This post written by Melissa Talamantes
Texas, in my opinion, is a wonderful state, with many awesome things you cannot find anywhere else. We can claim Whataburger, sweet iced tea, and even some exotic animals. If you grew up in the city, like I did, it may seem weird to think there are wild animals that could be living in your backyard. The truth is there are! Texas is a huge state, and has different types of ecosystems that different animals can find habitable. We have plains, hills, deserts, swamps, and even mountains! Texas is home to many animals and plants, some famous, some not. Some famous ones are the state flower the bluebonnet, the state lizard which is the horned lizard, coyotes, rattlesnakes, cougars (which are also known as mountain lion or puma, depending on your area), and we are even known for our diverse bat population! However, there are some species of animals people never even knew lived in the United States, let alone Texas. Did you know that jaguars used to be found here? What about grey wolves, or ocelots? Those are just the mammals! Reptiles, fish, and invertebrates have a higher diversification of species. Since they are also smaller than mammals, they can be found in higher densities in one area.
Growing up, you may have noticed that the suburbs have created more houses, or the fields that you use to catch lizards in are gone because a new gated community is being built. This is happening everywhere, not just your town. With the population of humans increasing, and more people moving to the city, deforestation (the tearing down of natural land) is occurring at an alarming rate. With all of the development occurring, the animals are running out of land to live on that is undisturbed and safe. Even if only one species leaves the area, it can affect the entire ecosystem. For example, a certain species of mouse makes its home in an area of land. This land is developed to make housing, eliminating the mouse’s source of food and shelter. The mouse population could decide to leave to find other food. The cats, snakes, and even birds that eat the mice cannot hunt. Due to this, the predators can die from starvation, or leave the area to find other food. This affects the other animals that eat the snakes, birds, and cats. This continues on because everything is interconnected in an ecosystem. If there is no more land for an animal to go to, the species can eventually die out.
One prime example is the ocelot. This small cat used to be found all over Texas, but now only two small sub-populations can be found here. It is estimated that there are less than 100 ocelots in the Texas wild today. According to the USFWS (United States Fisheries & Wildlife Service), the ocelot is threatened with extinction in Texas. The global population is a different story. In South America, stable populations of ocelot can be found, however it is a different sub-species than the one found in Texas. There are two varieties: the general ocelot (in Texas) and the Brazilian ocelot (in South America). Due to the stable population of the ocelot, in general, the IUCN has listed this species as of least concern. As Texans, it is up to us to help preserve this species that has almost disappeared from our home.
One of the reasons the ocelot population declined was the demand for their pelt since it is so beautifully patterned. Ocelot fur was very popular, and everyone seemed to want one in the sixties and seventies. Ocelot are very small animals though, their weight ranges from 25-35 pounds, so it took nearly forty ocelots to create ONE coat! Another reason their population declined was the pet trade. Ocelots are small, gorgeous cats that people believed would make good pets. Not the best idea! Ocelots are completely different from your house cat. House cats have had thousands of years to be domesticated, and even then, all of our cats still have their natural instincts to hunt and stalk. Ocelots are not domesticated. They are wild animals. They may appear cute and cuddly, but they will defend themselves if threatened, and can cause severe damage.
One ocelot calls the Houston Zoo home; Novia first came to the Houston Zoo when she was one year old as part of a breeding program to help diversify the genetics in the species. (Because of the low population in Texas, there is a high probability of inbreeding. This can cause genetic mutations, medical conditions to arise, and even death.) When a carnivore first arrives to the zoo, they must stay in quarantine for thirty days to ensure they are healthy and safe. When Novia was in quarantine, it was discovered she actually had a medical condition that was genetic. This means that if she had kittens, her offspring might also have this condition. It was decided that she should be spayed, meaning she can no longer reproduce. Even though she could not have kittens anymore, the Houston Zoo decided it would be best for Novia to stay here. This was because the zookeepers knew her medical history and could best provide for her care.
Isn’t she just gorgeous!?
Novia is currently 4.5 years old, and weighs about 15 pounds. She is a bit smaller than the average ocelot, but every animal is different and she is in good body condition. Novia seems to enjoy cat toys and prefers mice to her meat diet, but we give her the mice to sneak in her medicine. (Shhh!) She is also a celebrity! National Geographic recorded a video of Novia going under surgery, and you can view it here. Like all ocelots, Novia is typically nocturnal and prefers to lounge and sleep during the day. You may have noticed her sleeping on her platform when you visit the zoo. This is not because of boredom; this is because that behavior is what is most natural to her. (Also like most cats, they love napping!) Her eyes are very large to allow light in at night, so she can see better (which is true for all ocelots), and if you look at her picture, you can see her beautiful coat. If you ever see an ocelot in the Texas wild, you are one extremely lucky person!
We should all try to preserve our great state’s land not only for ourselves, but also for the other species that call it home. It may be hard to remember that other species live in our backyard because they may be small, only out at night, or up in trees, but they do live with us. We should all be true Texans and fight for their home, just as we would fight for ours.
Here we have Novia celebrating her birthday! (She just turned four.) The keepers decorated her exhibit with presents, enrichment toys, and a pool filled with a crab for her to enjoy!