Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ring-Tailed Cats, or Miner's Cats: Pest Control for Miners and Pioneers

Ring-tailed Cat, or Bassariscus astutus.

If you've ever wondered if pioneers, miners and settlers had pets the answer is yes. They had dogs, and perhaps even house cats, but in the Southwest, they had a special kind of pet, a pet that resembles a combination of cat and raccoon, and I've had the privilege of sharing my backyard and roof with one of these wonderful creatures, so I will begin with my story.

Cunning Bassarisc. Bassariscus astutus. Frank E. Beddard - The Cambridge Natural History, Volume X—Mammalia. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

My husband and I were living in Texas a little over a year when we first realized we had a rather unique friend visiting our house at night. We lived in a round house with mostly glass walls for windows and glass doors--I often felt like a goldfish and the wildlife watched me as I moved through my home. I loved to climb onto the roof and photograph the sunset, but I always felt as if I was watched. 

Our son told us he often heard noises in the garage at dusk and swore he saw what looked like a raccoon tail hanging down in front of the small garage window. Our house was on a mountainside and the garage backed to a slope, so it seemed logical that a raccoon might be climbing onto our roof, but why? They had free access to the squirrel and bird food on our bedroom patio, so they would not be seeking food. The raccoon theory didn't seem to fit. Still, it was a clue--a feeling of being watched and a raccoon tail.
Ring-Tailed Cat sprawling on a rock in Arizona. This is how the Ring-Tailed Cat 
looked at us from the tree branch in our backyard. Photo by RobertBody.

The clues all came together one night around sunset when my husband realized he left the water hose running in the back yard. Suddenly I heard him calling my name. I ran to the garage and out into the yard and found him standing by the fence beneath a tree. Directly above his head was one of the strangest creatures I've ever seen--a Ring-Tailed Cat. 

Ring-Tailed Cats are curious little creatures. Their heads resemble chihuahuas with pointy ears and large eyes. They have the body of a limber, athletic house cat and a long, striped tail like a raccoon. This little creature was sprawled out on a tree branch watching my husband as if he lived in the house and my husband was a visitor. It was a fascinating moment. He seemed perfectly comfortable with us and I suddenly realized why I often felt I was watched while on the roof in the evenings--because I was being watched!

A few nights later we were watching television in bed when we heard noises on the bedroom patio. This was not an isolated event. We were often visited by families of raccoons and an o'possum. On this night, though, it was the return of the ring-tailed cat. He raided the sunflower seeds in the squirrel dish then walked over to the door and stared inside at us for awhile before moving on. 
The seven-foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that often visited our backyard, only at sunset, though, which gave us time to secure all of our pets and people inside the house. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

In the five years we lived in the house the Ring-Tailed Cat often came by for a visit. Sadly, I never managed to photograph him. Nevertheless, we thought of him as a family friend, like the female toad, Mrs. Toady, who slept in my garden shoe during the hot summer afternoons, and the seven foot rattlesnake who slithered through our backyard at night to drink water from our pond. 

Ring-Tailed Cats as Beneficial Pets

Of course, I studied the little creature so I could write articles about him on my animal blog, Blessed Little Creatures, and that's when I learned that although the Ring-Tailed Cat is often described as a solitary, nocturnal, and rather timid creature, it also has a reputation as a beneficial pet. In fact, Ring-Tailed Cats played an important role in the taming of the American West by helping to eliminate disease-spreading rodents like rats and mice. 

They were favorites of miners and pioneers who cut holes in boxes and placed the boxes near the stove in the cabin or home to keep the animal warm during the day. At night, the ring-tailed cats would sneak out of their boxes to feed on the mice and rats that dared to enter the homes. This is how the ring-tailed cat earned its second name as the "Miner's Cat."

A Southwestern Native

The Ring-Tailed Cat is most often seen in the Southwest, in states such as Texas, New Mexico, and north and central Mexico. They are also seen in California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Their location is understandable considering they prefer to make their homes in rocky, desert places, but they can also be found in the hollows of dead trees or in abandoned buildings.
Ring-tailed Cat at Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. 
Photographed by Pixelfugue.

To protect themselves from predators, they frequently move their dens, rarely spending more than one night in the same place. They are amazingly agile and flexible, and can rotate 180 degrees. They have also been seen performing cartwheels and using their agile bodies to ricochet between walls!

A Rather Unique-Looking Cat!

The ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus) can be tan or dark brown with a lighter underbelly. It has pointed ears and large, purple eyes surrounded by tufts of light-colored fur. It is smaller than a house cat, generally measuring about 16 inches long with a weight of 3 to 4 pounds. 

Ring-Tailed Cat in Arizona. This photo may help you understand why I think they look like my chihuahua! Photo by RobertBody.

One of its most distinctive features is its long tail. The ring-tailed cat has a tail that is about 14 inches long, fuzzy, and lined with dark rings similar to that of a raccoon. As it is most active in the evening hours, it is easily mistaken for a raccoon in the dark.

Eating and Breeding Habits

Ring-Tailed Cats eat fruit, insects, rodents, and small birds. Their preference for small rodents makes them a beneficial creature. They mate in spring with a gestation period of 45-50 days, calling to their mates with a loud bark. The male hunts food for the pregnant and nursing female, who generally produces between two and four cubs. Baby ring-tailed cats are hunting on their own by four months and breeding at ten months.
It's not likely that my pet dog, Chewy the Chewchewcabra, would have threatened 
the Ring-Tailed Cat, but you can see why I compared their appearance to a chihuahua! 

Ring-Tailed Cats live to around seven years in the wild, but they often fall victim to raccoons, coyotes, owls, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and even pet dogs. Surprisingly, one of the ring-tailed cat's greatest threats is humans. Farmers often kill the creatures to protect fruit crops. In spite of the large number of predators, they are not considered an endangered species.

Pioneer Pest Control

In the American Southwest, where people rarely had fruit crops to protect, Ring-Tailed Cats were often seen in mining towns and pioneer settlements because the little creatures did not feel threatened. Their presence was accepted in much the same way towns once accepted the presence of dogs and cats wandering through town, and welcomed because they controlled the population of rats and mice.

So the next time you read about the American Old West, the townspeople and the miners and how they kept their homes free of pests, remember the Ring-Tailed Cat--pest control for the pioneers! 

  • Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Bassariscus astutus: Ringtail." Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved April 30, 2013. 
  • Poglayen-Neuwall, Ivo and Toweill, Dale E. "Bassariscus astutus." Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammologists. No. 327, pp. 1-8. Retrieved April 7, 2011.
  • Williams, David B. "Ringtail Cat." DesertUSA. Retrieved April 7, 2012.


Dr.M said...

I have never heard of this animal before, or if I have I just thought they were talking about a coati or a serval or something. Super cool!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Dr.M, that is perfectly understandable! In the sources I read--and I only listed the ones I used directly for the article--quite a few mentioned that people often see these animals and mistake them for Coati. If you compare the pictures, they look very similar, but when you see one close up as I did in Texas, you realize immediately it is a completely different animal. I am so thrilled that I was able to watch this animal in action as it ate, climbed trees, moved from branch to branch. When I move to Colorado I hope to be able to see one again. I have not seen one in New Mexico, but we currently live in the desert--sand and cactus--and Ring-Tailed Cats prefer trees, but they are in Colorado and I would love to have one living close to my home once more. I hope you are able to see one some day, too, and to watch it climb and swing from branch to branch. They are fascinating!

Crystal Wells said...

Watching a ring tail cat for the last few nights here in Amarillo. Comes out around 11 to chase crickets attracted by the parks lights. It's just adorable and very illusive except doesn't seem to be bothered by all the campers. Very cool.

Crystal Wells said...

I have been watching one of these at the camp park in Amarillo, Texas for the last few nights. It's very cool. Comes out to chase crickets and mice around 11pm when most everyone is sleeping. Seems to be consistent about it's habitat. Just loving the rarity of the opportunity.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Oh you are so blessed! They are shy creatures, but wonderful, and although they are shy, I think they want to be friendly. I think a better word would be "cautious." They have many predators, including humans, but they are so sweet and adorable. I will never forget the night my husband called me out to watch the ring tail in the tree. It seemed to REALLY like my husband! It was watching him, flipping its tail, sprawled out on the branch on its belly like squirrels like to do when it's hot and just as comfortable as could be listening to my husband talk. I don't know how long he was out there talking to that cat, but the ring tail seemed to be loving all the attention. Wonderful animals. I'm so glad you had the chance to see one! That is cool!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I read your post here after looking for some information about ringtail/domestic cat interactions. We have a resident ringtail, I don't see here that often, but she is regular. Tonite, I heard something scuffling outside our bedroom window, then the most bizarre sound; a fairly loud, rhythmical noise like a cross between a bark & a duck quack, very panicked sounding. When I went outside to look, before I even got to where the noise was coming from, I saw a cat..I mean, a regular cat, black & white. Mind you, we live out in the middle of nowhere, southern AZ, nearest neighbor is miles away. I was shocked, to say the least. The cat ran away and I went round to where I could here our poor little ringtail & saw her done in a rock pile. I can only think she had a run in with this mysterious cat. Anyway, very strange & surreal! Thanks for you post, very informative!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hi! Thanks for reading! That's such a sad story. I don't think Ring-Tails are as capable as other animals of defending themselves. The one that lived at our house almost reminded us of a rabbit--innocent, a bit too friendly, not particularly capable of self-defense. They sure are adorable, though. I do miss them.

Unknown said...

My parents live in West Point, CA in Calaveras County; an area previously occupied by many miners. I have seen these little guys playing in the road late at night. In fact I would not have seen them if not for the headlights. But I don't see them very often, sadly. A very cool creature.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Unfortunately, they are a prey animal. They do not have much to defend themselves with and like most wildlife, humans are their greatest threat. I loved the one that lived behind our house. He was a charmer.

Dr. Richard E. Richards said...

I am a professional biologist and have studied the bassarisc for 47 years. I wish you people would stop the use of the common name of ringtail, ringtail cat, etc. They are not a cat and are classified into the Procyonidae or raccoon family. Also, there are many mammals in the world called ringtails, such as the ringtailed lemur. Although there are over 21 common names for this carnivore in different geographical areas, the proper name is bassarisc and scientific name, Bassariscus astutus. Until my research is published, the most knowledgeable article is by The American Society in their Mammalian Species #327 by my deceased friend Ivo Poglayen-Neuwall and his helper, Dale Toweill. I am the last living expert on the bassarisc, and if anyone has questions, I'll do my best to answer them. rerichards34@hotmail.com

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Sir, this is not a science page, it is a blog about the history of the American Old West. I congratulate you on your extensive scientific knowledge of this subject, but referring to my readers and myself as "you people" is not exactly the best way to attract readers to your research or impress them with your knowledge. My doctorate is in creative writing, and my experience is with the people of the American Southwest. If you want to argue about linguistics, I'm your gal. I can assure you that no one--no one--in the American Southwest refers to this animal by its scientific name...except, perhaps, "you people."

Adam said...

I live in Austin, TX. I saw a ringtail last night in a tree in my apartment complex. I'm originally from Mississippi, so I have never seen or heard of a ringtail. (Definitely never heard of a Bassariscus) They are extremely interesting. We thought it was some sort of a squirrel at first. It was very cool and curious. It seemed like it wanted us to feed it, but it didn't come down from the tree. Hope I see it again soon! Do you know if there is a way to tell if it's male or female?

Unknown said...

Are they known to pack item off

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Do you mean like squirrels and raccoon? I haven't heard anything about this, but if you've heard stories please share! I have read that they are shy, but that was not my experience. I read that they prefer to be alone. We had one that "preferred" to lie on the tree branch by our back door swinging his tail while my husband watered the garden. He seemed friendly and we had the impression he wanted to play, but we didn't know how the dogs would react to him and thought it was safer for the little creature if he stayed in the tree. However, we were first made aware of his presence when friends and family commented on numerous occasions that they saw a raccoon tail hanging down the garage window, which didn't make sense because that would mean the raccoon climbed up the tree and onto the roof of the garage. Thinking back on this behavior, it does make sense that if we had left a window open (which is not a wise thing to do when you live in the forest in Central Texas) the creature--and probably ten to 20 squirrels--may have climbed inside and helped himself to shiny objects.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Where the Heck is My Pet Rock? said...

Very interesting info. I'm writing a children's book about Arizona, and I just found out about these beautiful little creatures. I am going to include one in my book for sure. The book will be called "Olivia Ocelot Saves the Day: Adventures in the Arizona Desert". I've already published "Olivia Ocelot Comes to the Rescue: Adventures in the Rainforest" It's available on Amazon.Anne Crary Jantz

Darla Sue Dollman said...

What does the book about Arizona discuss, and what is the age range for the book? I have many grandchildren and this sounds like a childrens' book. Does it have talking animals? (Those are my favorites, in films and books!)

Darla Sue Dollman said...

*Anne, I just read Olivia's description on Amazon. She sounds like a wonderful character, and I'm sure a Miner's Cat would fit right in with a mystery. With this creature's agility and abilities it could even help Olivia! Love it! Thanks for reading my blog. I also have a blog on book reviews so I will be looking into Olivia again.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...