The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Friday, May 30, 2003

Tales of the Ringtail
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, May 2003, © 2004

"I remember one incident from the days when I was the assistant manager at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge," relates wildlife biologist Stephen Labuda, now with the South Texas Refuge Complex.

"I got a call one morning from some folks down the road, near Bluefields. They were a family living in a small house in the middle of brushy fields. It was in the spring, and the weather was cool, so the evening before they had been in their living room watching TV with the windows open. Soon they heard their many dogs barking outside, and at first thought nothing of it. The dogs frequently chased opossums and armadillos into their holes in the ground. Soon the dogs' barks got louder and louder. Suddenly, a Ringtail jumped into their living room and ran between them and the TV. Right behind it came eight or nine hounds in hot pursuit. The Ringtail led them, dogs and people, into the bedroom, where it jumped out another open window, ran a short distance from the house and then up an old hackberry tree. The people were able to catch it with ropes, nets and a burlap bag. After the call, I traveled to their home where they produced the bag with the mammal still inside, proof that their story was true. I was surprised because my experience with this creature had involved animals in the Trans-Pecos and Edwards Plateau of Texas. This specimen, 20 miles east of Santa Ana, was not out of the species range, however. Later, I released it in a heavily wooded area on the Rio Grande not far from where it had been caught."

One of the country's most elegant and interesting mammals, the Ring-tailed Cat ranges from California and Oregon to Arizona (it is their state animal), New Mexico and Texas. However, you may be surprised to know that this "cat" is not really a cat! It is Bassariscus astutus, a relative of the Raccoon with which it shares some of the same characteristics such as a mask and a banded tail. However, there are distinct differences. The Ringtail's mask seems more like white-rimmed spectacles, and the tail? Oh, what a tail it is! A banner, a marvel, a pride of a tail! It is a long, luxuriant plume of beauty, and in the smaller, tawnier Texas subspecies, the black bands go completely around against the whitish background. This definitely reminds you of the spectacular Ring-tailed Lemur, the primate of the island of Madagascar.

The "cat" is sleekly modeled and considered beautiful because of its coloration, striking markings and soft fur. The feisty males measure about thirty inches from nose to tail tip, weighing a mere two and a half pounds. The gentler females are only slightly smaller. Its foxy appearance leads to one of its many names. the Raccoon Fox. Other monikers: the Miner's Cat (because they seemed happy to catch mice in caves, early prospectors made them pets); Cacomistle; and Civet Cat, incorrectly named after a European mammal.

The Ringtail is a nocturnal predator which hunts with its mate for insects, birds and rodents in habitat like cactus plains, rocky cliffs and chaparral. An adept climber, it is very much at home in trees where it makes a mossy nest in hollows, fairly safe havens for raising a family.. A litter averages about three or four. The young are born blind and naked, but they develop rapidly, and in five weeks they are weaned and off on the hunting trail with the parents.

These little wonders do seem to tangle occasionally with humans. Texas naturalist John Tveten writes: "Our most memorable encounter with a Ringtail was when I was leading a Smithsonian travel program raft trip through the Grand Canyon.

On a rainy night, My wife Gloria and I had put our sleeping bags out on a sandy beach beneath a rock wall flanking the Colorado River and had pulled a tarp over us in an effort to keep dry. Just as we were falling asleep, a prowling Ringtail decided to seek shelter, too. It crawled in between us on the pillows. Of course, it startled us, and we both sat up suddenly. The tarp went blowing down the beach in the driving rain, and the Ringtail was so startled that it turned a backward somersault and scurried off into the rocks. There we sat, soaked by the rain, laughing uproariously at the surprised looks on our faces and what seemed to be an equally startled expression on the face of the opportunistic Ringtail."

These wonderful mammals are out there in the South Texas dark. They are to be cherished for their attractive and engaging character, a part of the world of the night hunters we seldom see. You may be the lucky one.

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