The fuzzy, brown bobcats may have smaller ears and shorter tails than domestic kittens, but when their soft, high-pitched mews ring out, Bobbi the black-and-white house cat doesn't seem to notice the difference.
She licks the three baby bobcats, then rolls over so they can nurse. Because of this adoptive mama, the orphaned bobcats now have a chance at life in the wild.
It all started Friday, when Tampa's Big Cat Rescue got a call from an Alabama veterinarian seeking help for newborn bobcats that a hunter dropped off. The vet believed the hunter shot their mother, and the staff was concerned for the safety of the kittens, whose eyes were still closed.
Big Cat Rescue president Jamie Veronica went on a 24-hour road trip to and from Alabama. She drove on, even through rainstorms at night, to pick up the bobcats. She named them Midnight, Rain and Storm.
Veronica bottle-fed them every few hours. But on Monday, their eyes started to open. It was crunch time. She didn't want the bobcats to see her because they'd bond with her and become domesticated.
Big Cat Rescue wanted to return the bobcats to the wild, and to do that they needed to pick up skills such as stalking and hunting. Veronica had to find a motherly feline to adopt the kittens and teach them.
She made a flurry of calls to local shelters and stumbled upon Bobbi, a former stray taken in by Suncoast Animal League. Bobbi's kittens had just started eating solid foods, leaving her with milk to spare for the three bobcats.
On Tuesday, the league sent over the mama cat.
Workers were silent as they opened her carrier in the room with the bobcats. There was a chance it wouldn't work. Bobbi might not want them around. She might not like their smell. She might even hurt them, said Rick Chaboudy, Suncoast's director.
Bobbi stepped out of the carrier and looked around. Then a soft cry came from the kittens. Her motherly instincts kicked in and, within minutes, she was nursing them.
It was an emotional moment, Chaboudy said, describing the scene on Wednesday.
Big Cat Rescue plans to release the bobcat kittens into the wild in a year, after they learn how to hunt.
And what's in Bobbi's future?
She'll be around to nurse the kittens for a few more weeks, then Suncoast will neuter her and put her up for adoption. Chaboudy doesn't think he'll have any trouble finding her a home now that she's a hero.
"But on Mother's Day," he said, "I think she deserves some recognition."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.