CSI: Mather Field

Episode 3

Episode 1 | Episode #2

Previously on CSI Mather Field…

Fourth-grade students, who had been studying our Splash Vernal Pool science curriculum in their classroom, were visiting Sacramento Splash at Mather Field, enjoying their field trip experience.  On their walk through the vernal pool grasslands, these budding nature detectives discovered bones from a domestic cat jaw, as well as ring-necked pheasant leg bones.  Upon further investigation, they came upon a trail through the grasslands, coyote tracks, and coyote scat.  They put two and two together and came to the conclusion that a coyote had killed and eaten a domestic cat and a pheasant.  But the case wasn’t closed yet.


A week or so after that fourth grade class first discovered the crime scene; we Splash guides were leading another group of students through the same general area at Mather Field.  The original set of bones was still there in the field and we told the students about the mystery solved by the prior class.


On these field trips, as the Splash guides lead a class of students on their hike, we split the big class into three smaller groups, each with their own Splash guide for the day.  I led my group on a slightly different route than we normally take and we discovered something truly amazing.


Although we often find coyote scat while hiking around in the field, on this day we found coyote scat that was extra special!  This pile of scat was packed with cat!  There was clearly a cat’s skeletal hind foot visible in the scat, with the bones still articulated and claws evident.  The students commented that it looked as though the cat that was eaten had brown fur.  One student even observed that there were whiskers in the scat!



We were so excited by our discovery that we couldn’t wait to share it with the rest of the class.  At the end of the walk, as the three smaller groups were converging towards the school bus, Splash Guide Melanie Duboce and her group of students approached.  Melanie is always smiling.  Today, however, she and her group had extra big smiles on their faces.  You could tell they were about to explode if they didn’t tell us what they found.  Melanie held the object up in the air and dangled it in front of us.


It was a small, blue pet’s collar, adorned with tags and two little bells!  One of the tags was an animal license and the other was a nametag, including a street address and phone number.  The animal that used to wear that collar apparently was named Sunkist.  So Melanie’s group shared their discovery and we shared ours.  We then said our goodbyes and the bus whisked the students back to their school.



When the guides arrived back at the Splash Center, curiosity got the better of me.  I decided to call the phone number on the collar’s tag.  A woman answered and I introduced myself, told her about Splash, where we’re located, and what we do.  She was quite friendly and mentioned that she also lived very close by in the Mather area.


I explained to her that on our walk with the students that day we had found a small, blue pet’s collar with tags on it.  I hesitated for a moment and then asked her, “Did you have a cat named Sunkist?”


There was a prolonged silence on the other end of the line.  I was worried that perhaps I crossed a boundary of some sort.  I fully expected her to hang up on me.  Fortunately, she surprised me and responded, “Yes.  We had a beautiful brown cat named Sunkist that disappeared about a year ago.”  She continued, “We assumed the coyotes got her.”


I apologized to her for dredging up old memories but hoped our discoveries brought some closure to the situation for her.  I let her know that her hypothesis about the coyotes was probably correct.  Perhaps she can find some solace in knowing that little Sunkist not only contributed to the well being of our local coyotes but also provided an amazing learning opportunity for dozens of fourth and fifth grade students.


One of the greatest lessons learned by these students was probably to keep their pet cats inside.  Although domestic cats are very efficient predators, they are no match for coyotes and Great Horned Owls, which regularly prey upon cats.  People often put little bells on their cat’s collar to prevent the cat from killing other animals.  However, if the cat spends time outside, especially at night, those little bells may become dinner bells for a coyote, with the kitty as the main course!


“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!”


Protect your kitties and our native wildlife!  Keep your cats safely inside!  Domestic cats, both outside pets and feral cats, are very efficient predators and the numbers of native birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that they kill each year in North America is truly staggering.  A recent study, conducted by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (published in the January 2013 journal, Nature Communications), concludes that cats kill as many as 4 billion birds and 22.3 billion mammals annually in the United States!


To learn more about the impact domestic cats have on native wildlife, check out these informative links: