Ollie the Bobcat

Refugees from foreign countries are of topical interest in the United States these days, particularly with the recent ‘travel ban’ imposed by the president. Generally speaking, a refugee is defined as a displaced person who has been forced to cross national boundaries and is unable to return to his or her home of origin. Wildlife that are captured and sent to zoos, circuses and other forms of captivity can be considered refugees as well, when they attempt escape. But in these cases, they are often found and returned to their captive homes. Here's a story of an animal refugee that ironically sought freedom within the Capital Beltway.

On the Lam

Ollie, a 25-pound bobcat went missing this week from Washington’s Smithsonian National Zoo. The D.C. police and a rescue crew involved in the search widened their scope surrounding the facility. Officials warned that while bobcats are handsome animals, they are not domesticated and can be dangerous.

Warnings to the public specifically stated that the public should not consider calling out: “Here, kitty, kitty!” In fact, they instructed that no one should approach the bobcat if they see her. However, it was also reported that there is “no imminent danger” to the public at large, because bobcats are not “known to be aggressive to humans.”

On the other hand, Ollie can be a threat to small dogs and cats. D.C. schools spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said in an email that 13 nearby schools were “on alert status, which includes moving recess indoors.”

If seen, passerbys were requested to note the exact location and the time spotted, and that anyone with information should call the zoo at 202-633-7362, officials said.

Search Crew

Zoo officials indicated that a crew was using industrial nets and protective gloves in the search, along with some special food items to try to entice the female cat to come out of hiding.

The D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance said there were at least four experts who were trained in finding and tracking animals humanely. Having previous experience, one of the Human Rescue Alliance’s experts was intrinsically involved in finding Rusty, a red panda that escaped from the same zoo in 2013.

Home-again, Home-again . . .

On February 1, it was reported that Ollie was found, caught and returned to the zoo. At almost 7-yrs old, while born in the wild, it may be too late to ever consider returning Ollie to her natural habitat. For some time, animal behaviorists have wrestled with the question whether animals in captivity should return ever be returned to the wild. This is of particular concern when big cats have been away from those environs for a good number of years. An animal refugee might not be able to fend for themselves having not honed their survival skills.

Most captive-bred carnivores die if they are thrust into wild without any human oversight. For instance, the odds of lions surviving freedom are only 33 percent, according to a team of researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

"Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural behaviors needed for success in the wild," said lead author and animal behavior researcher Kristen Jule.

The Smithsonian National Zoo is a park full of big cats — Ollie being just one. Many of the captive animals at this zoo are critically endangered in the wild. Some are even extinct in nature and only exist in captivity.

So the ethical question remains. The position supportive of zoos plays off the endangered species argument. This begs the question: Wouldn't you rather see a white rhino or elephant [often poached for their ivory horns and tusks] in a zoo, versus besieged by hunters in the wild? On the other hand, zoos are far from an ideal home for most wildlife. Upkeep and maintenance can be less than desirable — particularly when a zoo’s funding is not at optimum levels.

Hopefully that is not the case with Ollie at the Smithsonian — now that this refugee has been returned to the only home he's really ever known. By the way, we don't know if Donald Trump was ever alerted to the goings-on pertaining to the escape and capture of this particular refugee. Probably for the best! Some things are just better when they're kept under wraps these days! Don't you think?