Mammal Monday — The "Op Art" Cat

These wildcats are so fascinating to some people that even famous painter Salvador Dalí owned an ocelot named Babou and often took it to a restaurant in New York City, tethering it to the table. Of course, its appearance raised concerns, and Dalí once told a fellow diner when asked about it that it was just a regular house cat painted with an “op art design.”

courtesy USFW

Ocelots are, in fact, quite similar to house cats but a bit larger. They are more similar in size to a bobcat. People often refer to them as “painted leopards” due to their spotted markings or even “dwarf leopards” due to their size. They have also been nicknamed “ghost cats” because of their secretive and nocturnal nature.

In Texas, ocelots are rare, as there are an estimated 80-100 individuals living in South Texas. They mainly reside in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding dense thorn-scrub areas of the Rio Grande Valley. Texas has the only ocelot breeding population in the country.

Historically, ocelots occurred throughout South Texas, the southern Edwards Plateau region and along the Coastal Plain. However, their population declined from habitat destruction and other human activities. More recently, ocelot populations have decreased as highway construction has increased. About half of the ocelot deaths documented in the past 20 years have been from traffic mortality. In recent years, eight underpasses have been built east of Brownsville to allow wildlife, especially ocelots, to safely cross highways. In January, an ocelot was recorded using an underpass for the first time.

Though chances of long-term survival may seem slim for ocelots in Texas because of their small population, there is still hope. In spring 2020, wildlife officials celebrated the discovery of a new young male ocelot at Laguna Atascosa, spotted on a remote camera. So don’t give up yet on these “ghost cats” in Texas!

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


  1. Driving on US 87 between Texline and Dalhart a couple of days ago, an animal ran across the highway in front of us. When we go closer, I looked to the side as from a distance it looked like a dog but did not have the gate of a dog. I thought it was a bobcat until looking at the pictures of the Ocelot and it sure looked more like this and a bobcat as it had a lot more spots. Sorry, I don’t remember exactly where is was other than there was a clump of trees on the south side of the highway and railroad tracks. I think they were doing some road work near that area also or shoulder work.

  2. Three years ago I saw a road killed ocelot on Highway 57 at the Immigration Check Station roughly 8 miles northeast of Eagle Pass . Oddly , it was within that heavily lighted area at the check station. Thinking it was a well spotted bobcat I backed up to take a look at it and it was definitely an Ocelot.. (If you stop and back up to check a road kill near an Immigration Check Station , expect a long interrogation complete with dogs .)
    Then 25+ years ago we had a guest on our deer least 10 miles north of Junction,Texas . The man was in a low tree stand and had a cat walk under him only a few feet away ..He said he was prepared to shoot it thinking it was a bobcat but when it walked under him he said it had a tail nearly as long as his body and was smallish .. Afraid it was the rancher's housecat , he let it pass . I showed him some pictures of Ocelots and he immediately said that was what he saw . That was in one pasture of the Alamo Ranch that runs from the east side of Hwy 83 west to Cleo ,Tx and around 7,000 acres , much of it wild and wooly with large tracks with good creeks in all directions. I'm puzzled as to why Ocelots that we knew were there 25 years ago could not have thrived ?

  3. 3 years ago one of my men on a pipeline project took a picture of an ocelot north of San Angelo.

  4. Nice cat photo I like the second one because that one is look like a tiger as Immigration Consultants Sg