You rarely see them…but you know they are there. Sometimes when walking through the woods you feel eyes on your back but when you turn nobody is there. And occasionally when returning along the same trail you can see their paw prints on top of the tracks you made going in and you know they were following you. Watching…waiting…hoping you will show some sign of weakness. But you hardly ever see them. Cougar, mountain lion, panthers, call them what you will but they are definitely sneaky critters.
When you do see them it’s an event. The image here is of a captive cougar, raised in a house and bottle fed by hand. Not tame, they’re never really tame, but certainly habituated to humans. The only really wild cougar I’ve ever seen was anything but habituated. Driving from Deadwood, South Dakota to my in-laws’ ranch in a remote valley of the Black Hills, we came around a curve and sauntering down the middle of the road was the biggest cougar I’ve ever seen. We stopped, he stopped, and I made eye contact with him. For what seemed like several minutes but was probably about 10 seconds he stared into my eyes with that insolent cat look…I know he was thinking “How dare you drive down MY road..” Then he turned and melted into the brush. that was probably 10 years ago and I’ve not seen one since though I’ve seen their tracks in the creek bank when fishing. I used to fish until it was nearly too dark to see….no more.
Not exactly Twilight Zone material right? Well get this…I got home from work and fired up Facebook tonight. One entry was from a friend of mine who lives in Southern Colorado, talking about seeing cougar tracks in the snow around her ranch today. The FB entry immediately above it was an image posted by a photographer friend of mine of a mama cougar and 2 young ones…taken in Grand Teton National Park…Coincidence? I think not! But it did put me in mind of the encounter described above and also of an essay I posted on my website several years ago about photographing a captive cougar. With your kind indulgence I’m reposting that essay here.
Every Picture Tells A Story, Don’t it…
And mine are no exception. Take the Cougar series for example. I don’t often have nightmares or dreams that wake me up in the night but when I do, they usually involve a cougar. We all have our phobias and that’s mine. So when I was given the chance to photograph one of the cougars at the Prairie Wind Wildlife Refuge I gave it considerable thought before deciding to go for it.
The nights leading up to the weekend photo session were restless for the most part and as the time drew nearer I became more and more anxious. Was this thing going to eat me? Chew me beyond recognition? I’d seen deer and elk that were cougar kills and as an illustration of a cat’s power and ability. I’ve even seen a housecat kill a rabbit in one swift motion. The power per pound of these animals is awesome. It took all my will power and resolve to avoid picking up the phone and calling to cancel. But I was strong!
Saturday morning dawned clear and beautiful on the plains, the first rays of the sun lighting up the Front Range in my rear view mirror on the drive. That served to calm me a bit, but I was still more nervous than I’d been in a while. The orientation speech Michael gave did little to bolster my confidence. “Whatever you do don’t run or show any signs of fear. These may be pets but they’re still wild animals.” That’s code for “they will kill and eat you if you’re not careful.”
Okay, done with the speeches, tripods and lenses set up, film loaded, and my shooting site selected. The cat is released by one of Michael’s assistants and comes over the hill about 100 yards away headed for Michael and the tidbits of meat he offers as incentive to behave. Right away I notice that the beast seems to be fixated on me. His eyes meet mine over the distance and I immediately look away. (“….don’t make eye contact, they think it’s a challenge.”) The cat, Cheyenne, lopes up to me then walks in a slow circle around me giving me the once over. “Relax” Michael says, “he just likes your deodorant.” (which by now has failed miserably)
Finally after 10 seconds which seemed like 10 minutes, the cat comes closer and drags his tongue up the side of my head then plops down to rest about 5 feet from my camera. I could have tugged his tail if I’d been so inclined. Check out the Critters portfolio and you’ll see the results.
So there you have it. Next time you are walking through the woods and feel like someone is watching you….you’re probably right. Be careful out there!