Texas is home to some of the creepiest, crawliest, and otherwise oddest animals on the planet. We introduce you to them in What in Tarnation?!, an occasional series.

The elusive creature weighs only a pound or two and looks like a mix of a domestic cat (although the two aren’t related), a fox, a ferret, and a raccoon. Padding silently in the night on tiny pink paws, with wide eyes, a pointed snout, and rounded ears, it’s cute in a strange and wild way. The signature ringed tail sets it apart, coasting fluffily behind its furry body in a long cascade of black and white stripes. This is the ringtail, the cutest little mammal you might never have heard of (or seen).

Ringtails are common in Central and West Texas, in part because they love rocky, semiarid conditions. Though the species is less prevalent in East Texas, it does enjoy woody regions, especially those near sources of water. Ringtails are also excellent hunters. They will eat almost anything, but they have a particular fondness for figs. Some ringtail fans even hang homemade jams in jars from trees, hoping for a rare photo op. Don’t count on getting one, though. “They love anywhere with lots of places to hide,” says Addison Preston, park interpreter at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. “When I think of them, I think of that shy younger sibling that is always hiding in a corner.” Preston herself has only seen a ringtail a handful of times, though they’re common at Enchanted Rock.  

With lots of basins, rocky surfaces, and shady tree cover, the terrain of the Texas Hill Country is especially well suited to the ringtail’s nature. The critters make great climbers, with long hind feet that can freakishly rotate a full 180 degrees. Outdoor enthusiast Street Rogers witnessed the ringtail’s unusual way of moving, called bounding—alternating between hopping and running—several times in his childhood. Growing up near Uvalde in the fifties and sixties, Rogers and his buddies hunted small animals and sold their pelts for spending cash. “They were plentiful in those days, all those varmints,” says Rogers, who has long since stopped storing small animals in his freezer. Back then, he recalls, the ringtail was worth a dollar more than its larger cousin, the raccoon, due to its ability to escape predators (including adolescent hunters). 

Ringtails have long been popular for their pest-control skills. In the 1800s, the species earned the nickname “miner’s cat” because ringtails often lived in gold-mining camps, keeping unwanted insects and mice at bay and providing entertainment in an otherwise harsh environment. In 1986, the ringtail was designated the state mammal of Arizona, solidifying its status as a cultural icon of the Southwest. You might also hear it called a civet cat (a misnomer, because it secretes musk similar to that of the African civet cat) or cacomistle, a Nahuatl-derived name that means “half cat” or “half mountain lion.” In Mexico, it’s sometimes called mico de noche, or “night monkey.”

The ringtail’s timid nature makes it an uncommon attic pest, unlike its raccoon relatives. But in some neighborhoods, ringtails do become intruders. Jessica Press, who lives in the Fossil Ridge subdivision of northeast San Antonio, recently heard scuffling sounds in her home’s walls; when she investigated, she saw that a ringtail had moved in. “At first, I was excited because I thought we could catch it,” she says. “But I quickly realized that they are very smart. It would never get in the trap we set.” Press’s ringtail disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. She says it’s not totally out of the ordinary where she lives to see a ringtail, though “some of my neighbors have lived here forever and never seen one.” Pictures from the Ring cameras of homeowners across the country who have captured ringtails usually garner such comments as “I saw one once in the 1950s!” or “I have only seen a ringtail twice in my life, and it’s been twenty years.” On iNaturalist, a social network where outdoors lovers share wildlife observations from around the world, there are about 4,900 observations for ringtails, far less than the 84,000-plus for the common raccoon.

Although ringtails are not considered endangered, their numbers have decreased in some regions due to habitat loss and hunting. Felix Vera, owner of Texas Rodent Control in San Antonio, told the San Antonio-Express News in 2021 that he’d noticed an uptick in ringtail sightings, perhaps due to suburban sprawl affecting the animals’ natural habitat. “It’s a big spike in activity that’s happened in the last five years,” he said, also mentioning that he had just been called for a ringtail removal that very day. 

If you want to glimpse the elusive creature, your best bet might be to visit the San Antonio Zoo, where a pair named Piper and Gus are among the residents. There’s also Ringo, the costumed mascot of the Texas Stars hockey team in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park. He appears to be considerably less shy than his namesake species; fans have thrice voted to name him the league’s mascot of the year.