TIPPECANOE — On May 31, a group of people hiked to a small peninsula jutting out into Clendening Lake in Harrison County.
Their purpose was to release a male bobcat back into the wild that had spent the past year being rehabilitated at the Kevin P. Clinton Wildlife Center at Penitentiary Glen Reservation at Lake Metroparks near Cleveland.
"We're on a 350 acre peninsula here; nothing else around but the lake on the edge," said Clayton Rico, forest operations coordinator for the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD), which owns the land around Clendening Lake. "He's going to have a lot of area here to explore."
After the bobcat's cage was opened, the animal cautiously stepped out, paused to look at its caretakers and then disappeared into the tall grass.
Early in April 2018, Nicole Perez, a resident near Tappan Lake in Harrison County, spotted a red fox carrying what she thought was a kitten. She yelled at the fox, which dropped the kitten. Perez then took the animal to her local veterinarian, who identified it as a bobcat, according to the MWCD.
After stabilizing the bobcat, they contacted the Ohio Division of Wildlife. They were told to take the animal to the Kevin P. Clinton Wildlife Center.
The mission of the center is to relieve the stress of human impact on wildlife populations through education and wildlife rehabilitation. The goal is to return healthy wildlife back to the wild.
Each year, nearly 2,000 injured or orphaned animals receive first aid and rehabilitation at the center. Patients include backyard wildlife such as rabbits and songbirds, and uncommon species such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle. This is the fifth bobcat the center has returned to the wild.
Wildlife center manager Tammy O'Neil and her staff cared for the bobcat for about a year.
"The kitten was the smallest received to date, weighing in at half a pound, and was around a week old,"O'Neil said. "The kitten was very weak and thin and small for its age. After vet examination, it was determined he was healthy, just needed to put on weight."
Feedings were around the clock every two hours, according to the MWCD. Each day the bobcat grew stronger, and development was normal. After a month's time, the bobcat's weight tripled and by the middle of May it weighed 22 pounds.
"That's a good size," O'Neil said. "Bobcats are not a full adult until they are 2 years old. He won't get much bigger."
A fully grown bobcat weighs between 25 and 28 pounds.
Bobcats are predators in Ohio, so safety was a priority for the staff at the rehabilitation center and for the bobcat, according to the MWCD. This included making sure that the bobcat did not become habituated or imprinted on humans. If a bobcat in the wild expects humans to feed it or is not afraid of humans, it could be bad for the bobcat.
As soon as the bobcat was eating enough on its own and maintaining its body weight, it was moved to an outside enclosure.
The bobcat quickly adapted to being outside and had plenty of room to climb and run, the MWCD said. The animals was in the intermediate enclosure until all of its vaccinations were up to date and enough natural behaviors were observed to move it to its final, larger enclosure to prepare it for release.
When the bobcat was released, staff from the rehabilitation center, the MWCD and Nicole Perez and her family were present.
"I think he's going to do excellent in the wild," said O'Neil, who was present for the release. "We saw him exhibit all of the behaviors necessary to survive. They adapt to the wild very quickly because they have all those natural instincts."
The bobcat learned how to hunt while it was in its cage, she said.
Bobcats are opportunistic, and eat whatever they can find.
She said they don't pose a major threat to farmers or their livestock.
"Within the state of Ohio, the last I've heard they are not considered a nuisance species," she said. "They're not raiding chicken coops or anything. They keep to themselves. They're not going to approach somebody's property. There would have to be low resources in the wild for them to do that."
O'Neil said the rehabilitation center has released other bobcats into farm areas. "We don't get complaint calls," she said.
She offered advice on what residents should do if they find a small animal in the wild.
"If they find a small animal and it's weak or hurt in anyway, it's without its mother," she said. "If they look like they are lethargic in anyway or hurt, they should call somebody."