A Call of the Wild Ends Too Soon

The Chapel Hill News
The Raleigh News & Observer
March 18, 2009

Newspaper reports of an improbable cougar sighting in Chapel Hill remind me of my own backyard encounters with a feral feline.

My family moved here from Chicago four years ago. Our house is in the Oaks Villas, a spec of a subdivision alongside the hunting ground on the east side of town. The heavily wooded land is home to all sorts of Carolina wildlife that urbanites rarely see: snakes, frogs, hawks, owls. And of course there are plenty of deer, whose numbers swell each year until the hunters arrive.

I have mixed feelings about hunting. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a vestigial and violent human instinct we could now do without. But I also realize the crucial role hunters play in maintaining balance in the modern ecosystem, one in which natural predators of animals such as deer are all but gone. In any event, it did take me some getting used to living so close to a game land. When a quiet breakfast is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, part of me still wants to drop to the floor and call 911.

One evening we heard something more alarming than gunfire. It was the piercing wail of some animal crying out—screaming really—coming from just inside the woods. Our dog Raleigh went absolutely berserk, lunging so hard at the windows I thought he just might crash through. Stepping tentatively onto the back porch, we tried to figure out what in the world could be wailing like this. We didn’t go dare go outside.

The next night we heard it again, just after sunset. This time it lasted for several minutes and I went out for a look. Directing a flashlight from the edge of the woods to the source of the cry, I saw a stout furry animal about a foot and a half long with the pointy ears of a cat but no sign of a tail. It hissed at the beam of light, fearless, which is more than I can say for myself. I snapped off the flashlight and danced my way back up the stairs and into the house, where a quick bit of googling told us we had a bobcat.

A bobcat! My wife and kids feared for little Raleigh, but I just thought it was the coolest thing yet about living in Chapel Hill. It appears the cat was just doing what bobcats do, patrolling the perimeter of its home territory. And I just loved it. Some weeks we heard the cat two or three nights in a row. Other times nearly a week would go by between visits.

The cat always came at night, until early one morning about six or eight weeks after the first encounter. I was sitting at my computer beside an open window just after sunrise when I heard the bobcat, this time a ways off in the distance. It was the same sound as always, which was no longer jarring but oddly comforting. I suppose it had simply become one of the sounds of home.

It put a smile on my face as I stepped close to the window for a listen. That’s when I heard the gunshot. Just a single round, its sound echoing off the trees, followed by silence. A very long silence.

I waited several days before telling my family. Every night I’d listen to the woods as the sun went down, hoping beyond hope the gunshot and silencing of the cat was just coincidental timing. But never again did I hear the unmistakable cry of our bobcat.

We still hear the remarkable bard owls, which sound like squawking monkeys when they get riled up. Every spring the ensemble of chorus frogs gets to singing so loud you can hardly talk over it. And our dog Raleigh even managed one afternoon to get too close to a copperhead passing through our backyard, giving him a fat lip and valuable life lesson.

It is still quite beautiful here in Chapel Hill in our house by the woods. It was more beautiful when there was a bobcat out there. But still I count my blessings for getting to live where we do.