At rest stops and fuel stations, it’s not unusual for a crowd of people to gather around Kirk and Tracy Mitchell’s motorhome.
The attention is understandable. A bobcat glaring out the window of a motorhome is an arresting visual: the tufted ears, honey-orange fur, spotted back, iridescent eyes.
“People have been very receptive of him,” said Kirk, 42. “During long fuel stops we’ll spend an hour letting people take pictures.”
“Him” is Rockford, a 2-year-old bobcat who lives with the Mitchells in Orlando, Fla. Besides motorhoming and modeling for pictures, his hobbies include long walks, shredding paper products and chewing beach flip-flops.
Legal but not easy to raise
In Florida bobcats are classified as Class II Wildlife, and are legal to own as a pet if you have a permit.
It's not easy being a bobcat owner, though, Kirk said. Consider:
- A bobcat is expensive to buy, feed and house, relative to traditional domestic pets.
- It may need the services of more than one veterinarian.
- De-clawing and teeth rounding are necessary.
- Feedings require a little planning and handiwork.
- Owners must undergo annual home inspections.
- Owners must stay abreast of local and state laws regulating captive wildlife.
So why did these FMCA members, who have no children, decide on a bobcat as their pet and traveling companion? Why did they settle on this carnivore, which typically makes its home in the swamps, deserts and mountains of Central and North America?
It was Kirk’s idea. When he was a boy growing up in Wisconsin, his family kept outdoor bobcats for nine years, so he already knew of their nutritional and behavioral characteristics.
Bobcats have much in common with dogs, he said. “Rockford is smart and cunning like a cat, pounces and stalks like a cat. But his mannerisms are more like a dog. He loves to go for walks, follows you everywhere, comes when you call.”
Bobcats are also clean by nature and generally need little training to use a litter box.
Buying a bobcat
From the beginning, Rockford represented a sizable investment. Kirk purchased him for $3,500 from a breeder in Washington State, in August 2004. The cost didn’t include the round-trip airfare from Orlando or the hotel rental in Washington State.
To grow accustomed to human contact, captive bobcats are separated from their mother 12 to 24 hours after birth and then hand-fed for three months.
Rockford was only 4 weeks old when Kirk acquired him. The stress and duration of the journey home from Washington State nearly killed Rockford.
Now he weighs 32 pounds and should fill out to about 38 pounds. But he’s as long as he’s going to get. “He can touch my shoulders with his paws when he stands in front of me,” said Kirk, who stands 5-foot-9.
Had Kirk not entered the picture, Rockford would have fallen victim to the fur trade. “He would be somebody’s slippers if we left him there. All cats who don’t get adopted end up going back to the fur farm.”
First motorhoming trip
Rockford is the reason Kirk and Tracy bought their motorhome. “He’s the world's most spoiled cat,” Kirk said.
In summer 2006 they were planning to rent a motorhome to go to Wisconsin for Kirk’s mom’s 80th birthday. Instead, on Aug. 1, 2006, they bought a 34-foot 2006 Monaco LaPalma.
The next day, Kirk, Tracy and Rockford left for Wisconsin in the two-slideout, diesel-powered LaPalma. “I had never driven a motorhome in my life,” Kirk said.
Kirk credits their boating experience — they own a 42-foot Meridian Sportfish — for helping them to understand some of the motorhome’s systems.
Rockford has a regular litter box inside the motorhome, and another box with water in it where he urinates. So, how did he like the 2,700-mile Wisconsin trip?
"He was an angel," Kirk said. "We were surprised by how much of a hit he was at the truck stops, and the truck noises didn't bother him at all."
It's fortunate Rockford liked motorhoming from the start, because the Mitchells realize this will be their primary mode of vacation travel from now on. "Bobcat sitters are really hard to find and Rockford does not want to be away from us for very long."
Since the Wisconsin trip, they’ve driven to the Florida Keys, to a boat show in Fort Lauderdale, and on a series of smaller trips, towing their 1998 Jeep Wrangler.
“It’s a great way to travel. And the people are so friendly. Other RVers help you out and give tips at campgrounds, especially old-timers.”
Off to work, he goes
Raising Rockford is a 24-hour-a-day job. "I don't think Rockford would be near as loving as he is if we didn't spend so much time together," Kirk said.
He owns Advanced Land Surveying and Mapping, Inc. in Orlando, a business he founded in 1998. ALSM conducts surveys for companies that offer cellular, fiber-optic and other communications services.
Tracy owns a company that manages condominium associations. She and Kirk work in same office building in Orlando.
"We love Rockford so much but he does need full-time attention," Kirk said. "We are very lucky Tracy and I own our own businesses so he can come to the office with us."
Rockford rides to work every day with Kirk, resting on the console of his Dodge pickup truck or lying on the dashboard. Tracy recently bought a new Jeep Commander, and one of her prerequisites was that it have a large dash for Rockford.
“Tracy is a real trooper. She loves Rockford and he loves her. Sometimes that is not the case with your spouse. I'm just lucky.”
They’ve cordoned off the whole top floor of the office for Rockford. Sometimes they’ll put him in a back room where people can see him. “We don't let too many people near him,” Kirk said, “but visitors can take pictures through the window and Rockford loves it. He is a real ham.”
A steady diet
Rockford’s diet consists of raw meat and bone-in poultry. During the day he eats a mix of ZuPreem brand canned food for exotic cats, to which Kirk adds extra calcium. Rockford’s treat is 4 ounces of turkey neck purchased at the grocery store.
At night Rockford eats an 8-ounce portion of raw chicken or raw beef supplemented with vitamins made for wild felines. He’ll also have a can of tuna fish with that.
Adult bobcats eat approximately a pound of meat per day. Rather than whipping up the meat concoctions every day, once a month Kirk and Tracy spend a few hours making them.
First, they grind up the fresh meat or poultry using a big commercial grinder, the type that hunters use. Next, they blend in an oil calcium mix by hand. They divide the food into 45 8-ounce containers and freeze them.
In the wild, bobcats can hunt and kill prey that range from the size of a mouse to that of a deer.
Rockford would have a tough time in the wild now, because his front claws have been laser-removed. He was neutered at age 3 months, and the tips of his baby teeth were rounded and ground down.
When his permanent teeth came in, at around age 1, the teeth rounding procedure was repeated.
The Mitchells use the services of three veterinarians to care for Rockford. One vet is a big-cat specialist who performs regular checkups, claw removal and surgery. Another specializes in emergency situations. A third is available on-call and will come to their house if Rockford, for some reason, becomes unruly.
He has to be anaesthetized during routine checkups and when vaccines are administered.
For exercise, Rockford goes on daily walks at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., always on a leash. He likes to swim in the pool at their Cocoa Beach house. And he loves walking along the big retention pond at Port Canaveral, north of Cocoa Beach.
They try to steer Rockford clear of dogs; he’s afraid of them. One time a neighbor’s canine chased him up a tree. “We tried everything to get him down, but we couldn’t even get close to him,” Kirk said. They paid $500 for a trapper to get him down.
"He is still terrified of dogs. Maybe he will outgrow it."
Anything you can do …
Like domestic house cats, bobcats can sleep up to 18 hours a day, stirring only for food and a little playtime — in Rockford’s case, a lot of playtime, Kirk said.
Bobcats are two to three times larger than domestic cats and have brawnier bodies. Their hind legs are proportionately longer to their front legs than those of domestics.
So domestic cats, they’re not. But during the day Rockford has the run of the house or office. Kirk and Tracy have to lock doors, cabinets, drawers and the refrigerator because he can open them with his paws. Child-proof locks are of no use, Kirk said.
"Sometimes he can be so smart he amazes us."
He’s especially fond of paper products. “If he gets hold of a roll of paper towels, he shreds it with his back claws and flips the roll up in air," Kirk said. “No matter where we hide it in the house, he will sniff it out and he will shred it.”
The same goes for Tracy’s flip-flops.
Rockford also can open the eclectic windows on Kirk’s pickup truck, and he knows how to lock the doors. “If he sees you do something, he can dot it.”
Apparently he has seen someone using the toilet, because he knows how to use that, as well, Kirk said.
Bobcats in Florida are legal if the owner obtains a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The Class II possession permit costs $150 annually.
Kirk and Tracy had to have their house inspected so it could be deemed house cat ready. That means the dwelling that houses the animal must be equipped with a private entrance, exit and yard area.
The permit also required adherence to structural cage requirements. Rockford has his own room — a 12-foot-by 12-foot area with chain link covering the windows. At night they lock him inside a 6-foot-by-6-foot cage in this room. “We lock him in at night because likes to come and jump on us in the middle of the night,” Kirk said.
Authorities with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspect their house once a year.
The Mitchells also hold an exhibition permit, which costs another $150 per year, so they can walk Rockford outside on a leash.
When raised properly with a lot of human contact, bobcats can form strong bonds with people. They are laid-back and independent, yet loyal companions to their owners.
Just don’t get between a bobcat and a roast beef sandwich.
“A wild animal will always have their natural instincts and can use them at any given time," Kirk said. "They call it ‘reverting.’ ”
Rockford is prone to bite under one of these circumstances: if you get between him and his food; if he’s sick and doesn’t feel well; or if he gets scared.
“We’ve experienced all three,” Kirk said. “We’ve learned to read his mannerisms, and we can tell when he’s angry. He is a wild animal. Just like a dog — if you try to take a favorite bone away from it there’s a chance he might bit you.”
Not for everyone
Kirk doesn’t recommend bobcat ownership to just anyone. “It’s a definite life-changing thing. They bond with two or three people for life and that’s it. It’s definitely something you really need to research before you do it.”
Like many other pets, bobcats look to their owners for love, guidance and protection. "It's a huge commitment, but it's something I wouldn't trade for anything."
The lifespan of Bobcats in the wild is six to eight years, Kirk said. “In captivity, if you feed him right, exercise him and take care of him, he’ll live about 25 years. We’re two years into a 25-year life sentence.”
It’s a sentence Kirk and Tracy enjoy serving.
Exotic pets: are they legal?
Laws and permit requirements for exotic pet ownership vary across jurisdictions.
In Florida exotic pets are illegal. Bobcats are indigenous to the state, so they are not considered exotic.
City halls and county or state government offices are good sources to ask about requirements for bringing captive wildlife into a specific state.
Always keep your pet’s records — permits, state licenses, proof of ownership and vaccination documents — with you in the motorhome.
State Laws for Keeping Exotic Cats