty spot,” she said. “When we first moved in, I had envisioned us picnicking along the creek. I had really idealized that area and thought it was so nice to live near it.”