Nearly five years ago, there was a flurry of bobcat sightings in my neighborhood near Newport Beach's Back Bay. In fact, it was in the community where I live that Newport-Mesa's most famous cat, Babe, was first tagged by wildlife experts.
Every so often, I'd spot her ambling around the streets near my home, with a few kittens tagging behind. Sometimes I'd be in my car; on other occasions, I was walking my dog and would keep my distance, mainly because of uneasiness over how my pooch would react if we got too close.
After a while Babe moved on and, until recently, it had been years since I'd had a bobcat sighting. Then, less than two weeks ago, I walked out of my house and spotted a bobcat crossing the street about 50 yards away.
Excited, I ran back in the house and called to my teenage son, who got there in time to see the bobcat for himself. It crouched by a bush in a neighbor's yard, and then slipped out of sight.
I could tell it wasn't Babe, but who was this mysterious cat?
I decided to call Dick Newell, resident expert on local wildlife, to share my story and get his feedback.
Newell, a biologist, is the driving force behind Orange County Trackers, a volunteer group of wildlife authorities and enthusiasts. He has been painstakingly gathering information on animal life in the area for years, and his work has resulted in a greater understanding of how bobcats live in our midst.
Like a real-life Ace Ventura, Newell is part scientist, part bobcat whisperer and part detective. He hunts down every available clue, follows tracks, looks for patterns, interviews witnesses and pursues leads. He receives continual reports of bobcat sightings by local residents, and records the animals' movements with cameras he has set up all over the area.
Newell said that Babe has given birth to one litter a year since she was first collared near my home in December 2006, but he doesn't yet know if she's had babies this year.
After leaving my neighborhood, she produced another litter in Newport's Big Canyon, where she took up residence in the yard of a mansion overlooking the 18th hole of the golf course. She spent most of 2010 on the west side of the bay, in areas around the Environmental Nature Center and Mariners Drive, and recently has been in Newport Coast.
The bobcat I spotted was probably one of Babe's offspring. One possible candidate is a male named Galaxy, which has also been seen in Eastbluff and at the Pelican Hill golf course. (Newell enjoys giving bobcats playful names, such as "Buck," after Buck Gully, who was hit by a car and died while crossing Jamboree Road two years ago.)
Newell jokingly suggested that I might not have the same warm feelings for Galaxy that I did for Babe, since male bobcats are love-them-and-leave-them lotharios, who take no part in child rearing, while females are devoted moms.
Indeed, mother bobcats, while normally passive, can turn defensive when they sense their cubs are threatened. Such was the case when Babe was living in my community, and my neighbor's cat came home with some nasty scratches — presumably after he got too close to the litter.
But Newell stressed that we have nothing to fear from bobcats, which aren't interested in picking fights with humans or their pets.
"My goal is to get people to realize that these bobcats are absolutely harmless," he said.
In my encounters, they were cool cats — like the popular kids at school who casually stroll by without even acknowledging you exist. Bobcats have a pretty short list of things that interest them: mating, sleeping, and their favorite cuisine, rabbits. Squirrels and small rodents will also do in a pinch, and the cats devour them without letting so much as a morsel go to waste.
Bobcats hunt their prey by slowly approaching, and when they are near enough, pouncing on the doomed animals, using protracted claws and jaw power to finish the job.
When the kittens are too young to venture out, the mothers will bring dinner back to their temporary homes, which are frequently set up under patio decks in yards with high protective walls. The bobcats are sometimes so quiet and unobtrusive that the homeowners don't even realize they have squatters.
Mansions, country clubs, rabbit-infested hillsides — sounds to me like bobcats are living the good life in Newport Beach.
But Newell reminded me that we have encroached on the bobcats' habitat, and it hasn't always worked out well for the animals.
Buck isn't the only one that's been killed by a car, and people sometimes leave food outdoors, which can put bobcats at risk by attracting predatory coyotes. Bobcats are beautiful, wild creatures that need protection from the most dangerous animals of all: humans.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.