Rhaegal and Morgan have been on a date for a few weeks now. Morgan seems sleepy. He yawns; his eyes become glassy slits. Rhae, on the other hand, is all energy. She prowls around the yard, vocalizing, crouching, puffing outward, almost spherical—all two and a half pounds of her. “She’s running around like a little madwoman,” says Amanda Collins, the carnivore curator at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, in Glen Rose, an hour southwest of Fort Worth.

Nine-year-old Rhae and twelve-year-old Morgan, two black-footed cats, recently matched on a dating app—at least that’s how Collins explains it to me. In reality it’s a genetics database, also known as a studbook, used by breeding programs like this one. “They don’t get to pick who they want to mate with based on looks—it’s who’s going to create the most genetically diverse offspring,” she says. If Rhae doesn’t fall for Morgan after spending a month or so in the same enclosure, no worries: the scientists at Fossil Rim have another eligible male in waiting, preciously named Smidgen.

Twelve-year-old Morgan at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.
Twelve-year-old Morgan at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Courtesy of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

The sleepy North Texas countryside might seem like an unlikely place for the breeding of one of Africa’s rarest wildcats, but it’s an excellent spot for the sprawling Fossil Rim, which has 1,800 acres for approximately 1,100 animals, many of which are featured along the wildlife drive the center offers—and most of which are native to hotter climes. Fossil Rim is the top North American breeding facility for black-footed cats, housing seven of the tiny felines (of 28 total in North America) and last year sending out four kittens, which Collins tells me is an impressive result. That brings the total number born since the program began, in 2015, to thirteen. Two ended up in the Kansas City Zoo and one in Prospect Park Zoo, in New York. 

The final kitten, the wide-eyed Gaia, recently went to Utah’s Hogle Zoo, in Salt Lake City; fittingly, her great-grandparents were once a breeding pair there. Her arrival set off a cascade of press and social media attention for the species in January, perhaps a result of the contrast between the species’s adorable features and deadly nature. The black-footed cat, despite weighing no more than 4.2 pounds on average, is the most successful hunter of all wildcats, able to catch more prey in one night than a leopard might in six months. (Meanwhile, my lazy sixteen-pound house cat can hardly vanquish a cockroach.)

“One of our goals is to raise awareness of the species as a whole, because we really need support from the public,” said Janice Thompson, a Hogle veterinary technician and part of the management team for the Black-footed Cat Consortium, of which Collins is also a member. “It’s the rarest African cat. We’re working really hard to increase their numbers.”

At Fossil Rim, Rhae—whose striped face, legs, and tail resemble a tabby’s and whose back and sides are more akin to a cheetah’s, a fitting amalgam—tracks us warily with slitted golden eyes as we discuss her breeding potential. She mimics a bird’s chirp in the manner of a house cat who sees an enticing dove out the window. But Collins and other wildlife specialists are careful to emphasize that these tiny, deceptively darling felines are not like your domesticated pals (apologies to all friends who asked if I would be able to hold one during my reporting). 

“Think of your house cat when they don’t want to be petted, times ten—that’s what these guys are like,” says Collins. While she no longer startles when handling cheetahs—of which Fossil Rim is also one of the top breeders in the country—she does jump when a black-footed cat comes at her. “They do not bluff if they want to do something. And we frequently tell them that: ‘I know you would. You would kill me in a heartbeat if you could.’ ” Those who work with them often bring little rakes in to keep them at bay.

Here’s where I become like David Attenborough when his narration turns from playful to serious in an episode of Planet Earth: Despite their ability to sustain and defend themselves, the black-footed cat is a vulnerable species, primarily as a result of human encroachment and deforestation. That’s why breeding programs like Fossil Rim’s are so useful—the center, along with other accredited institutions, is creating a backup in case the wild population does go extinct. As of 2019, there were only about 10,000 left.

“We don’t have a lot of the big, charismatic animals that you would typically think of that you see in zoos,” Collins says, such as elephants. “And that’s for a reason. Not to say those animals don’t always have a need, but we try to focus on the animals that we can really make a difference for.” Fossil Rim has been key to the conservation of various endangered species: the addax (eight hundred total born at the center), the scimitar-horned oryx (eighteen reintroduced to the wild), and the Attwater’s prairie chicken (of which it’s the top breeding center). It was also part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan from 1989 to 2023, producing 37 pups of this critically endangered species, which has lost 99.7 percent of its historical range.

While many species are in the private Intensive Management Area to better facilitate breeding and care, there are plenty, including the more endangered species, along the 7.2-mile wildlife drive, where visitors can take guided and self-guided tours and have an opportunity to feed animals such as mountain zebras, giraffes, aoudads, emus, and wildebeests. My partner and I did the drive and felt childlike glee as giraffes dipped their heads through the car window and zebras opened their dull-toothed mouths demonstratively for a few bits of feed (which visitors are given in a paper cone at the start of the drive). 

That focus on conservation also means the black-footed cats have as naturalistic a space as possible. “Fossil Rim is so successful with their breeding program,” Thompson says. “Part of that is because it’s behind the scenes, and the cats have a lot of privacy.”

The enclosures are outside, and Fossil Rim has set them up with all the things the cats love—in particular, dark, little rocky caves and hollowed-out logs. There are five or so large enclosures (which used to house coatis) and, in each, at least five places to do what they do naturally, which is hide. In fact, of the seven cats, Rhae and Morgan are the only ones out and about when I visit—the rest are completely concealed, probably asleep. The climate in hot, sunny Glen Rose is also a plus. Collins said it’s similar to the species’s native range in Namibia, Central and Southern Botswana, and South Africa. And while the cats’ diet consists mostly of previously frozen prey items, sometimes Collins and her colleagues will find a headless snake or evidence of devoured prey in their area, since smaller native animals are able to fit through the surrounding wire.

For those who’d like to see a black-footed cat in person, Fossil Rim has two for public viewing in their Children’s Animal Center—but it’s best to visit early in the morning, when the cats are more likely to be active. Otherwise, you can follow Gaia’s exploits on Hogle Zoo’s Instagram or see what many of these secretive felines are up to across the U.S. on the Black-footed Cat Consortium’s Instagram. And keep an eye out for the next round of kittens at Fossil Rim—perhaps Rhae and Morgan will be the proud parents of a killer.