CHELMSFORD – Most outdoor cats are tabbies who eat Fancy Feast, but one cat lurking in the Chelmsford area – though equally cute – may not be quite as friendly.
Residents, local conservationists and researchers have recently reported more frequent sightings of bobcats, cats native to the United States that are about twice the size of the typical domestic cat. Bobcats are often mistaken for cougars, but although bobcats live in Massachusetts, research shows that cougars don’t.
Jon Morris, K-12 science coordinator at Chelmsford Public Schools, captured a bobcat in May on one of 14 trail cameras he set up in the district’s four schools. In the woods between Route 3, Harrington Elementary School and the football field, a trail camera captured what appears to be a bobcat moving quickly through the undergrowth in the early morning hours of May 17.
The bobcat was otherwise rather elusive, Morris said, but he was excited when the camera picked one up and showed it a “beautiful animal” that is part of the local ecosystem.
“Based on the images, the health of the animals is very interesting, as if the bobcat was very, very healthy, I think that’s the best way to describe her,” Morris chuckled. “It’s not something a lot of people in this area think about. Some people think it’s a raccoon that’s really big.”
Several people took to Facebook to share some of their encounters with bobcats and reported seeing the animal on Grandview Road in Chelmsford and Dunshire Drive and Coolidge Street in North Chelmsford.
At Chelmsford Animal Control, officers including Mark Cianci are seeing an “increase” in calls and social media posts from residents about an abundance of wildlife, but bobcats in particular. Cianci said the office receives an average of 40 calls per week but does not keep a call log where animals are reported.
Cianci said “it’s not uncommon” to see bobcats at this time of year, as it’s the end of the birthing season, after which the parents teach their young to hunt so they can survive on their own.
That increase in sightings may also be due to the city’s housing market, Cianci said, with many residents moving in and out of the area and may be unfamiliar with the wildlife here. Development projects are also “eating up a lot of habitat,” forcing many animals into residential areas, he added.
Nevertheless, Cianci said a wide variety of critters still exist, large and small.
“We have everything,” Cianci said. “We have bobcats, fisher cats, coyotes, foxes, bears, deer. You name it, I’ve seen it in Chelmsford.”
In recent months, the schools’ trail cameras have identified a number of other animals, including coyotes, fishing cats, white-tailed deer and squirrels. Morris said he was fascinated by the “diversity of the species in such a small area.”
The cameras picked up several deer near school start and end times, Morris said, perhaps causing parents to worry about their children’s safety around the other animals nearby. But Morris said it’s important to always keep a safe distance, as they pose no real threat from afar.
“We have to remember that they are wild animals and we have to respect their space,” he said. “It’s something we can learn to live with, instead of being constantly afraid.”
Cianci said he advises residents to secure their trash, escort pets outside and “admire the wildlife from a distance.” He also said he reminds people that they live in the habitats of the animals and not the other way around.
While he’s interested in knowing when and where bobcats are sighted, Cianci said Animal Protection will not capture or move wildlife unless they pose a danger.
“We want to know if an animal is aggressive for no reason, or if it’s acting weird,” Cianci said. “Just a sighting of a bobcat in a yard. We’re not really going to chase.”
If a bobcat is behaving “drunkishly” — unsteady on its legs, unnecessarily aggressive or unusually lethargic — it could indicate that the animal is sick, Cianci said, and animal protection would be involved. Other behaviors involved include foaming at the mouth, hair loss, walking in circles, and biting the air.
The Chelmsford School camera project is part of a larger documentation effort through Snapshot USA, and Morris said he hopes he and his students can send their research and photos to contribute to a nationwide database.
While the trail cams are relatively new, Morris said he plans to routinely distribute the footage he captures to residents via social media. He said the cameras are a way for everyone to get to know and appreciate the animals in their own backyard.
“Hopefully we can get more than just the few images we have of an animal and really start to say, ‘Hey, this is what this animal is, and this is what it actually does and it’s okay, it’s allowed. to do these things.”,” Morris said. “As an educator, I think all these images and especially the bobcat are just a huge opportunity for the kids to learn, but also for the community to learn.”