"Tiger cat" from Bear Creek, near Manchaca, Texas (December 1884 - January 1885)

The following passage is from the autobiography of Gus Birkner, my great grand uncle (born in Gonzales, Texas April 8, 1861; died in Lockhart, Texas, June 4, 1956, and buried in the Lockhart Cemetery).

The events described below happened on his farm on Bear Creek, near Manchaca, Travis County, Texas (which he identified in his autobiography as "the old Fielder place") on Christmas 1884 and in the days following.

"My wife went to stay with my father and mother for a while until my second son was born February 27, 1885. During this time I was batching. The nearest house was about two miles from where we lived. On Christmas, 1884, while I was batching, my wife’s uncle came up to spend Christmas with me. Christmas morning we started down to my father’s. My wife’s uncle was feeling good from being out the night before, so he started running his horse and roping at bushes. His saddle turned with him, and he fell off his horse; his saddle came off. There was a bunch of horses on the road, and his horse started to run with them. I tried to cut her off from the bunch and was running my horse fast over very rocky land. My horse’s shoe caught in one of the honey-combed rocks; as we were going very fast, he fell with me with a forty foot rope on my saddle. The fall broke the horn of my saddle and my arm. As my head hit a rock, I don’t know whether I got up on the horse or he got up with me still in the saddle, for I was unconscious. He carried me about two miles with the rope dragging and his fore foot in the bridle reins. He carried me to my father-in-law’s. They took me down to my father’s and got Dr. Ellison from Manchaca to set my arm. As I was at that time riding the pasture, looking after about five hundred very wild mules from the King Ranch, my wife’s uncle had to stay with me until I got well. We needed that ten dollars a month that I got for looking after the mules. Incidentally, our uncle was found back on the road where I had left him, asleep by his saddle, totally unharmed.

Before my accident, I knew something had been catching my chickens, kid goats, and pigs. I had not moved my chickens from our early camp, where they roosted on a brush fence. Every morning I had been missing my chickens from that fence. I got up early one morning while my uncle was getting breakfast. I told him that I had counted the chickens the night before to see if there was any missing this morning. I called my two good hunting dogs; and off we went. Yes, one of my chickens was gone. The dogs got on the trail of whatever was catching the chickens, and they soon caught up with a tiger cat. The dogs couldn’t do anything with him; he whipped my dogs for the fun of it. They ran him for about a mile, but every time they caught up with him, he whipped them again. I had my left arm in a sling; but I picked up a liveoak club and carried it to the tree that the tiger cat had gone up. He was getting pretty mad by now. He had whipped the dogs until he was tired. He now came out on a limb toward me and thought that he would take it out on me. He jumped off a limb right toward me, and as I stepped back to get out of the way, I fell backward. When he hit the ground, the dogs bounded on him, and I jumped up right quickly with my club. While he was busy with one of the dogs, I hit him on the forehead with this club and stunned him. I kept yelling for my uncle to come and help, but I couldn’t make him hear me. So I had a time dragging that heavy cat back to the house with one arm in a sling. We skinned him, and he was the fattest thing you ever saw. We got enough grease out of him to grease harness with for about a year. I had his hide dressed. He was the only tiger cat caught in that part of the country. But we had lots of rattlesnakes. We might hear them rattling any time of the night or day. We didn’t pay any attention to them, but we did keep out of their way."

What is the "tiger cat?"

Not a bobcat (Lynx rufus), because they would have been more common, and very likely not the only one "caught in that part of the country."

Doubtful it was a mountain lion (Puma concolor), because they're not striped or spotted or otherwise with a pattern that might have been described as a tiger cat, and probably would not have been rare in the area.

And what would have been so big and fat that he could have greased harnesses for a year?

In his 1905 report titled "Biological Survey of Texas," Vernon Bailey described two other cats in Texas that might have been Uncle Gus's "tiger cat": the jaguar and the ocelot. So where were these two cats known from at that time?

Jaguars in Texas

Bailey wrote "the jaguar, the largest of North American cats, once reported as common over southern Texas and as occupying nearly the whole of the eastern part of the State to Louisiana and north to the Red River, is now extremely rare.” He listed the following locations and dates of jaguars in Texas, mostly from reports he got from other naturalists:

  • Brazos River (specific location and date unknown, but entered in the National Museum Catalogue in 1853)
  • Aransas County (ca. 1858)
  • Dimmit County (1879)
  • South of Jasper (1902)
  • Neches River near Beaumont and in the timber south of Conroe (before 1902)
  • Mouth of the Pecos (ca. 1889)
  • South of Comstock (reported to Oberholser “some years ago,” before 1901)
  • Camp Verde at the head springs of the Nueces River (1880)
  • Center City, Mills County (September 3, 1903)

David Schmidly (2002) reviewed Bailey's 1905 report and documented the changes in Texas wildlife over the preceding century. He described the distribution of the jaguar as "once extended well into Central Texas, including much of the Edwards Plateau, as well as along the southern and southeastern parts of the state. There are many records and sightings that date from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and this large cat actually was regarded as common in some areas." Lowery (1974) showed the historic distribution of the jaguar as covering much of Texas and possibly extending into western Louisiana.

The photo below is from Schmidly's 2002 book and is inscribed with "tiger cat" on the photo. He also included a photo of a jaguar killed near Goldthwaite, Mills County, in 1903.

Tiger_cat_Schmidly_2002_p403
A jaguar (or "tiger cat") killed in south Texas near San Benito, Cameron County, January 30, 1946. (Schmidly 2002).

So it looks like the jaguar is at least a possibility. It's hard to imagine fighting a jaguar using a club with one arm in a sling, or dragging one very far back home, but adrenaline probably would have helped.

Ocelots in Texas

And what does Bailey say about ocelots? For one thing, he said they were also known as "leopard cats." His report on the distribution of this cat in Texas shows they were also known across the state, including the Edwards Plateau.

"The ocelots are still found in brushy or timbered country over southern Texas, as far north as Rock Springs and Kerrville, and up the Pecos Valley to the region of Fort Lancaster. One killed near the Alamo de Cesarae Ranch, in Brewster County, between Marfa and Terlingua, in 1903, was reported by Mr. G. K. Gilbert, and later its beautiful light-gray skin was purchased from Mrs. M. A. Bishop, of Valentine. This seems to be the westernmost record for the State. Farther east ocelots are still reported as very rare about Beaumont and Jasper, near the eastern line of the State, and farther north, near Waskom and Long Lake. Early records carried their range across into Louisiana and Arkansas, but it is doubtful if at the present time they are to be found in the United States beyond the limits of Texas. Most of the records are from hunters, ranchmen, or residents of the country, who know the animal by the name of ocelot or leopard cat, or describe it as a long-tailed, spotted cat the size of the lynx. In 1902 at Sour Lake Hollister reported "several so-called leopard cats killed near there," and says: "They are described as about the size of the wildcat but of a different build, spotted and with a long tail. Near Beaumont Oberholser reported them as occasionally killed In the woods along the Neches River. In Kerr County Mr. Moore, the sheriff, told me that he saw a beautiful skin of a large, long-tailed, spotted cat that was killed 10 miles south of Kerrville the latter part of June, 1902. At Rock Springs in July of the same year Mr. Gething told me that each year a few ocelot skins were brought into the store for sale. In his report from Sheffield Cary says: "I am informed that leopard cats are fairly common in the cedar brakes along the Pecos southeast of here." In 1899 Mr. Howard Lacey the well-known naturalist of Kerr County, told me that he occasionally caught an ocelot while hunting with dogs for other game. "

Lowery (1974) also showed the historic distribution of the ocelot as covering most of Texas and possibly extending into western Louisiana.

Given that distribution, it's possible that Uncle Gus's tiger cat could have been an ocelot. Ocelots are a little smaller than jaguars, so maybe not enough to grease harnesses for a year. I don't know; I haven't ever greased a harness with wild cat fat. Davis (1974) gives the weights of jaguars as up to 200 lbs and ocelots as 20 to 35 lbs. For comparison with a species present day biologists may have some first-hand experience with, Davis gives the weight of bobcats as typically 12 to 20 lbs, but sometimes up to 36 lbs.

I may never know what Uncle Gus's tiger cat was, but I think it was either a jaguar or an ocelot, and jaguar seems much more likely. Either one could have been present in southern Travis County in the late 1800's. Based on what he said about the size and weight, it seems like jaguar is a better fit. And clearly "tiger cat" is a name people used for jaguars, as shown in the photo above from Cameron County.

Literature cited

Bailey, Vernon. 1905. Biological Survey of Texas. North American Fauna No. 25. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Biological Survey, Washington, D.C. 216 pp.

Davis, William B. 1974. The Mammals of Texas. Bulletin 41. Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept, Austin, Texas. 294 pp.

Lowery, Jr., George H. 1974. The Mammals of Louisiana and its Adjacent Waters. Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission by the Louisiana State University Press. 565 pp.

Schmidly, David J. 2002. Texas Natural History: a Century of Change. Texas Tech Univeristy Press, Lubbock, Texas. 534 pp.

Posted by cliftonladd cliftonladd, February 08, 2020 22:50

Comments

Wow, Clif, what an amazing piece of Texas natural history you are a part of! Thanks so much for sharing this exciting and thought provoking story. It seems to me that an ocelot wouldn't have been able to easily "whip" two hunting dogs. And your great grand uncle wouldn't have "had a time dragging that heavy cat back to the house with one arm in a sling" even if it was 50 pounds. Sounds like a Texas Jaguar to me!
@gcwarbler @greglasley @kueda @loarie @sambiology @jonahevans @davescott

Posted by mikaelb almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Amazing story, Clif! However, a 50 lb cat (if we take that as an approximate weight) would be a pretty small Jaguar, wouldn't it? Maybe a young kitten?

Posted by gcwarbler almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Yes, but I don't know how much his cat weighed.

Posted by cliftonladd almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Fascinating. Definitely a lot of signs pointing towards the jaguar. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by stephenramirez almost 2 years ago (Flag)

What a fascinating story! I love the part that he used every part of tiger cat and even saved all the grease for his harnesses, no waste!
Thank you so much for sharing!

Posted by pufferchung almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Thanks for sharing the story.

Posted by beschwar almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Very cool. My office is near Bear Creek and Little Bear Creek, and I have spent some time wandering around the area. It is awesome to think that a "tiger cat" could be wandering as well a hundred years ago as I do today. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by jacobddowen almost 2 years ago (Flag)

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