Wild Cats in Arizona

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Arizona is one of the most diverse states in the country, with landscapes ranging from the driest deserts to the deep snows and alpine forests of the high country. Many species of animals in the American West make their homes in Arizona, including several species of wild cats.

From the elusive mountain lion to the more common bobcat, wildlife enthusiasts would be thrilled to spot any of the wild cats in Arizona. There are four confirmed species found here, while the jaguarundi has only been rumored to be spotted in more remote areas.

While all of these wild cats are skilled hunters, luckily no person in Arizona has ever been killed by any of these cats, and attacks are extremely rare. Pets and livestock are in more danger from wild cats, especially as human development reaches into more and more natural habitats.

Let’s now have a look at all the big cats in Arizona!

Read also: The Best Zoos and Wildlife Parks in Arizona.

1. Mountain Lion

Desert Mountain Lion in Tucson, Arizona
Desert Mountain Lion in Tucson

Also called puma, cougar, or panther depending on where they live, the mountain lion is North America’s biggest cat. In Arizona, there are estimated to be between 2500 to 3500 of these big cats. Males tend to be heavier than females, and a big male can weigh up to 150 pounds.

If you think you won’t ever see a mountain lion because you live in the city, think again; mountain lions claim their own territories and these can span huge areas of land, and have been seen in the Phoenix and Tucson city limits! These cats are notoriously sneaky, and chances are if you see one, it has already spotted you well before you noticed it.

Mountain lions eat anything they can catch, but the majority of their diet is deer, elk, javelina, bighorn sheep, rabbits, and squirrels. They tend to cache their kills, burying the dead carcasses of their prey in shallow holes in the ground. For those who dabble in catching photos of wild game on motion-sensor cameras, you’ll be guaranteed to get some excellent shots of these big cats if you set up your gear near a cache.

The mountain lions of Arizona are especially hardy and have adapted to survive in both arid deserts and alpine mountain ranges. The big cats have territories over much of the state, except for the driest and desolate desert areas. You’re unlikely to come across one on a hike, however, because each mountain lion has its own territory that can span up to 100 square miles.

What should you do if you do come across the biggest wild cat in Arizona? Don’t run! Instead, make yourself big by raising your arms or spreading out your jacket above your head, and make lots of noise! Mountain lions do not like people and will almost always run away from you. Don’t fret, nobody has ever been killed by a mountain lion in Arizona!

It’s rare to see one of these big cats in the wild (I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life, and have never seen one) so if you do see one, count yourself lucky!

2. Bobcat

A Bobcat sitting on red rocks near a cave in Arizona
A Bobcat sitting on red rocks near a cave in Arizona

Bobcats are about the size of a medium-sized dog and are named for their short “bobbed” tails. Their coat is mottled brown with subtle spots and sometimes will have black stripes on their legs and a black-tipped tail.

Like mountain lions, bobcat sightings in cities are becoming more common as humans spread their neighborhoods out into the surrounding landscape. Danger to humans is very low, but bobcats have been known to attack pets and livestock at houses that border the wilderness areas. If you live in known bobcat territories, it is best to keep your small pets inside at night!

Bobcats are skilled hunters, and can jump to heights of up to 12 feet; even a tall fence may not deter a bobcat from coming after your chickens. Their territory size varies- females with kittens usually won’t wander any farther than 5 square miles, while solitary males tend to wander up to 30 square miles.

Bobcats may be small, but they are mighty! They can hunt small deer, javelina, squirrels, birds, and rabbits. They are very quick on their feet and like most cats, have lightning-fast reflexes. They can run up to speeds of 30 miles per hour when hunting game and are incredibly patient while silently stalking.

Seeing a bobcat in Arizona is more common than seeing a mountain lion, but is always an exciting moment!

3. Jaguar

Jaguar

Much rarer than either mountain lions or bobcats are the elusive jaguars. Many years ago, there was a healthy population of jaguars that roamed from Central America up into modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Human encroachment and hunting eventually dwindled this population to only one or two individuals in Arizona, including the famous male El Jefe, who was last spotted in 2015.

Jaguars are iconic for their beautiful spotted coats, strong necks and forelegs, and muscular jaws that can take down any large animal. They hunt primarily by stalking their prey until they are within striking distance, then pouncing and grabbing the animal with their powerful jaws.

Any jaguars that have been spotted in Arizona have originated in Mexico, and there is believed to be about 4,000 individual jaguars that live there. Conservation efforts are working on creating a natural and protected corridor for these exotic big cats to migrate to Arizona and breed here.

As recently as February 2021, photographs of a male jaguar were captured on wildlife cameras deep in the Cabezas and Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona. The hope for a return of these gorgeous big cats to the mountains of Arizona lies on these few cats who make the journey from Mexico.

4. Ocelot

Composite of Ocelot Descending a Cliff Wall in Arizona
Composite of Ocelot Descending a Cliff Wall in Arizona

Like the jaguar, ocelots primarily live in Central and South America, but a few have been spotted in person and by cameras in recent years. These small but powerful cats have long black-striped tails, stripes on their neck and face, and wide spots on their bodies. They almost look like a smaller version of a jaguar.

Currently, there is only one known male ocelot in Arizona and was captured on camera in the same month as the jaguar, but about 100 miles away. This little guy is certainly elusive, and there have only been 94 sightings on wildlife cameras of this cat since 2012.

These small cats (they weigh up to 34 pounds) are incredible hunters, and are very skilled at climbing trees, swimming across creeks and rivers, and leaping up boulders. Their territory size matches their small stature, and they tend to hunt in a small area, stalking their prey’s scent trail.

Ocelot kittens are extremely cute, and for this reason, they have become popular as tamed pets. However, it is very difficult to keep such exotic animals as household pets, and it is not recommended.

Ocelots are much more numerous in the jungles of Brazil and Central America, but growing populations in northern Mexico give hope for breeding groups to migrate to Arizona. As of right now, only a few ocelots have been spotted in recent months in Arizona.

Conclusion

Wild cats need space, sufficient prey, and suitable habitat in order to thrive. In Arizona, there are areas of the state that provide everything that wild cats need. Mountain lions roam large areas, sometimes coming close to neighborhoods and cities, but tend to keep their distance. They are the largest and most powerful of Arizona’s wild cats.

Bobcats are the most plentiful and are much more commonly seen in the suburbs, hoping to find a tasty pet chicken or small dog. They have started to adapt to city life, so those living on the fringes of the city should take extra caution with their pets and livestock!

Jaguars are extremely rare in Arizona but have been sighted by scientists and hikers in the remote southern mountain ranges. Ocelots are about as rare and are smaller cousins of jaguars. All of these cats are skilled hunters with beautiful coats.

The wild cats of Arizona are top of the food chain, and seeing one is an unforgettable experience! Although these cats are big and made to hunt and kill prey, they pose little danger to humans. Always remember to be respectful of their space and enjoy them from a safe distance. Arizona’s wild cats are special and worthy of protection from all of us!

Read also: The Best Zoos and Wildlife Parks in Arizona.

Alicia Durette

Alicia Durette

Alicia is a trail runner, hiker, ultra-marathoner, and adventurer. She previously worked as a physical therapist assistant for 8 years, and now works as a travel writer while being a stay-at-home mom to her little girl. Alicia is a native Arizonan going back 4 generations and has also lived in Utah and Montana. She is happiest in the mountains with her family, running long miles on trails, and bagging peaks with her baby in tow. Alicia currently resides with her husband, baby, and chocolate lab Maggie in Mesa, Arizona.