Meet Jay and Sway, a couple of free-thinking Montana residents on the prowl. By Jayme Moye
It was an ordinary day at the office of Great Northern Powder Guides, a cat-skiing operation near Whitefish, Montana, until the owner’s pet bobcat, who’d been lounging on the couch, bit the chief of police, drawing blood. In the bobcat’s defence, “the chief kept poking at her,” says owner Jay Sandelin.
Fortunately, the cop was not only a client but also a family friend and took the finger-nipping incident in stride. Still, the Sandelin family agreed it was time to stop bringing Sway to the office. After four years, she’d grown larger than both their Australian cattle dogs and no longer seemed comfortable indoors. “She’s pretty tame, but she’s a wild animal at heart,” says Sandelin.
Bobcats are endemic to North America, from southern Canada to central Mexico. In most provinces and states, it’s only legal to own one if it’s purchased from a licensed breeder. Sandelin got Sway as a kitten from one such breeder in 2010. For the Sandelins, it wasn’t totally off the wall. They live on a 110-acre ranch with horses and chickens and plenty of room for Sway’s pen, which includes a private pond (Sway loves to swim). They’ve raised other unconventional animals on the property, including elk and buffalo, and Sandelin’s wife, Kylanne, grew up in a household full of exotic birds, like emus, ostriches, and nenes.
Sandelin compares life with Sway to caring for a house cat on steroids. Sway tackles the dogs for play, climbs into the rafters of the family home to snooze atop the ceiling beams, and uses wood pellets instead of kitty litter. Every spring, Sandelin places an ad in Montana’s Mountain Trader seeking hunters who want to clean out their meat freezers. “She won’t eat canned or processed food,” says Sandelin. “It has to be wild game—chicken or fish or elk or deer.”
In the wild, bobcats live about a decade. Sandelin says that can stretch to 25 years in the cushy life of domesticity. He admits that snowcats—the kind that transport his clients into Montana’s vertiginous backcountry—are more his style. “But we’re committed,” he says. “Sway’s part of the family.”