It crawled out of a hole in the base of an old live oak stump and sat atop as if it owned the world.
The small, striking creature had a round face, with large cupped ears and a gorgeous, banded tail.
It was an animal I had heard of and now at age 18, was seeing in a remote creek bottom in Menard County, TX.
It was a ringtail cat.
Well, that’s the name I had always heard-“ringtail cat” with the emphasis on “cat”.
My studies on this charming animal however, told me it was not a cat at all.
According to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials, the ringtail is a cat-sized carnivore that is kin to raccoons, not felids. Its bushy tail is flattened and nearly as long as the head and body, with alternating black and white rings.
These are highly nocturnal animals that conduct most of their business in the middle of the night. My sighting however was about an hour before dark and since I was positioned in a ground blind, it never knew I was there.
The ringtail sat there for 30 minutes or so and then crawled down and disappeared into the brush.
Ringtails are associated with the Texas Hill Country and Trans Pecos and according to TPWD are distributed statewide. My high school art teacher who is a brilliant wildlife artist told me of seeing one in Pinehurst in Orange County around the time I was in school in the 90s.
I also have reports from a trapper who claims to have caught one in Sour Lake and a camper who reported seeing one near Sam Rayburn reservoir.
The International Union on the Conservation of Nature shows them present through the state, but I have never seen one or even a game camera photo of one in Southeast Texas where I live.
On the Jan. 29 edition of my radio program “Moore Outdoors” I spoke about ringtails and mentioned these obscure sighting references.
A listener emailed me and said I should contact TPWD-licensed wildlife rehabber Pam Jordan.
She was in possession of a ringtail brought to her by a TPWD game warden that was caught in a live trap by a resident of Bridge City, near the shore of Texas’ northenmost bay Sabine Lake.
Was this a ringtail brought from someone who hunts or perhaps owns land in the Texas Hill Country? It very well could be.
I have solicited wildlife reports, photographs and trail camera evidence for decades in the region and only have the above accounts with no hard proof.
Could it be a native remnant of a small, hidden population?
TPWD, IUCN and researchers at Texas Tech University show evidence it could be. The below map from Texas Tech’s Natural Science Research Laboratory shows a verified sighting in Jefferson County.
No one will ever know the origin but this mystery give us a great opportunity to learn of a beautiful, unique resident of Texas. Jordan said this animal will be released into a safe, undisclosed location and said people should not take animals from the wild home with them. Such incidents causes problems for the animal and often the people who caught them.
She noted that ringtails were brought into caves by miners who had no conflict with them as they worked during the day when ringtails sleep. At night however they would awaken and prey on the rodents in the mines.
Since that sighting in my youth I have only spotted two other ringtails and both of them were in Menard County during the same timeframe. And I have spent a vast amount of time in ringtail country.
I was blessed to have had the opportunity to see the one Jordan is caring for at her facility.
A ringtail may not be a cat but they’re very bit as fascinating and mysterious as any of the wild cats that inhabit Texas. Seeing one today reminded me there are always surprises in the wild.
And some of them are downright beautiful.