National Park Service from USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

June 1, 2022

A Lesson in Tolerance—Sharing the Trail with a Protective Mother Bobcat

A mother bobcat with three kittens travels down a grassy road. In the background is a woodland.
Photo courtesy of Stan McTaggart.

A District Wildlife Biologist never knows what the next phone call from the public might bring. A call I received in the month of May was one that turned out to be particularly interesting and a teachable moment. The call came from a nature center in my district where I was informed that hikers had reported two incidents of an adult bobcat showing “aggressive behavior” towards them on a trail. In both instances, the hikers were walking dogs on leashes. Staff with the nature center walked the trail and reported seeing the bobcat looking at them from several yards away, growling softly and standing its ground. The nature center staff posted the trail as “closed” and requested information from Illinois Department of Natural Resources on further actions.

I arrived at the visitor’s center early the following day and was led to the trail by staff. Viewing the location of the sightings from a distance, three or four small (roughly 8 inches long) but very mobile kittens “scurried” from the opposite side of a log and into the hollow end. The adult didn’t make an appearance, but a 3-foot diameter worn oval area in the vegetation next to the log indicated where it likely had spent a significant amount of time. The bedding area was similar in appearance to a deer bed but devoid of any visible shed hair.

A small gray, brown, and black bobcat kitten rests on the ground. Dry, gray vegetation is in the background.
Photo by National Park Service from USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scanning the trees in the vicinity of the log for the adult, it never revealed itself to me. My anecdotal assessment was that the bobcat was a female and she had recently moved the kittens to the log after a storm had dumped nearly 4 inches of rain on the area, flooding a nearby small creek. Other hikers had traveled the trail during the same time period, but only the two accompanied by dogs had observed the mother bobcat’s “aggressive” behavior. With young kittens in the area, the dogs might have raised her level of anxiety, causing her to take “fight” over “flight” reaction. Running from a dog trailed by several small kittens would likely not work out well for an already stressed kindle of kittens.

I praise the decisions made by the nature center staff and the hikers for not only following the rules and having their dogs leashed, but also recognizing the need to immediately exit the area and inform the staff of the incident.

As bobcats continue to re-populate the more residential parts of the state, it is important to recognize the potential for encountering them. This is especially important in the spring, when the instincts of a mother with young may result in a normally shy and reclusive bobcat alerting human visitors of its presence.

One might think the best solution is always to remove an animal from an area where there appears to be a human/wildlife conflict. However, there may be good reason why the animal is putting on a defensive show (several little ones in this case) and we should give them space and exit the area. This mother bobcat reminds us that if we can tolerate some minor inconveniences, such as simply closing a section of trail temporarily, we can better coexist with nature.

Learn more about the bobcat at Wildlife Illinois.

A graphic with a photo of an adult brown, tan, and black bobcat portrait on the left and text on the right.
Learn more about how the bobcat harvest is regulated here. Photo by Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service,

Doug Brown is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Disstrict Wildlife Biologistcovering Clark, Crawford, Cumberland, Effingham, Jasper and Shelby counties.

Doug Brown is an Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist based in east-central Illinois.

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