On an already-hot summer morning in south Texas, a mother bobcat (Lynx rufus) emerges from her den and performs a quick safety check. Sensing no signs of danger, she calls her three kittens to join her on the deck above their lair, where a water bowl awaits. Aside from the obvious advantage of a reliable source of drinking water, a well-trafficked deck may seem like a strange place for a shy animal like a bobcat to raise her young—especially in rural Texas, where bobcats are considered by many to be varmints and it’s legal to hunt and trap the animals on private land year-round. But low-slung decks and porches offer excellent protection from both the heat of the sun and the threat of larger predators, and the seasoned mother has learned that the humans who frequent this particular deck pose no threat to her family.
Bobcats are the most widely distributed and abundant wild cats in North America, with a range that extends from Canada to Mexico and an estimated population of between 2 and 3.5 million individuals in the United States alone. Unlike their larger relatives, which rely on more specialized habitat and prey, these 4- to 18-kilogram (9- to 40-pound) cats can utilize a wide variety of landscapes, and their diets are both diverse and adaptable. Rabbits, hares, and rodents make up the bulk of their prey, but bobcats are also powerful enough to take down young deer and other ungulates and nimble enough to capture much smaller prey, including insects. Because of both their abundance and their hunting prowess, the cats play an important role in their ecosystems, controlling the populations of a number of species that might otherwise go unchecked, including disease-carrying rodents.
While their remarkable adaptability has made bobcats more resilient than other feline species in the face of human encroachment, they aren’t immune to such threats. Habitat loss and fragmentation have taken a toll in recent decades, creating isolated populations that are less genetically diverse and more prone to inbreeding. But hunting and trapping pose the most immediate and growing threat. Trophy hunting for bobcats is currently legal in 40 states, including Texas, where roundup events like the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest offer large cash prizes for killing the most and the biggest bobcats in a 23-hour period. Additionally, the cats’ beautifully spotted coats have made them a target of the international fur trade. Since the 1970s, when CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protections made the commercial trade of larger cat pelts illegal, bobcat pelts have become highly prized. And as fur coats have grown in popularity among the burgeoning middle classes in Russia and China, demand for bobcat fur has skyrocketed. Since 2000, the average price for a bobcat pelt has grown from $85 to a high of $589, and the number of pelts exported from the United States has quadrupled, climbing to a high of 65,000 per year.
When conservation photographer Karine Aigner first started photographing bobcats on a friend’s ranch in south Texas in 2017, she knew most of the community’s human residents were more likely to see the cats as a nuisance — or a target — than as a species to be admired and protected. In the beginning, her only goal was to see if the cats might allow her into their world. But the more time she spent watching a fiercely protective mother raise her always-curious-and-sometimes-precocious kittens, the more she began to hope that showcasing the lives of these animals might change the way they are perceived and treated. “When you’re given the opportunity to observe wild animals on a more intimate level, you end up seeing that their lives are not so different from ours,” says Aigner. “They’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They teach lessons, and they mourn losses. I would love for people to see into the lives of these animals — and to realize that we’re closer to these creatures than we think.”
“This new cat, she hasn’t growled at me once. She’s completely relaxed around me,” says Aigner. While she doesn’t know for sure, Aigner suspects that the independent little female she watched grow up in 2017 has returned to raise her own litter of kittens—and that the older cat whose life she has chronicled over the past three years is now a grandmother.