Mark Freeman has a soft spot for cats. And he prefers them oversized and mean. Every weekday morning, while the rest of us coast along in civilization, this burly but mild-mannered grad student traps, tranquilizes and collars specimens of the wild bobcat - a belligerent uncle of the household tabby. The project isn't just about feline fancy, though: Bobcat behavior reflects dramatic changes in Vermont's ecological and cultural landscapes.
When Freeman arrives at his University of Vermont office at 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, the ground is still white with snow. That suits him just fine: Because snow restricts bobcat movement and makes prey scarce, it increases the likelihood that a cat will stumble into a trap. Just last night, in fact, one did. Thanks to a tip-off from a wildlife biologist, Freeman knows that at this moment, a live bobcat waits impatiently at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, about 40 miles to the south, in Addison County. "The weather's getting weird," Freeman notes, as he slips a syringe into his rucksack, "and they're getting hungry."
After grabbing some last-minute gear, Freeman and his perky sidekick, Kristen Watrous, climb into a weathered Suburban wagon that smells of beaver carcasses - yesterday's bobcat lunch du jour. Watrous isn't fazed. "The smell's not that bad," she says. "Remember when we had that skunk lure in here, Mark?"
Freeman nods. Sitting behind the wheel in his black-and-red checkered coat and faded green hat, the bearded 34-year-old resembles a lumberjack, but without the gruff. Watrous, 29, joined the project in January, and she knows a thing or two about wildlife. She completed her UVM Master's degree last year - on bats. "When people hear I study bats," she says, gazing out a fogged window, "the response isn't as positive."
Five minutes later, Freeman turns off Colchester Avenue to pick up his other assistant, Noel Dodge. "It's my day off," Dodge says as he buckles his seat belt. "Do I have to look official?" He's not worried about impressing the captive feline. At Dead Creek, Dodge and his cat colleagues will be meeting four of Vermont's senior wildlife biologists, some of whom will have driven two hours for the occasion. This is, after all, only the 39th cat captured in two years, and it's also the first time all the bigwigs can make it from their respective corners of the state.
Unlike other wildlife projects, Freeman's - which is being conducted under the auspices of the Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit - is supported by a complex web of underwriters, including Vermont Fish and Wildlife, private citizens, Shelburne Farms, and the Vermont Trappers' Association. Why such wide-ranging interest? The study could shed light on a host of regional development and conservation issues, because bobcat movement and feeding patterns are affected by development projects and road construction. In addition, some hunters, trappers and houndsmen see the bobcat as emblematic of an endangered tradition.
Freeman likens the bobcat to a "rambling man." Breeding males can cover up to 60 square miles. Unlike their rivals, coyotes, which travel in familial packs, male bobcats exhibit a cowboy-esque proclivity for rugged solitude and sexual promiscuity. The last varmint to come off Vermont's bounty list, in the early 1970s, the bobcat may be the most ruthless lap-sized mammal this side of the Mississippi.
At about 9:30 a.m., Freeman pulls into the Dead Creek parking lot and greets the esteemed wildlife biologists, all of them flushed with anticipation. Fittingly, Dead Creek could be the closest thing to Vermont's Wild West: The terrain here, a stone's throw from Lake Champlain, looks desolate and unkempt. Snake Mountain looms behind a distant cloud. A glass-eyed marsh winds among brambles and fence posts. Wild turkeys scurry across a nearby ridge like extras on a John Wayne set. Just before reaching the captive cat, the assembled gang stops to stare at a pack of migrating birds.
"Is that a red-tailed heron?" Freeman asks.
Everyone squints. One of the wildlife biologists adjusts a feather in his 10-gallon hat.
"Don't know," Watrous answers offhandedly. "Either that, or an osprey."
A few yards ahead, at the end of a slushy clearing, the bobcat trap sits tucked into some brushy understory. The trap, which actually looks more like a rabbit cage, has been covered with a thick canvas shroud to keep nosy predators at bay. The whole set-up looks oddly domestic, considering its feral backdrop.
As Freeman and Co. approach the bobcat trap, its inmate lets out a startling growl - imagine "Hello Kitty" after a sex change operation and a few tumblers of moonshine. Freeman prepares to remove the shroud, and all the biologists lower their voices. Nearby creatures, too, seem to settle into a reverent, even religious, silence.
Growl. Hiss. General hostility.
Breaths are held.
The shroud comes off.
Everyone recoils in fear and wonder.
But once the fervor subsides, the bobcat turns out to be . . . well, just a big, unhappy cat. Dodge uses a wooden contraption called a "plunger" to push the sulky depressoid to one end of its cage, while Freeman sneaks around behind it with a dripping syringe. The bobcat has been lured into this trap by a bottle of "Just Mice" - a Calvin Klein-friendly euphemism for "blenderized rodent." Freeman explains that the cat is to be tranquilized with a cocktail of designer drugs, then fitted with a wireless leather tracking collar.
Finally, in a flurry of snow and swaying branches, Freeman gets close enough to stab the bobbie's butt with the needle. The animal sways for a minute, then faints with a cinematic flourish.
Freeman lays the sedated, Gumby-lax predator out on a tasteful Afghan rug. Then his assistants measure its vitals - their thermometer doesn't go where most cats would prefer - while Freeman administers muscle-relaxer and affixes the collar, which has been preprogrammed to fall off by summer's end. Next semester, Freeman will analyze his data to determine, within a statistically significant margin of error, where the bobcats roam - and, equally important, what those figures indicate about sprawl and habitat fragmentation in the Champlain Valley.
After today's capture, Freeman explains, he and his crew will need to apprehend just four more cats. As she tweaks the collar's transmitter to the correct tracking frequency, Watrous adds, "We hope the bobcats go out to their cat friends and tell them how cool these collars are."
"Yeah," Freeman agrees with a smirk. "They'll show off all their 'cat bling.'"
A half-hour later, as the Suburban rumbles back toward Burlington, Freeman waxes metaphysical. "There's a lot of different kinds of knowledge out there," he muses. "This project is coupling woods lore with developing technologies."
Obviously, computers for processing bobcat stats save time and headaches. But Freeman maintains the study project couldn't have come off without the wisdom and assistance of local trappers and "houndsmen" - hunters who use dogs to sniff out their prey. Before he started the project, in 2004, Freeman apprenticed with a few knowledgeable old-timers to get a feel for their technique. About a quarter of the bobcats in his study have been caught, pro bono, by the old-timers themselves.
"If you don't grow up as part of that culture, there's a stigma," Freeman continues. "But to meet the houndsmen, you see that they really care about cats. They wanted to see this project happen because cat habitat areas were getting developed. They're concerned about the cats."
Freeman's project is certainly a cautionary tale about sprawl - the rate of development in Vermont is approximately 260 percent greater than the rate of population growth. But it's also a hopeful tale of cross-cultural cooperation and respect. The trappers, after all, aren't the only ones helping out. As more roads cut through forests, bobcats in search of food seem to be migrating into more densely settled parts of the valley. Residents and business owners from Richmond to Bristol have offered to host traps on their properties. This afternoon, Freeman and his team will collar their second cat of the day - number 40 - on a paintball range in Colchester.
And really, what better place for a bobcat sting than this porous borderland between rural authenticity and suburban kitsch? Do the cats get the metaphor?
"It's like Christmas when you open up a collar," Freeman suggests, as he cruises through Ferrisburgh on Route 7. He's motivated by more than just bobcat love, though: If Freeman can mine enough accurate data from this project, it may save open space from development. "A lot of people in South Burlington and Shelburne would probably like to see development of these areas stopped," he asserts. "As a citizen, I'd like to see a better way of controlling the landscape. But my job is to do this project and present the conservation organizations and town conservation commissions with the opportunity to manage the land."
It's almost noon by the time the Suburban pulls up to the loading docks outside Freeman's UVM office. The cat-collarers beam with the morning's excitement, much like children who have been playing in the mud before a piano lesson. A full afternoon of tranquilizing, tagging and trap-baiting awaits: Under its romantic gloss, this project is normally a tedious, toe-freezing slog. But before they head out for their afternoon's work, these sapiens - like any other species - need to eat.
"I'm gonna get the beaver carcasses," Freeman says to Watrous.
"I'll grab lunch," she says.
A minute later, Freeman emerges from his office carrying a trash bag full of dead beaver, flipper and all. Watrous trails behind holding a grisly axe and a plastic sack of bologna sandwiches.
As the Suburban lumbers onto I-89, there's a brief moment of silence and chewing. Then, as the paintball range approaches, Watrous speaks up.
"So . . ." she begins. "Where are we gonna chop up the beaver?"
Freeman, pulling off on the exit ramp, shrugs and grins. His face has taken on a glow from the exertion and excitement, so it almost matches the color of his facial hair.
Before he can respond, Watrous clarifies.
"And by 'we,'" she says, "I mean 'you.'"