In one man's hands, this lynx became a teacher

  • John Weaver and Chirp

    Mark Matthews

John Weaver saw his first lynx in the wild and experienced a vision of sorts.

The Forest Service biologist was hiking in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, when he came upon a Canada lynx sitting on its haunches about 50 yards away. "The longer I looked at that lynx," Weaver says, "the more it looked like a snowshoe hare to me." A snowshoe hare is just what the lynx prefers to eat.

From that moment on, Weaver's interest in the animal turned to fascination. To help in his studies of the lynx and its close relationship to the snowshoe hare, Weaver brought a lynx kitten home to live with his family in the Rattlesnake Valley north of Missoula, Mont., two years ago. The animal came from a fur farm, and was destined to become a coat.

Chirp, the lynx

Chirp lounges in an enclosed kennel behind Weaver's garage. On this day with temperatures in the 50s, the lynx stretches her 30-inch-long sleek body atop the roof of her cat house.

"It stretches out like that to get rid of body heat," Weaver explains.

Her thick fur is gray mostly, with lines of black and blond threaded through it. A ruff hangs below her jaw; her eyes are yellow.

Like a friendly house cat, she comes to Weaver's call and rubs her face against his leg. Then she moves on to the visitor for some petting. It is all very relaxed.

Chirp is an ambassador for her species. For more than a year, Chirp has introduced herself to classrooms of children from kindergarten to high school. As she moves about the classroom, the kids watch and touch her, getting to know the species without having to listen to a lecture, Weaver says. "Because most of the kids have house cats, they're relaxed around her," Weaver says.

Chirp was named for the bird-like sounds she made as a kitten. In those early days, she cruised the neighborhood with Weaver's black house cat, Kiya. Even now, the five-pound male house cat can dominate the 28-pound lynx.

But the neigborhood dogs are another matter. Chirp detests them. So for their protection, Chirp's walks these days take place on a leash. About once a month Weaver puts a radio transmitter collar on her and turns her loose along the Montana-Idaho Divide where she runs free and hunts the entire day.

Although she usually returns to Weaver's whistle, once in a while he has to track her down. "Being a cat, she sometimes just sits down under a tree and ignores me," Weaver says. When that happens, he either follows her tracks in the snow or uses the radio receiver to locate her. "She hasn't kept me out overnight yet."

Weaver says the lynx wasn't easy to raise. "There's intense involvement with the animal for the first four or five months," he says. "They're also finicky eaters, and you have to be careful switching their diet."

Chirp eats mainly stew meat mixed with a special blend of canned cat food made for wild animals. She gets to snack occasionally on a wild rabbit that has been trapped near a rancher's haystack.

But the lynx's main food source in the wild is its near double, the snowshoe hare. "The lynx and the snowshoe hare make up the most tightly compressed predator-prey relationship in nature," Weaver says. Their skeletons are similar, and the number of lynx offspring often depend on the number of hares available for eating.

Thanks to Chirp, Weaver has noticed lynx traits that eluded him during field studies. When the snow is deep enough, for instance, Chirp will dig a crater and squat in it so that only her eyes and ears are visible above the snowline. Weaver believes this may be a common ambush tactic of the species.

He also noticed something new about the long black tufts of hair that stick out from the tips of the ears. The ear tufts elongate the triangular ear so that it more closely resembles a hare's ear, he says. "When I measured the lynx ear to the tip of the hairs, it's about the same length as a hare's ear."

Another discovery was that the large fur-covered underpads of lynx paws make no sound when treading on snow, whether the snow is fresh powder or ice crystals.

Because lynx depend so much on their vision for finding prey, Weaver says, the species is susceptible to overtrapping. "Any fluttering will attract them," he says, "and they will focus on that instead of watching where they put their feet.

"They're very easy to trap. And when they're not reproducing, because of low hare populations, trapping will cut into the principal of the species, rather than the interest."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.