The residents of a northwestern Ontario city seem to have found themselves in the midst of a lynx convention.
The animals are showing up in the city’s most urban areas — backyards, ski parks, condo properties — seemingly indifferent to the slack-jawed humans in their midst.
And they’re putting on a heck of a show.
While these animals, called Canadian lynx, can be found across the country, they typically call forests home. This year, something appears to have changed.
Police in Thunder Bay have confirmed to MNN that it’s the first time the service has received calls about the animals within the city limits.
As in roads. Sidewalks. And yards.
The number of sightings has prompted police to urge residents to be vigilant when walking outside — even in heart of the city.
"Police will provide a primary response for incidents that pose an immediate threat to human safety," Constable Julie Tilbury of the Thunder Bay Police Service tells MNN. But she adds, if the animals are not aggressive, the cases are referred to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests.
Humans don't phase them
The animals, best described as supersized house cats, pose a unique problem for residents. For starters, humans don’t seem to faze them. And while it may make for some stunning social media moments, that absence of fear can be unhealthy for everyone.
"It's certainly unusual in the sense that lynx are usually in the forest ... [but] when you actually see a lynx as opposed to a bobcat, they don't seem to be afraid of you," Ron Moen, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota told CBC News. "A lot of times a lynx will just sit or stand there and look back at you."
"Based on my interactions with them in the wild ... you don't want to walk up to it and try to give it a scrap of meat, but staying 10 or 15 yards away, I personally would be okay with that."
But some Thunder Bay cats have taken things further than staring contests with window-gawking humans and their equally spellbound pets. Last month, a woman had to wrest her dog free from a lynx that had pounced on the animal just outside a downtown condo.
"I picked the lynx up behind the front paws and I shook it so it would disengage Molly," the dog’s owner, Nowell Sleep explained to CBC, "and I picked up Molly and then ran inside the front entrance."
In just the few days between Feb. 26 and March 6, the Ministry of Natural Resources fielded 19 calls from people reporting lynx in the area.
But Michelle Nowak, regional outreach specialist for the ministry, tells MNN that doesn’t necessarily mean the lynx population is booming. Instead, the animal’s main source of food — the snowshoe hare — may be getting scarcer.
"The population cycles of these two species are closely linked," she says. "During times of abundant hares, lynx will eat about two hares every three days which can make up in excess of 90 per cent of its diet."
It’s possible lynx are having trouble finding their favorite meal and may be venturing into town to see what else is on offer.
In any case, declining snowshoe hare numbers inevitably lead to a similar decline in the lynx population.
"This boom and bust cycle generally lasts about 10 years between the peak and the decline," Nowak explains.
For now, at least from Thunder Bay's perspective, it appears to be a boom season for lynx.
And while these close encounters of the giant feline kind certainly make for some spectacular social media moments, they can also lead to tragedy all around.
So far, police and wildlife agents haven’t had to resort to lethal force, but when humans and wild animals get too close, the potential for violence only grows.
What’s more, Ontario law allows farmers to kill a lynx that’s damaging or about to damage property.
To help prevent deadly run-ins with the animals, the ministry has released a guide to lynx encounters.
But one of the best ways to raise public awareness may be via the sheer virility of the posts themselves.
"The sharing of images on local social media has really brought these sightings in Thunder Bay and Shuniah Township to the public’s attention," Tilbury notes.