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Ontario's Wild Cats

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

One of the inspiring parts of exploring wild places is discovering an entire world that exists apart from (even if deeply influenced by) the day to day universe that makes up our busy urban lives. Just as we spend our time worrying about jobs, taxes and politics, the inhabitants of the wilderness around us spend their days focussed on food, shelter and staving off competition. In this series of blog posts we will shed a little bit of light on the creatures that spend their lives in the wild areas around Toronto!

Today’s post is all about Ontario’s big cats! We’ll write a little about each of the three big cats found in Ontario, and also share the prevailing wisdom about what to do if you encounter these cats in the wild.

(I say prevailing wisdom because how to interact with wild animals is not an exact science. Nobody has ever sat down with a wild cat and asked it what types of behaviours are most likely to provoke it and what will scare it away, nor have we conducted controlled studies on the provocation of wild animals. Our wisdom about how to act upon encountering wild animals evolves based on accrued experiences and reports from actual cases. Some principles, such as “only food runs,” are widely accepted and other points, such as whether eye contact with a wild animal portrays confidence (good) or aggression (bad), remain subject to ongoing debate.”)

With that caveat, let’s talk about Ontario’s wild cats!

The Bobcat

The bobcat is the smallest of Ontario’s big cats. Bobcats live in a variety of habitats and are most typically found in heavily wooded areas in the Southern part of the province. Bobcats hunt a variety of small animals from rabbits to rodents and are typically shy and avoid people. Rabid bobcats or bobcats with cubs nearby may be more aggressive and should be carefully avoided.

How to ID a Bobcat

Bobcats range from 75 - 125 cm long, stand about 50cm high and tend to weigh between 5 - 15 kg. Their coat colour ranges from yellow and gray to reddish brown, depending on the season, and almost always includes dark streaks and spots. The bobcat’s tail, for which it is named, is short with a black tip.

The Canadian Lynx

A close cousin of the bobcat, the Canadian Lynx’s primary Ontario habitat is in the northern part of the province (beginning north of Algonquin Park) in the Boreal Forest. The Cnadian lynx survives almost entirely on the snowshoe hare which it hunts year round, using it’s big paws to walk effortlessly over the snow in the winter. Lynx are most popularly known for their screaming matches. Largely solitary animals, when two males meet during mating season, they scream at each other in high pitched voices that sound like children yelling. When caught on camera, these screaming matches tend to go viral. (Check out some very entertaining lynx screaming videos here and here.)

How to ID a Lynx

Lynx and bobcats can be very difficult to tell apart. Lynx are typically slightly larger than bobcats, however a large bobcat can be the same size as an adult lynx. Their coats may be the easiest way to tell them apart, with lynx coats typically lighter and less marked than that of the bobcat. See here for a full rundown of the differences between the two.

The Cougar

Some of you may be rightfully surprised to find this fearsome cat included in a discussion of Ontario’s wildlife. The cougar, also known as the mountain lion, panther or puma, is more typically found in southern British Columbia, west of the Rocky Mountains. However, there have been rare sightings of cougars across Ontario. The source of the cougar in Ontario is unknown and theories include migration from western North America as well as escaped/released captive cats.

How to ID a Cougar

A grown cougar is typically 2 - 2.5m long and weighs 40 - 70 kg, substantially larger than the bobcat and the lynx. The easiest ways to identify a cougar are by their uniformly coloured coat (typically tawny, grey-brown or red-brown) and their long black tipped tail which usually measures about half the length of their entire body. If you see a cat in Ontario that is too big to be a bobcat or a lynx, it’s probably a cougar.

What to Do

As we mentioned above, there is no exact science about what to do if you run into a large cat. That being said, there are a few broadly agreed upon principles:

  • Do not approach the cat.

  • Don’t run! Running can trigger a cat’s predatory instincts.

  • Pick up small children or pets.

  • If you’re with others, stay together as a group

  • Don’t look away, face the cat while slowly backing away

  • If the cat is not leaving or is acting aggressively, try to appear larger by raising your arms, spreading your legs and/or opening your jacket and making noise, or even throwing some sticks/stones in its direction.

Although we do not recommend trying this at home, we do recommend watching this video of a BC farmer who picked up a lynx by the scruff of its neck, scolding it for killing his chickens!

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