Biologists studying the behavior of urban bobcats on Tucson’s west side have hit the mother lode with Avery.
The large female has spent the past several months raising two kittens in a gated community near Sweetwater Drive and Camino de Oeste, where researchers have been following her every move thanks to the GPS collar around her neck and the army of enthusiastic residents looking out for her.
Avery and her kittens have been lounging in backyards and hiding out on rooftops at about a half-dozen homes in the Rancho Agua Dulce subdivision. They’re still there now, according to the latest tracking data from the Bobcats in Tucson Research Project.
It’s just the sort of thing Cheryl Mollohan was hoping to document when she launched the project in 2020 to study what some experts have called the highest concentration of urban bobcats anywhere in the United States.
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“This is exactly what I was after, because it’s so unique that (bobcats) have infiltrated so far into Tucson,” Mollohan said. “This has been a wild ride.”
Avery was trapped by the research team and fitted with a tracking collar on Jan. 14, just across Sweetwater Drive from Rancho Agua Dulce.
The mature female, probably 3 to 5 years old, weighed 23 pounds at the time, a full 6 pounds heavier than any other female in the study. The on-site veterinarian soon discovered why: Avery was pregnant out of season, which Mollohan said usually only happens to bobcats that lose their kittens the previous spring.
Tracking data suggests the cat gave birth about a week after she was captured. She’s been moving around the gated community with her kittens ever since.
“She lives there. That’s her home,” Mollohan said.
Avery is part of a new round of bobcat captures meant to collect data from animals living closer to the city, without ready access to large areas of natural habitat.
By contrast, the bobcats caught and collared during the first year of the study mostly came from the western fringes of town, where homes are easier to avoid and the Tucson Mountains are never far from reach.
Mollohan said those cats seem to use residential neighborhoods differently than the more urban animals do. Though they will lounge in a backyard or drink from a swimming pool on occasion, when the time comes to have their kittens, they all retreat into the foothills to set up their dens in the steepest, nastiest terrain they can find.
Avery had no such option, so she gave birth in a secluded spot along the natural wash that runs through Rancho Agua Dulce, then moved her newborn kittens from hiding place to hiding place, sometimes carrying them one at a time across distances of up to half a mile.
Once she got them tucked away somewhere safe, she would leave them alone, sometimes for hours at a time, to go looking for food.
“She was literally stashing them under a bush” or in a pile of palm fronds and other yard debris that had been dumped in the wash, Mollohan said. “It’s been harrowing to watch, because you can’t do anything to help her.”
After about two months of this, the bobcat hauled her kittens out of the wash and into the neighborhood, where she briefly settled with them among the gabled-roof tiles of a vacant house on Bear Spring Trail.
Realtor Heather Shallenberger said it was the first time in her 24 years of selling homes in Tucson that a wild animal nearly derailed a sale.
She said the Shallenberger Team at Long Realty was holding an open house at the property when Mollohan showed up to tell them about the bobcat family and ask if she could put up some trail cameras to try to record the cats coming and going.
That decision soon fell to the prospective buyers of the $431,000 home. Shallenberger said the buyers’ agent was “a little bit freaked out at first,” because her clients have smaller dogs and didn’t want to lose one of them to a predator on their roof.
“Everytime you think you’ve seen it all, and then you find out that a bobcat could be an issue,” Shallenberger said.
Mollohan and company eventually calmed the buyers’ fears and got them to agree to put the cameras up, but Avery had other ideas. A short time later, she gathered her kittens and moved on, possibly spooked by the presence of a crew brought in to install new windows at the house.
Shallenberger said she and her team never laid eyes on the cats outside of pictures captured later by other people in the neighborhood. “We were kind of bummed we didn’t get to see them,” the Tucson native said.
The bobcat family’s next stop was a rooftop two houses away, where Mollohan said they stayed for the next six weeks or so.
Homeowner Kom Loh said he never heard them and had no clue they were up there until they climbed down into his backyard in mid-May. He got to watch them in his yard for a few days, before the feline family moved on to another nearby house and then another.
“It had been my privilege to be the unwitting host to Bobcat Avery and her kittens,” Loh said in an email. “Bobcats are magnificent animals, and I am glad to have encountered them.”
Chris Wesselman and his wife, Sue Pulk, got their turn with Avery about a month ago.
She and her kittens spent four mornings in the Wesselmans’ backyard, where Chris, a self-described “advanced amateur photographer,” took pictures of the cats as they played, drank from water bowls and devoured a dove brought home by mom.
Chris Wesselman said they were a little worried about the cumbersome-looking collar on Avery at first, but they felt better about it after Sue looked up the research project’s website and made contact with Mollohan.
“It was just exhilarating to see them right there in the backyard,” he said. “They’re amazing to watch.”
Observing the bobcat family has been educational, too, even for an experienced biologist like Mollohan.
She said Avery maintains the largest home range of any female in the study — hunting across an almost 5-square-mile area — but she has chosen to raise her kittens in one of the most densely populated parts of her territory.
One reason why could be the way Rancho Agua Dulce was built. The subdivision includes numerous desert green spaces developed around the natural wash corridor that runs diagonally through the property.
As for all the houses, Mollohan said Avery seems to treat them no differently than the natural features she might find in the open desert.
“She is in the midst of all these rock piles. They just happen to have humans living in them,” the researcher said. “She uses what’s available to her, and in this case it’s houses.”
But while Avery seems to tolerate proximity to people, she certainly doesn’t welcome it. “She doesn’t like disturbances, even though (she and the kittens) are on a roof in the middle of a subdivision,” Mollohan said.
People looking at her from inside of a house doesn’t seem to bother her. But if you go outside and make eye contact, that seems to unsettle her, Mollohan said. Sometimes that’s all it takes to convince Avery it’s time to move on.
So far, though, she hasn’t strayed very far.
Mollohan said the cat has been bouncing around inside the subdivision for so long now that the homeowners association decided to give researchers the gate codes so they could access the community as needed.
“People have been so helpful,” she said, which doesn’t surprise her a bit. She already knew that about the Old Pueblo before the study even started.
“I personally believe Tucson is a very tolerant town, and people are remarkably willing to share their environment with bobcats and other wildlife,” Mollohan said. “I think that’s the reason we have what we have here.”