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 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
Mark Matthews writes
from Missoula, Montana.