“They’re just so quiet. People don’t see them even though they’re right there,” says Tracy Rittenhouse of the Connecticut bobcats she is studying. “I think they’re living in places more urban than we ever imagined.”
Her students have shown her pictures of a bobcat they spied in the parking lot of the Young Building on campus. “Bobcats are very good at avoiding people even though they’re active at all times of the day and night.”
Rittenhouse, associate professor of natural resources and the environment, was asked to help analyze data for The Bobcat Project that Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) began last year.
Despite having studied the state’s populations of everything from salamanders and bats to deer and bear, she finds this survey “super exciting.” Few in-depth studies have been done on bobcats anywhere in the country. So there’s a lot to learn.
“THEY ARE MORE COMMON THAN I THOUGHT. THAT’S MY BIGGEST TAKE-HOME THUS FAR.”
Q. If it’s not breaking into my garage, why should I care about this wildlife, where it is, and in what numbers?
A. Wildlife serve as an indicator of habitat quality: If it can support a salamander population, it’s a healthy stream. We’re in this exurban landscape here in Connecticut, this intermix of urban and forest. Having these healthy ecosystems gives us better air quality and better water quality and improves the spaces that we live in. And I think people like to look out their window and see trees and see flowing water. Your day is a little better when you get a bit of that, right?
Q. Growing up, did you bring forest creatures and strays home?
A. I was not that child. I think most people in wildlife are, but I was more of a suburbanite. I grew up in a two-kid-one-dog-two-car-garage house outside Minneapolis. Most of my day-to-day experiences were going to the playground across the street. I remember mallard ducks on the pond.
Q. So what did foster this career interest?
A. I watched the Discovery Channel — a lot. And my family took road trips every year to national parks. I got to see the big charismatic places and to appreciate how fortunate we are to live here because of the awe-inspiring places that our national parks really are.
Q. What stands out from those trips?
A. I loved going to Glacier National Park and seeing the glaciers and the grizzly bears. My mom read “Night of the Grizzlies” out loud to us. Very scary book. [It recounts the true story of two separate fatal grizzly attacks at Glacier on one night in 1967.] We were camping in a tent trailer and my dad did not sleep at all.
I remember going to Yellowstone and being so excited and then being disappointed when I realized that there were human footprints everywhere. Before they had rules about staying on the path, people had had what I perceived as a negative influence on this beautiful place. And so I learned about how important it is to have managers, to have people who are making decisions about how to use the land.
Q. You attended undergrad at University of Wisconsin-Madison. How are your students here different than you and your peers were then?
A. We still thought we could protect all the species. These students are asking, How do we have forest that still has any wildlife populations in it? They think they are inheriting a planet that’s going to see a lot of change, and they’re going to be responsible for living in that change and managing that change, and they’re kind of bracing themselves for difficult decisions.
Q. That is so depressing.
A. [Laughs.] So one of the good things about studying population dynamics is seeing how resilient many wildlife populations are. Deer drop to very low numbers and become abundant again. And turkey. Raptors. So we know it’s possible for populations to rebound. There’s a natural capacity to survive. And that’s a good take-home from population dynamics. You don’t have to save every individual to save the population.
Q. Your children are 7 and 10. How are you passing an appreciation for nature on to them?
A. We try to go on a hike every weekend, even if it’s 20 minutes. We’ve gone to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce. No pop-up trailers, though. We cheat and hotel it.
And then there’s this — in a discussion about college I mentioned going to school in Milwaukee and Rittenhouse said she spent a summer there training to be a prima ballerina. So of course I asked:
Q: You could have been a prima ballerina?
A. I danced. I was reasonably good. I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school training with the Milwaukee Ballet. We took a class on everything you had to do to be a prima and one of the things was not to go to college. My reaction to that was: I’m going to go to college. I still danced all through high school, but I stopped living that dream that I was going to be the next big star.
Q: Did you dance in college?
A. No but I did think about majoring in voice.
Q. Wait, you sing too?
A. Yes. I didn’t pursue it, though. I had a choral director who said: You sing because you like to sing. To do it as a career, you have to be driven to sing.