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  • Writer's pictureKen Campbell

Soggy Bottom Cats

When someone first visits Soggy Bottom Farm, they see an idyllic farm setting with acres of meadow and a picturesque barn/farm-building complex surrounded by a Pacific Northwest Forest. Chickens, sheep, cows, and pigs come to mind as likely animals to be found on the farm. Indeed, if one looks, they probably will see all of these animals. There is hardly anything about the place that causes one to think of: “cats.”

But in fact, cats have a presence at Soggy Bottom. Inauspiciously inconspicuous these cats exist outside the perimeter of one’s awareness and would go overlooked if not for somebody pointing out the aura of the beast that lingers behind the bush and on the game trail. It is this ethereal presence that gives status to their existence at Soggy Bottom – a status that goes from the ordinary to the remarkable to the mystical.


Laura

Laura is an ordinary house cat. She came to the farm uninvited soon after Jay, Ellen, and the boys moved in 12 years ago. It is estimated that she was 1-2 years old when she arrived. She began her stay by moving into the barn which served as her home-base for 3 years. Jay was happy to have her there for no other reason than for rodent control. Despite her semi-wild origins (or maybe not), she was a friendly cat who sought human contact and petting.

Laura maintained residence in the barn because she was incompatible with one of the dogs at the farm house. But that dog left the farm in 2015 and Laura gradually shifted her home base from the barn to the house. As new dogs came to live at the farm they came as puppies.


Laura accepted the pups and as they grew, she and pups established an easy companionship that continued as the dogs became adults.


To this day, Laura continues a lifestyle that makes maximal use of her acceptance at the house and her proclivity to spend time outside. She sleeps in the house but spends some nights out and about; she goes in and out as she pleases. She eats the food provided in her dish at the house but also hunts outside and supplements her diet with wild rodents. Laura seems to be an extraordinary hunter and, like all domestic cats, she brings her catch to the house for display. Although studies indicate that the animals killed by domestic cats that have free access to the outdoors consist of 60% to 70% small mammals; 20% to 30% birds; and 10% amphibians, reptiles, and insects, those of us who live on the farm think Laura’s catch is heavily slanted to small mammals with very few birds. It is only on rare occasion that Laura has been seen with a bird carcass.


Laura is a survivor. Soggy Bottom is blessed with a plethora of predators, four of which are known to prey on domestic cats, i.e., coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls, and bald eagles. We know that these predators target the farm animals from the number of chickens that we lose and from the occasional lost lamb. But Laura has successfully managed to maneuver through the predatory gauntlet for 12 years. None of us who live on the farm know her strategy for eluding these predators. During the day, she obviously uses the dogs to keep the predatory beasts at bay. But at night, when she is out on her own, how does she avoid the lurking coyote, the stalking bobcat, or the silent-flying owl? Although on normal days, inside the house and out, Laura does not demonstrate the stealth and quickness attributed to felines in general, at night when outside she must rely on these characteristics as well as the innate wiles and secret ways that are built into all cats as she navigates through the nocturnal dangers. Using her extensive outdoor experience, she has fine-tuned these attributes for life in her current farm setting.


So, in addition to her role as the official house cat, Laura’s ecologic status on the farm, is as a meta-predator. She not only hunts, kills, and eats the farm’s many small mammals but is herself the prey subject of the farm’s wild predators, which she has so far avoided.

Except for some few times when people have gathered in the farm house and Laura demands attention from a selected individual - no one knows why she chooses a given person for attention - Laura exhibits an inauspicious presence on the farm. Outside of the select visitors with whom Laura connects, few others would characterize Laura’s presence as one of the farm’s identifying features.


Bobcat


There is a second cat at Soggy Bottom: the bobcat. This remarkable beast looks like a scaled-up domestic cat with similar facial features and body plan. Movement and behavior are also reminiscent of the house cat but with no trappings of domestication; these animals are stealthy, elusive, and hardly ever seen. If on some rare, unexpected occasion, a bobcat is seen, it will be only briefly and then the animal will quickly disappear into cover. However, we know bobcats are here from the numerous trail camera photos of them that have been obtained at all the camera trap locations.

We cannot discern from these photos if we are seeing one cat or more than one. Even though bobcats are solitary and territorial, it is possible that we are seeing two animals. The home range of a male bobcat is 60 square miles; that of a female is 6 square miles. While the territories of males do not overlap, a female’s territory can be nested inside the territory of a male. Thus, it could be that we are seeing a male and a female. If so, then we should see cats of two different sizes, male larger than female. But the trail camera photos are not sufficiently revealing to make these subtle size distinctions. And, over three years of observation, kittens have never been photographed. However, the absence of kittens does not exclude the possibility that there is a female cat in the photos. Lacking identification markers in the photos, I will refer to our photographed animal(s) as “the bobcat.

Some few photos show the bobcat carrying what appears to be a captured rabbit in its mouth. If we read the photo correctly, the bobcat at Soggy Bottom is preying on the abundant local cottontail rabbits just as bobcats do everywhere they are found – rabbits are said to be the bobcat’s primary food.



In one trail camera photo from my brother George’s place, which is only 2 miles distant from Soggy Bottom, the bobcat is carrying a very dead domestic cat (not Laura), which shows the bobcat’s capability of preying on its smaller cousin. The bobcat eats more than just rabbits and domestic cats and dines when the opportunity presents itself on rats, mice, moles, voles, squirrels, opossums, and any other small critter that makes itself available. It is said that bobcats are as fierce a predator as can be found and can even kill an adult deer which has a body size 6 times that of the bobcat.


The bobcat’s predatory prowess derives in part from its stealthy habits which also explain its elusiveness. Those of us who live on the farm keep a pretty good eye out for wildlife and Jay travels the farm’s meadows and forest as a matter of course to maintain and steward the premises. Yet, we never see the bobcat even though, judging from its prevalence in the trail camera photos, we must unknowingly encounter the cat from time to time. Using its highly developed senses of sight and sound, it sees us before we see it and quietly slips away in the underbrush unseen. Meanwhile, we remain unaware that we have had a close brush with the farm’s most elusive creature.


Well, maybe not the most elusive creature.


Mountain Lion


No one at Soggy Bottom has ever seen a mountain lion on the farm. But we were suspicious that a mountain lion came by from time to time because there were rumors of mountain lion sightings in the community. And then, Jay found a freshly dismembered deer carcass in the forest that suspiciously appeared to have been killed and fed upon by a mountain lion.


We had no solid evidence of a mountain lion’s presence until late August of 2023. Then, two mountain lions were photographed by the trail camera at the camera trap on the forest tractor path! One was a large animal; the other was noticeably smaller. They appeared at the camera trap one after the other (small one following the large one) and were not photographed together.


The scale in the two photos below was made equal so that size comparison between the two animals can be made. Because both animals were photographed at the same place on the same trail, their comparative sizes can be assessed by noting the height of the animal’s backs relative to the scar on the tree trunk.

It is possible that the large and small animals in the above photographs were either an adult and a partially-grown subadult or a male and a female; males are 30-40% larger than females. It is unlikely that an adult male would allow a partially grown sub-adult male to be in its immediate proximity. On the other hand, the range of an adult male is on the order of 100 square miles while that of a female is on the order of 50 square miles. Males, being viciously territorial, have ranges that do not overlap with other males but the range of a female lion may overlap with that of a male. So, it is possible that our photos of the two different sized animals are of a male and a female.


Thereafter, we obtained trail camera photos of the large lion at several of the camera trap locations. This was a muscular animal whose black genital spot was located below the anus at the place on its body that indicated it was indeed a male.


Because photographs of the large male were obtained on several occasions but photos of the smaller cat were obtained only one other time, we will follow just the large cat through the photo record in this essay. For convenience, we call this large male “Butch.”

The above photos were taken at the camera trap on the Forest Tractor Path but Butch was also photographed at the farm’s other camera trap locations. He covered most of the farm’s area whenever he visited.


The table below shows that Butch appeared at the camera traps on an irregular schedule. He appeared often enough for us to conclude that SoggyBottom is located within Butch’s current territory and he visits the place on a crude timetable.



A particularly good sequence of Butch photos was obtained on Jan 27, 2024 at the wooden foot bridge. Here, he stopped in front of the trail camera, sat down, and looked left, right, and straight-ahead revealing facial features that were used to identify him in other photos.


Even though one has never been seen by the naked eye, our trail camera records tell us that mountain lions definitely have a presence on the farm.

Butch comes to Soggy Bottom for the deer, which, if not plentiful, are present in sufficient numbers to offer good opportunities for Butch to have an encounter with one of them when he visits.


Deer are the mountain lion’s preferred food. To meet his nutritional needs, Butch needs to kill one deer a week. He does this within his 100 square mile territory which encompasses a much larger area than Soggy Bottom. He patrols the entire territory on a regular basis. When his patrol finds him at Soggy Bottom and he encounters one of Soggy Bottom’s deer, he attempts to make a kill. If successful, he will remain at Soggy Bottom for a short while and feast before moving on. His visitation record, as revealed by the trail camera photos, indicates that he completes a circuit through his territory every 1 to 1½ months.


Deer are not the only animal that Butch will eat. Given the opportunity, Butch will prey on Laura, the bobcat, a coyote, a rabbit, and virtually every other animal at Soggy Bottom except the bear. Butch is the farm’s apex terrestrial predator. Stealth, quickness, speed over short distances, immense strength, lethal teeth, and claws make Butch a fearsome beast. But Butch is not bold and abhors confrontation. He is as timid as the bobcat. He hides and sneaks and avoids humans at every turn. That is why we never see him.

Scary! But as long as we know the parameters of Butch’s behavior, the forest at Soggy Bottom is as safe for us in Butch’s presence as it would be if Butch were never there.

In the Puget Sound, the mark of man dominates the landscape to the point that the native wild animals have had to subsume much of their wild character and adapt to man’s mark on their altered world. But the mountain lion won’t adapt. It sneaks and hides and travels through suburban farms killing the occasional suburban-adapted deer and domestic animal as it makes its way around its prescribed territory. As a result, the lion brings to the suburbs the mystique of the unexplainable and the ghost-like etherealness that symbolizes untamed wildness. It is this symbolism that gives a story about animals and place special cachet. The circumstances of the lion’s coexistence with humans and other animals at SoggyBottom are the substance of the residual wildness that can be found there. What Butch adds to the place is a sense of wildness, a presence that can’t be tamed.


I like my forests wild.



Comparison of Soggy Bottom cats


Size: A mountain lion (shoulder height: 30”; weight 150-200 lbs.) is 6X larger than a Bobcat (shoulder height: 20-24”; weight 25-30 lbs.) which is 3X larger than Laura (shoulder height: 10”, weight 7 lbs.)


Coat: Laura – long-haired calico; Bobcat – short brown/grey pelage, partially spotted and striped on legs; Mountain Lion – short tawny pelage, uniform color.

Tails: Laura – body length tail, fluffy, prominent but not defining; Bobcat – stubby tail, black tipped, white underside, characteristic of its body form; Mountain Lion – Prominent tail participates in defining body form, long, thick, supple, flowing.

Diet: All cats are carnivores and hunt mammals as their primary prey. Laura – mice and rats; Bobcat – rabbits; Mountain Lion – deer.


Role of Cats at Soggy Bottom

Do the predatory ways of Soggy Bottom’s cats affect the number of prey animals on the farm? This is a difficult question to answer. Despite Laura’s occasional take, there seems to be an abundance of voles and moles and other small mammals. Likewise, the bobcat does not seem to have reduced rabbit numbers appreciably nor has the mountain lion had a notable effect on the numbers of deer. Besides, the cats are not the farms only predators. Red-tailed hawks are commonly observed hunting the farm’s small mammals and coyotes are the farm’s most impactful predator in not only numbers of individuals actively hunting but in terms of number of species targeted. Coyotes will predate on the full spectrum of mammals in the diets of all three cats. Racoons, mink, and weasels are also active farm predators. So, the contribution of the cats to the control of their herbivorous prey on the farm is impossible to determine.


There is a similar degree of ambiguity in the relationship between the cats and the farm’s production animals: chickens and lambs especially. The chickens are definitely impacted by wild predators and the lambs have also been targeted. But the culprits here seem to be coyotes and mink with no evidence whatever that any of the cats have been involved. This is somewhat surprising in that chickens and lambs are within the scope of bobcat prey targets and adult goats and sheep, piglets, and even yearling bovines are within the scope of mountain lion predation. The wild cats seem to confine their predatory interests to their native wild prey and leave the domestic animals alone.

Therefore, it can be concluded that although the cats are part of the farm’s predatory guild, they do no more to change the ecologic balance than the other predators. Neither of the two wild cats are a keystone species. If they were removed, it is not likely that much would change in the ecologic structure of the farm and its surrounds.


So, what do the cats contribute to the farm? Laura’s contribution is obvious, she is a much-loved part of the pet profile and contributes her unique cat-ways as a welcomed part of the pet mix to balance the aggressive comportment of the dogs. The bobcat casts an elusive shadow of animate life within the hidden forest and on rare occasion supplies the brief glimpse that is worthy of excitement and conversation for some time after. The mountain lion exists only on the night-time trail camera photos but still adds an aura of mystique, wildness, and danger to the farm’s atmosphere.


Therefore, cats have a presence in the idyllic picture that one sees at Soggy Bottom farm. Despite them being inauspicious and inconspicuous these cats can exist within the boundaries of one’s awareness. The camera trap record brings the cats into the realm of awareness by revealing the aura of these beasts that lingers behind the bush and on the game trail. It is this ethereal presence that gives cats status at Soggy Bottom – a status that goes from the ordinary to the remarkable to the mystical.

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