KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – After 18-year-old bobcat Kirby passed away last month, Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium staff say the search is still ongoing to find a potential successor — or successors — for the cat that spent the last decade in the park.

One small problem, though: finding a bobcat these days is a tall order.

“You have to keep in mind, bobcats are not like dogs where you can go to the local humane society or the pound and find said animal,” Megan Krager, senior naturalist for Bays Mountain, said. “It takes a selective process in order to obtain a bobcat for park purposes.”

Kirby the Bobcat (PHOTO: BAYS MOUNTAIN)

The park obtains its animals in a variety of ways, but the majority of captive wildlife in the park comes from either wildlife rehabilitators that receive an injured animal that can’t be released or zoo operators that have a surplus of animals after several are born in captivity. Neither of those occasions happens on a predictable basis.

“Right now, it’s just looking at who has what, what do they have, and then also too how we’re going to get said animal to the park,” Krager said. “Do we go and pick them up? Do we go and fly them on an airplane? So it just depends on where they’re at and how far they are from the park, and what sources are around in order to get them from point A to point B.”

Krager said the park has reached out to Tennessee wildlife rehabilitators and sent out feelers to out-of-state organizations to see if any are available, but they haven’t found a perfect match yet.

“We are expanding our footprint, so to speak, into other agencies,” Krager said. “So that if there is leads, then we can go out and follow said leads. Right now, we have a couple of options; however, the options are not quite born yet or are born but they’re not ready to come to a facility like ours.”

When a potential new resident is found, there are a variety of factors that determine whether an animal is a good fit for the mountains of Tennessee. Park naturalists have to evaluate each possible option and want to be sure that the animal has the highest chance of success and happiness. In some cases, park naturalists may only have a description of the animal or images.

“Even though we may not be able to go to the rehabilitator, we’re using the rehabilitator as our eyes to ask them what are their physical characteristics? What do you see on a daily basis when you interact with said animal? Where did the animal come from? Do you have any history about the family?” Krager said. “And so we’ll get as much information as possible in order to make our decisions here at the park.”

For Bays Mountain, a good candidate should be relatively comfortable around humans. Before animals ever see guests, park staff work closely with them in a bonding process to make sure their debut to the public goes as smoothly as possible.

“For some animals, they warm up to people very quickly. Other animals, it takes them a little bit longer,” Krager said. “We don’t force anything. So if we go and sit near a habitat and that animal walks away, and we do it a little bit each day, eventually the animal will come and sit next to said person. And then eventually they’ll get accustomed to us.”

It’s an unfortunate fact for pet owners and wildlife rehabilitators alike that animals don’t live forever. For a park, creatures like Kirby become as much a part of the family as anyone else.

“When we have an animal that has spent the time that he has here, you get very connected with said animal,” Krager said. “And so, it was a very sobering moment for us when Kirby did pass.”

While losing Kirby has been hard, it can serve as a valuable learning opportunity for young park guests to become more familiar with losing an animal in an easier way.

“When the question is brought up, we’ll go ahead and discuss it very briefly, depending on the age of the child, and then we’ll move right along into topics. But at the same time, we just basically say that it’s part of life.”

Park staff say they try not to cling to past animals because many that arrive at the park are injured in one way or another and may not live as long as healthier animals. What they can do, however, is make sure they have the best care available and open the spot up to another animal when it’s available.

In the meantime, park naturalists are keeping an ear to the ground for any nearby bobcats that need a good home. Krager said the park may take on multiple animals if the opportunity presents itself, though it’s too early to tell.