In 2019, Nebraska joined 13 other states in allowing mountain lions to be hunted legally. Bobcat numbers are up across their native range, and that range is expanding rapidly. With increasing numbers comes increased hunting opportunities. And that raises the question: If we are going to hunt big cats, should we also be eating them?
The concept of cats as food isn’t a new one. Many Native American tribes hunted them for that purpose, but for many modern hunters, cats as food is a hot-button issue. In America, cats just aren’t viewed as table fare. It’s a cultural thing, a food taboo.
So why don’t we eat the big cats we hunt? It isn’t that the meat has an unpleasant texture or flavor; it’s actually very good. The most common description I hear of both mountain lion and bobcat is that it tastes like lean pork. And it does. The flavor is mild, almost bland as far as game meat goes, with a texture that is dense and meaty, similar to pork loin. Because of the mild flavor, the meat from large cats takes seasoning well. Any of your favorite seasoning blends and cooking methods for chicken or pork will work well with cats. Since the meat from big cats is lean to begin with, low and slow or moist cooking techniques help keep the meat from drying out. Overnight brining in saltwater before cooking also adds moisture to the finished meal.
Some hunters claim they won’t eat big cats because they are predators and the vast majority of our normal table fare consists of plant eaters. But many of those same folks enjoy fish or alligator meat, almost exclusively predatory animals. Black bears, depending on the time of year and territory, can be mostly predatory. Wild hogs are the ultimate omnivores, happily consuming just about everything, plant or animal, in their path. Even wild turkeys relish a diet of insects and small mammals like juvenile mice and shrews.
Are there safety concerns when eating a predatory animal? Not many. Just like wild pigs and bears, big cats can be carriers of Trichinella spiralis, the roundworm that causes trichinosis in humans. Contamination is easily prevented by cleaning knives and cutting surfaces after processing, freezing the meat for at least 21 days, and cooking to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
But attitudes might be changing according to Miles Fedinec, hunting consultant for World of Hunting Adventure, professional guide, and longtime cat hunter. “Ten years ago, most of our clients were strictly interested in hunting mountain lions for the trophy. After the harvest, processing and consumption was looked at as a legal obligation more than the bonus of a freezer full of healthy and organic meat. Today, attitudes have changed. Most of our hunters are interested in preparing the meat for the table. In fact, a few of our hunters openly admit to hunting primarily for the meat, with the trophy aspect being secondary.”
What has caused the change in attitude? Fedinec thinks a lot of it goes back to familiarity with the animal and the growing popularity of providing self-harvested, organic protein for yourself and your family. Thirty years ago, the average person never came into contact with a mountain lion or a bobcat. Today, increased populations of both large cats and the expansion of urban populations into traditional cat habitat brings humans and big cats into frequent contact. “Today, what used to be vast expanses of open ranch land is now taken up with 35-acre ranchettes,” said Fedinec. “With cat populations on the increase, they have no choice but to live among humans. This means almost daily interaction with people, and that removes a lot of the mystique the cats had when they were rarely seen.”
The same goes for bobcats across the Midwest and the Southeast. Laura Palmer, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife furbearer biologist, says bobcat populations are on the increase across their range. Just like their larger western cousins, increased bobcat numbers lead to increased bobcat/human interaction and more familiarity among not only hunters and trappers, but also the general public.
Another factor in the changing attitude, as Fedinec noted, are legal requirements that big cats be fully processed for the table. “In Colorado, our hunters have to remove the carcass from the field along with the hide,” said Fedinec. “All meat from the mountain lion has to be processed for consumption.”
Possibly the biggest impact on changing food attitudes comes in the form of expanded social media and television and streaming media coverage of unfamiliar food cultures. Highly rated Popular programs, including Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil, and the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, have exposed millions of viewers to exotic foods and ingredients in ways never before experienced. These shows influence viewers to experiment with new and unusual foods and experiences. Because of this, we will try things we previously would have thought were outside our comfort zone—including big cats.
Try this recipe for Cured & Smoked Bobcat Ham!