“Can I take a picture?” the woman asked, eagerly stepping toward Mike Kiel, arm extended, camera phone already in-hand.
“Sure,” he said, offering a smile from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat.
He’s used to this by now.
And he can hardly blame her — it’s not often one comes across a bobcat in Woodland Park.
The feline in question, 17-year-old Couger, is leashed and crouched low on the rocky banks of a pond, slinking slowly toward a gathering of ducks. He is at once wary of his surrounding and innately curious about the birds before him, his eyes never leaving their glistening forms gliding across the water.
The woman takes her photos and peppers Mike with questions: How did you get him? How old is he? Is this legal?
Surprisingly, in the state of Montana bobcat ownership is entirely by the books, provided owners secure a $25 exotic wildlife permit from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“What’s so great about Montana is we have the freedom to have pets like this if we want. We don’t have anybody to tell us you can or can’t,” he said.
Kiel was introduced to the possibility of owning a bobcat as a pet in the 1970s. He and some friends were on a deer hunting trip in Elko, Nevada, where he stopped at a motel to inquire about a room. To his surprise, when he rang the bell for service, a bobcat jumped onto the counter to greet him. Kiel leaped back, not knowing what to expect next. Was it hostile?
The animal descended the counter and sidled up to him, rubbing itself against his leg.
“I was just amazed,” he recalled.
Intrigued though he was, it would be another 20 years before that notion turned serious.
It took yet another fateful encounter, this time with a breeder in the Helena Flats area of Kalispell. The breeder raised bobcats primarily for fur, but occasionally sold them as pets. Just one kitten remained and it went home with Kiel, who named it Jorden.
Ten years later, Kiel lost the animal in a divorce, but he didn’t want that experience to mark the end of his bobcat ownership. A year later, he got Couger. It was a big decision to make. They are, after all, a huge commitment with lifespans of 25 to 30 years in captivity and care requirements that far outpace the typical domesticated companion.
When Kiel brought Couger home, he was about the size of a Coke can and his newborn eyes were still closed.
“The reason you take them so early is when they open their eyes you want them to see a human,” he explained. “You don’t want that bond starting with a mother bobcat.”
He fed Couger with puppy formula he bought at Cenex and before each feeding, he’d warm the solution slightly in the microwave. It wasn’t long before Couger associated the “beep” of the microwave with mealtime and would come running as soon as he heard the appliance turn on.
Now that he’s matured, Couger feeds on a mixture of raw meat — the same stuff that’s fed to zoo animals. He also spends much of his time outside.
Kiel has four 50-foot leashes on his property west of Kalispell, and rotates Couger between them throughout the day.
“Every critter that comes into the yard, if he’s awake, he hunts them,” Kiel said. “Whether it’s a little bird, a chipmunk, a squirrel, a rabbit, a deer. He’s got that wild instinct in him.”
But for all the ways in which Couger is still wild, he’s also very different from the average bobcat.
He has his own recliner, for one, and he’s “kind of a bed hog,” as Kiel puts it.
“He’s supposed to have his side …most of the time he just ends up in the middle of the night stretched out like a person next to me,” he said. “I’ve woken up, too, and I’ve had a paw across my face.”
He likes to ride around on Kiel’s back, go for car rides and he even has an evening routine. After dinner — a half-pound of mixed meat and milk — Couger will jump on Mike’s lap, head-butt him in what Kiel can only presume is a gesture of thanks, before leaping into his own recliner and grooming himself before bed.
“With me, he’s a definite lover,” Kiel said. “When he’s really tired you can pet his belly.”
Caring for Couger mandates a certain degree of caution. Kiel has to be careful not to serve him any meat soaked in blood so he doesn’t acquire the taste. And Couger’s not great around small children or other pets, with one exception.
“When I got him, I got a cat from the pound. You’re supposed to raise these bobcats with a cat, a kitty cat, some kind of bonding thing or whatever,” Kiel said. “That kitty cat, he’s still alive —18 years old! I can’t believe it, and they get along just fine.”
When Couger was younger, he was more comfortable around strangers and new surroundings than he is now, having grown accustomed to a quieter lifestyle.
Kiel occasionally would take Couger into Glacier National Park where people “went nuts for him.”
“Those tourist buses would pull over to do their thing and pretty soon there would be 50 people around takin’ pictures,” he said.
Woodland Park was another favorite walking spot and sometimes they’d even cruise down Main Street, stopping at a handful of bobcat-friendly stores to say hello. The employees at Whitefish Credit Union even kept a supply of milk in their break room, just for Couger.
“There’s all this double-take stuff. I’ve had people follow me in the truck for miles until I stopped and talked and they took pictures,” he said. “But things have changed with the valley and people and businesses. I think they’re all looking at maybe getting sued if something happened.”
Cougar stays close to home these days, hunting critters in Kiel’s yard and enjoying the run of the house.
He is part wild, part domestic, surrounded by nature but also accustomed to the comforts of home life.
For Kiel, that’s part of the allure.
“My favorite part about having him in my life is the fact that I have a pet that’s a real pet that’s supposed to be a wild animal,” he said. “A lot of people are going to read this and say, ‘you shouldn’t have this’ and that kind of stuff. The bottom line is you should be able to do what you want.”
Kiel turns along the path, heading away from the ducks and back to his truck at Woodland Park.
Couger follows slowly, still not quite sure of his surroundings, but trusting of his companion.
Where Kiel leads, Couger follows: an extraordinary sight in an ordinary place.
Wild and contained at the same time.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.