A Call of the Wild Ends Too Soon

woodsThe Chapel Hill News and Raleigh News & Observer, March 8, 2009…

The reports a while back of an improbable cougar sighting in Chapel Hill reminded me of my own series of backyard encounters with a feral feline. Four years ago my family moved here from Chicago into the Oaks Villas, a tidy subdivision alongside the waterfowl impoundment on the eastern edge of town. The swampy and heavily wooded land surrounding our neighborhood is home to all sorts of wildlife that urbanites like us rarely see: frogs, snakes, hawks, owls. And of course there are plenty of deer, whose numbers swell each year until the hunters arrive.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about hunting. Sometimes I wonder if it is just a vestigial and violent human instinct we could now do without. But I also realize the crucial role hunters play in maintaining balance in the modern ecosystem, one in which natural predators of animals such as deer are all but gone. In any event, it did take me some getting used to living so close to a game land. When a quiet breakfast is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, part of me still wants to drop to the floor and call 911.

One evening we heard something even more alarming than gunfire. It was the piercing wail of some animal crying out—screaming actually—coming from just inside the woods. Our cavalier spaniel Raleigh went absolutely berserk, lunging so hard at the windows I thought he just might crash through. Stepping tentatively onto the back porch, we tried to figure out what in the world could be wailing like this. We didn’t go dare go outside during the couple of minutes it continued, at least not that first night.

The next night we heard it again, just after sunset. This time it lasted several minutes longer and I went out for a look. Directing a flashlight at the source of the cry, I saw a stout furry animal about a foot and a half long, with the pointy ears of a cat but no sign of a tail. It hissed at the beam of light, absolutely fearless, which is more than I could say for myself. I snapped off the flashlight and danced my way back up the stairs and into the house, where a quick bit of Googling told us we had a bobcat.

A bobcat! My wife and two kids feared for little Raleigh, but I just thought it was the coolest thing yet about living in Chapel Hill. It appears the cat was just doing what bobcats do, patrolling the perimeter of its home. Some weeks we’d hear the cat two or three nights in a row. Other times nearly a week would go by between visits.

The cat always came at night, until one morning about six or eight weeks after the first encounter. I was sitting at my computer beside an open window just after sunrise when I heard the bobcat, this time a ways off in the distance. It was the same sound as always, which was no longer jarring but oddly comforting. I suppose it had simply become one of the sounds of home. In any event it put a smile on my face as I stepped close to the window for a listen. That’s when I heard the gunshot. Just a single round, its sound echoing off the trees, followed by silence. A very long silence.

I waited several days before telling my family. Every evening I’d listen for the cat, hoping beyond hope that the gunshot and silencing of the cat was just coincidental timing. But never again did I hear the unmistakable sound of our bobcat. We do still hear the remarkable bard owls, which sound like squawking monkeys when they get riled up in their mating ritual. Every spring the ensemble of chorus frogs gets to singing so loud you can hardly talk over it. And Raleigh even managed one afternoon to get too close to a copperhead, which gave him a nice fat lip and valuable life lesson.

It is all still quite beautiful here. It was more beautiful when there was a bobcat out there, but still I count my blessings for getting to live where we do.