By Megan Jennings, Ph.D.
Many residents of the Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe communities may have seen the bobcat that has made Black Mountain Open Space Preserve and Carmel Valley his home. I am the researcher who fitted this animal with a GPS tracking collar two years ago, and I refer to him as Melvin.
Melvin was thought to have been orphaned when he was found alone as a kitten near Mount Soledad, and was taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility to be raised with three other orphaned kittens, away from human contact, until they were old enough to hunt on their own and be released back into the wild. I collared two of those bobcats to track their movements through the wildland-urban interface in coastal San Diego as part of a study I am conducting on landscape connectivity. Melvin was released close to where he was found, in Los Peñasquitos Canyon.
After several months in the preserve, Melvin did what many young male bobcats do and set out to find a territory of his own, crossing SR-56 and making his home in Rancho Santa Fe and Carmel Valley, hanging out near horse ranches and eating rabbits in the Santaluz community. Over the holidays, he was even seen sunbathing by the Canyon Crest Academy Performing Arts Center and, later that week, napping on a roof in the Canyon Ridge community. Not unlike many urban-associated animals, including bobcats, coyotes, skunks, and raccoons, Melvin is frequently seen because he has learned that there is a benefit of living near humans that, so far, has outweighed the risks. Often food and water sources are easier to come by near humans, particularly when pet food is left out. As a result, he and many other urban animals are less fearful of humans than you might expect of wildlife.
As with any wild animal, bobcats should be given plenty of space and you should not attempt to approach one, but, most of the time, they pose no threat to human safety unless they are cornered or are infected with the rabies virus (though in Southern California, rabies in bobcats is very rare). A common misconception is that bobcats are much bigger and more aggressive than they really are. In this region, bobcats only weigh 15-20 lbs., and prey on rabbits, squirrels, and other small animals. Their curiosity is often taken for aggression or lack of concern for human presence. Just like domestic cats, bobcats are curious and will often stop and watch humans they encounter. If you move too close or quickly, they will retreat, but if you stop and watch they will usually do the same.
It is unlikely Melvin is the first wild animal to come into contact with local residents, and he will not be the last. Coyotes are often the culprit when small pets such as cats and dogs go missing. This is not typical behavior for a bobcat, which is less likely to risk injury by taking prey that could injure it, but both species are easily tempted by pet rabbits or fowl that are kept outside. You can help to avoid conflict with wildlife by keeping pets inside at night, not leaving pet food or garbage out, and limiting water sources outside.
In addition to the steps listed above for preventing the animals from coming into backyards in the first place, several hazing techniques can be used to safely urge animals to leave and discourage them from returning, if necessary. Clapping and yelling can sometimes work, but for a more determined animal, you may want to resort to stronger deterrents, such as spraying water from a hose, throwing small pebbles or rocks at the animal (aim for the hindquarters), or making loud noises such as rocks in a coffee can.
If you need to employ any of these methods, always make sure that the animal has a safe escape route away from humans before you attempt to scare it away, and keep a safe distance at all times. The communities of Rancho Santa Fe and Carmel Valley are very fortunate to be surrounded by protected open space so residents can enjoy nature and the quiet of open preserve land. However, this land is shared with the native wildlife. It is critical that we humans recognize our native neighbors and make efforts to keep wildlife wild to avoid human-wildlife conflicts.
For more information, you can visit the State of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Keep Me Wild” page, dfg.ca.gov/keepmewild/.
Megan Jennings is a postdoctoral researcher at San Diego State University.