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Celebrate National Wildlife Week with wild cats!

Posted by Paula MacKay, Conservation Associate, Woodland Park Zoo
Photos by Woodland Park Zoo

It's National Wildlife Week, the perfect time to celebrate our PNW wild cats!

We're big fans of using motion-triggered cameras to help us learn more about the wildlife around us. Impassioned volunteers with the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project maintain dozens of cameras throughout greater Seattle, while researchers with the broader Northwest Carnivore Monitoring Program gather important camera data from the Cascades and the Olympics. And of the many amazing animals we observe with our remote cameras, perhaps none are more entertaining than the wild cats.

If you’ve ever lived with a domestic cat, you’re already an expert in feline behavior—rubbing against your chair leg, clawing at your couch, rolling around in catnip with fervor and delight. Sometimes your cat just stares at you, as if to remind you they are a cat. Cats are our buddies, but they’re also the boss!

Wild felids exhibit many similar behaviors, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to record them on camera. Over the last couple of years, our motion-triggered cameras have collected hundreds of photos of all three species of Washington’s wild felids: cougars (also called mountain lions or pumas), bobcats, and Canada lynx. Bobcats and cougars are widespread in Washington—even inhabiting greater Seattle—while lynx (below) are limited to the eastern wildlands of the North Cascades.

A rare Canada lynx visits one of our wilderness cameras.

One helpful distinction between lynx and bobcats is that lynx have huge paws, which help them float across snow in search of snowshoe hares—their favorite, fleet-footed prey. Bobcats, who are stockier but less fluffy than lynx, hunt rodents and other small animals in the forest.

Note the huge paws of this Canada lynx, compared with those of the bobcat below.

Bobcats inhabit forests on the outskirts of Seattle and throughout much of Washington.

Since 2019, Woodland Park Zoo has been collaborating with researchers at Washington State University to monitor lynx in the North Cascades. This extensive remote camera study is collecting valuable information about how lynx, wolverines, and other rare carnivores are currently using this rugged landscape. Recent wildfires in eastern Washington have destroyed thousands of acres of lynx habitat, and predicted changes in our climate will pose further threats to the lynx population. Our cameras are keeping a watchful eye.

Meanwhile, cameras deployed by the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project—our community-based partnership with Seattle University—have detected numerous bobcats and cougars living close to the city but mostly unseen by people. Like many native carnivores, wild cats tend to be shy and elusive. Often a cat will simply pass by a camera station, sticking around only long enough to strike a pretty pose.

A stealthy cougar, photographed east of Redmond.

Bobcats tend to be active during twilight—like this one in the Seattle area.

Other cats stop in to check out the interesting smells.

A curious bobcat, photographed near Seattle, sniffed around briefly before moving on.

Bobcats tend to come nearer to urban areas than do cougars, and are frequently reported on Carnivore Spotter, our interactive website for carnivore sightings in greater Seattle. These mid-sized wild cats are surprisingly adapted to suburban life, but they can be quite secretive. In fact, we’ve yet to receive a photo-verified report of a bobcat west of Lake Washington. Please let us know if you see one, and be sure to snap a photo!

Much like our pets at home, wild cats visiting camera stations often rub on a tree, marking their scent for the next cat who happens to roam through the neighborhood.

A cougar in the Cascades practically smiled for our camera while rubbing against the tree.

Wild cats seem especially fond of the skunky “perfume” we use to attract them to our camera stations in the wilderness, dispersed from our innovative scent dispenser.

This cougar in the Cascades probably didn’t smell very good after rolling around like a kitten in the skunky scent lure that had dripped on the ground.

This past winter, volunteers working with Seattle Urban Carnivore Project/Bainbridge Island Land Trust got quite a thrill when reviewing photos from a local camera: they’d captured rare images of a cougar visiting Bainbridge Island. Unfortunately, the cougar had already made its presence known by preying on several goats and sheep. In response, many islanders implemented carnivore coexistence strategies like securing livestock and walking dogs on leash, and there have been no additional conflicts for months. If the cougar is still on the island, he or she is maintaining a low profile and presumably eating wild prey.

Cougars like this one, photographed by Seattle Urban Carnivore Project/Bainbridge Island Land Trust volunteers, are rare on Bainbridge Island, but occasionally visit from surrounding wild areas.

Of course, cats are bold hunters, whether wild or domestic. Anyone who has watched their pet cat stalking an unsuspecting robin in the backyard will appreciate this excerpt from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems:
She sights a Bird—she chuckles—
She flattens—then she crawls—
She runs without the look of feet—
Her eyes increase to Balls—
Cats are such effective hunters, in fact, that each year domestic cats kill many millions of birds worldwide, contributing to the extinction of some songbird populations. For your cat’s own safety and to help protect wildlife, please consider keeping her or him indoors—or build a cat enclosure, sometimes called a catio, to allow for outdoor exploration.

Next time you see your beloved cat clawing at the scratching post or chasing a feathered toy, think about the bobcats, cougars, and Canada lynx out there in our forests, doing their part to keep Washington wild!

A bobcat photographed on the east side of Lake Washington demonstrates climbing prowess.

We want to thank our volunteers with the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project for their dedication in the field and at their computers, and for lending invaluable support to this ongoing effort. We’re excited to work with our 2021 teams of returning and new volunteers.

If you love looking at remote camera photos as much as we do, consider participating in Zooniverse to help us process the remainder of our 2020 urban camera data. Then we can start to analyze these data for cool trends and findings.

Your sightings of bobcats, cougars, and other Seattle-area carnivores can contribute to an important pool of data. Keep those observations coming at

To learn more about our Living Northwest conservation programs and how you can help protect PNW species, check out