(Photo: Michael Sewell/Getty Images)

This Time a Fur Coat Is Helping Save an Endangered Animal

Fifteen ocelots died a half century ago to make a jacket biologists now use to educate the public about the feline’s plight.
Sep 26, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Everybody has some dreadful bit of family history stashed away in the attic and preferably forgotten. For the Rockefeller heirs last week, it was their investment in the fossil fuel industry, largely the creation of their oil baron ancestor John D. Rockefeller. For me, it was an ocelot jacket inherited from my wife’s grandmother.

Let me tell you, it’s hard to write about endangered species when you have a dead one hanging over your head. Or more like 15 dead ocelots, which is how many of the feline it took to make the single coat-length car jacket that has been hidden away in my attic for several decades now. So I decided to get rid of it, more or less the way the Rockefellers decided last week to divest their millions from fossil fuel companies. Only on a somewhat more modest scale.

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

Ocelots are beautiful little cats, roughly twice the size of a house cat and covered in elongated spots that seem to want to become stripes. They’re hide-and-pounce predators and tend to be solitary and elusive, but they still range through much of South and Central America and up both coasts of Mexico. The fur trade used to kill as many as 200,000 ocelots annually for jackets like the one in my attic, which probably dates from the 1950s. But that trade ended in the 1980s under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Even so, ocelots continue to decline across most of their home range, largely because of habitat loss, collisions with vehicles, and inbreeding in populations that have become isolated. Two such populations, totaling fewer than 100 animals, survive in and around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Brownsville, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, and ocelots also sometimes turn up in Southern Arizona. So I phoned up the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Laguna Atascosa and asked them what to do when in possession of an endangered species, other than proceed directly to jail. Happily, they wanted the jacket as an educational tool.

“You want me to give my grandmother’s jacket to someone from Texas?” my wife cried, full of New England umbrage, when I broached the idea.

“I sent them a photo. They say that jacket has 15 ocelots in it. Maybe more.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“You’re not going to wear it, and you can’t sell it. What are you going to do with it?”

She retreated to the bathroom, where we have a lot of family pictures, saying, “I’m going to have to talk to my grandmother.” After a minute, from behind the closed door, she added, “Did you tell them I don’t trust Texans?”

“They’ll put it on display in the visitor center.”

“That has to be in the contract,” she said.

I phoned Laguna back and this time chatted with an ocelot biologist named Hilary Swarts, who by good fortune grew up in Connecticut, where we live. She even went to the same summer camp as our kids. Texas problem solved. My wife packed the jacket and mailed it herself.

Swarts told me about work to increase the ocelot population at Laguna Atascosa, including a plan being negotiated to boost genetic diversity by bringing in a female ocelot from a Mexican population. Research a few years ago also demonstrated that up to 40 percent of ocelot deaths at Laguna result from collisions with vehicles. The refuge is working with the Texas Department of Transportation on a plan to install eight wildlife crossings on a busy road that runs through the refuge.

But according to Tom DeMaar, a veterinarian who heads the Friends of Laguna Atascosa, the refuge is also in the middle of intense negotiations with TexDot, as it’s known, about addressing a deadly problem on another road. State Highway 100 is a busy four-lane road running alongside the refuge on a route that leads to South Padre Island, a popular spring break destination. A few years ago, to reduce drunk driving and other accidents, TexDot installed a concrete center barrier, ignoring the recommendation from biologists that it use guardrails instead to allow wildlife to cross under. Since then, three ocelots have been trapped on the road and killed by vehicles, the most recent of the incidents occurring this July.

According to DeMaar, a spokesman for TexDot in one interview described the ocelot as “a Texas national treasure” but also said replacing the concrete barriers would cost $1 million—too much money. “If a ‘Texas national treasure’ is not worth $1 million,” DeMaar asked, “what is it worth?”

In a negotiation, he added, a TexDot employee wondered if the small size of the ocelot population didn’t mean it was doomed to disappear in any case, “and then the issue would go away?” DeMaar suggested that TexDot might change its attitude under public pressure, best addressed to its executive director, Tom Weber, by phone at 512-305-9515 or by email, and to district engineer Toribio Garza Jr. at 956-702-6101 or via email.

Meanwhile, my wife’s grandmother’s ocelot jacket is out of the attic and making the rounds at Texas schools and other outreach events. “Although it’s tough to see something that represents a different time in our treatment of wild animals,” Swarts told me, “it’s a really powerful tool in showing the public how many cats it takes to make a jacket and how much more beautiful they are on actual, live ocelots. It’s one thing to tell them about it, but it’s always more powerful when you can show them.”

If it gets people angry enough to support the Laguna Atascosa ocelots—and fix that highway—I think even my wife’s grandmother might consider that a happy ending.