Ocelots – an occasional Arizona visitor

Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are medium-sized, spotted neotropical cats whose principal range is Central and South America. They also occur in Mexico, South Texas, and occasionally in southern Arizona.

Juvenile bobcats and mountain lions may be mistaken for ocelots because they, too, are spotted. Another spotted cat is the Margay, but it is much smaller, about the size of a house cat.

Full-grown ocelots have a head and body length of 22 to 38 inches, a tail length of 8 to 10 inches. They can weigh between 18 and 35 pounds. The smaller ocelots tend to occur in the northern part of their range. Ocelots are quite varied depending on location and there are 10 recognized subspecies.

Ocelots have a distinctive bright white spot within black on the back of their ears. Their short smooth body fur is creamy colored on the sides and back and whitish underneath. Both areas sport black spots.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “Ocelots prefer dense thornscrub, live oak scrub, or riparian areas with an overstory cover.”

Ocelots hunt mainly at night, but may be seen during cloudy or rainy days. Ocelots are solitary animals that maintain territories which are scent-marked by urine spraying and forming dung piles. Males have territories up to 18 square miles. Females have territories of up to 6 square miles. Male territories can overlap several female territories. Social interaction is minimal.

Ocelots feed on a variety of small mammals and birds, as well as some reptiles, amphibians, and fish. They also take young pigs, kids, and lambs, and domestic poultry. Ocelot dens may be a cave in a rocky bluff, a hollow tree, or the densest part of a thorny thicket. Two young are born in late summer or fall. Like other young of the cat family, they are covered with a scanty growth of hair, and the eyes are closed at birth. Gestation has been estimated to last 70-80 days and captive kittens opened their eyes 15-18 days after birth. (Source)

Arizona Game & Fish Department biologists investigate and keep track of ocelot sightings in Arizona. See reports and photos: Feb 5, 2012 in Huachuca Mountains, and another report of the same incident here. Sighting in Cochise County, Dec 2, 2011.

An ocelot was photographed between April 8 and May 21, 2014 near the site of the proposed Rosemont mine in the Santa Rita Mountains according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. That sighting came two days before the U.S. Forest Service delayed its final decision on the $1.2 billion mine project, in part because of the ocelot. – Arizona Daily Star

Ocelots have been extensively hunted for their fur, kept as pets, and worshiped by ancient Central and South American cultures.


Rosemont and some troublesome cats

In its much too long journey through the byzantine maze of environmental regulations, Rosemont Copper has endured much in its quest to permit an open pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

Some of the impediments to a permit involved the cats of the desert. First was the jaguar (see Jaguars and Junk Science) and now it’s the ocelot. Both cats have a similar range and habitat, and transients are seen occasionally in southern Arizona. A male ocelot was photographed in April and May of this year prompting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to reopen study of the mine’s impact on endangered species. Arizona Game & Fish reports an ocelot was photographed in the Huachuca Mountains last February. Prior to that, however, “Only one other ocelot, an animal run over near Globe in April 2010, has been confirmed in Arizona since the mid 1960s.”

Since both jaguars and ocelots are transients, there should be no impact on the species as a whole because most jaguars and ocelots live south of the U.S. The map below shows the range of the jaguar.

Jaguar range.

Rosemont was scheduled to receive final approval from the Forest Service this month; now that has been delayed because of the new ocelot sightings. Both cats were covered in the approved Environmental Impact Statement and mitigation for the jaguar would necessarily cover the ocelot. I don’t understand why FWS considers the recent sighting significant. I also find the timing suspicious.

So, in a cynical vein, I predict that some other desert cats will miraculously appear in the Santa Rita Mountains: the jaguarundi and possibly the margay.



The jaguarundi is small, unspotted cat with three distinct coat colors: black, gray, and reddish. It is twice the size of an ordinary house cat with short, rounded, widely spaced ears, a long neck; long body and tail; short legs with the hind legs being longer than the front legs. Arizona Game & Fish says this cat is occasionally reported from the Chiricahua Mountains, and from the upper San Pedro River and Huachuca Mountains to the Santa Rita Mountains, and the eastern Tohono O’odham Reservation.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had a jaguarundi on display, but when it passed the museum decided to not get another one because they no longer represented a fauna of the Sonoran Desert. ASDM says jaguarundis are the Sonoran Desert’s mystery cats. There are a number of jaguarundi sightings in Arizona each year, but a hide or skull has never been found, nor a photograph taken of one in the wild.

The jaguarundi ranges through much of South and Central America into Mexico.

Jaguarundi  range map

The Margay is similar in appearance to the ocelot, but it is smaller. Margays are adapted to live in tropical forests and hunt in trees. It can turn its ankles 180 degrees and climb down trees head first. Its range is nearly identical to that of the jaguarundi. According to FWS, the last recorded margay in the U.S. was in Texas in 1852.

Below are photos of an ocelot and a margay to show their similar appearance.



I have worked around many open pit mines and have observed wildlife seemingly undeterred. I have observed many Bighorned Sheep in and around the Silver Bell and Morenci mines. At the Tyrone mine near Silver City, New Mexico, deer often graze within the shop and office areas, and I have seen bears on the mine dumps. The Palabora mine in South Africa often had problems with elephants romping within the open pit.

Environmental regulations have their purpose, but sometimes the process becomes all important because that’s what keeps bureaucrats employed. It’s time to speed up and simplify the process so we can get to the results.

See also:
Rosemont and the Cuckoo scam
How NEPA crushes productivity

This story appeared first in the Arizona Daily Independent.