Montana Wolf

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Touched by Leopards

The big cats have figured huge in my life. Peter Matthiessen's stirring account of his search in Nepal for The Snow Leopard opened my soul to the mysteries of the wild cats and their spiritual relevance.  My subsequent search and encounter with a jaguar in the jungles of Tikal prompted a dramatic life-change many years ago. More recently, a mother mountain lion and three yearlings directed me down a less travelled  road (detailed in my latest book, Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.) I have journeyed to Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where cheetahs and lions lazed in the Serengeti trees, and caracals roamed across the arid lands. So it was I answered an invitation to travel to a Montana game farm where I could experience the rare Snow and Amur leopards, as well as a juvenile Siberian Tiger.

In the span of an hour I travelled the globe to be within inches and sometimes touch, the most wild creatures on the planet. To look eye to eye. The small animals included pine martens, fishers, silver, cross, red and Arctic fox. There were bobcats and stunning lynx. Arctic and Tundra wolves howled in the background. A high pitched song dog yipped from the distance.

The snow leopard sprang frantically within the large pen, his four huge, padded feet literally bouncing off the walls. "We can only work with them for the first three years," explained the manager, "after that they become unmanageable and are bred for species survival." We moved on to the Amur leopard kit. It is estimated that only 40 exist in the wild. I held my hand up to the wire enclosure and touched this rare and wondrous soul. The Amur is one of the reasons that photo sessions fill up quickly at this game farm, with clients that include the likes of National Geo. Yes, it is true. When you see those stunning,  romantic photos of animals in the wild, chances are they were not shot happenstance. Game farms like this one spend hours training the grizzlies, pumas, fox, lynx and wolves, ideally from birth, with one trainer who bonds with them. They take the animals into various natural, wild settings and set up photo shoots that mimic the wild, sometimes travelling across the country. Would you like a picture of a mountain lion stalking? A wolf pack devouring an elk? A red fox traipsing through the snow? No problem. Their animals appear on television and in magazines and provide strong motivation to people to love and admire them; to save their home landscapes, to influence laws to protect them.

I have witnessed myriad animals in the wild. Exhilarating and oft times life threatening, close-up shots are rarely possible. I spied a lynx working a distant streamside last winter, 400-yards away... but spontaneous wild settings do not lend themselves to set-up shots as adrenaline shoots through the veins. I understand the allure of weekend photo sessions at a $1200-a pop. I was not allowed to take pictures this day, which allowed me to direct my energy into the five senses. The auditory experience alone was a stirring cacophony of snarls, howls, yips, grunts and sweet chirpy puma greetings. The large feet on the lynx, the glancing eyes of the marten and the fangs of the leopard, the wariness of the wolf pups will forever stay with me.

It is a tricky line between conservation and the feral. I am thankful for the opportunity to experience this day but admit to a strong desire to unlock every door and free every animal, as unrealistic as that is. I think of those who speak of picking up chards or old pots from Anasazi  ruins and display them on their shelves, only to eventually realize that when you take them out of context the magic is gone.

And what is the wild if not majestic magic?

Moose Mother and Newborn Calf Along the Fisher River ~
Wild and Free


Click on this link to view my latest article, "Watching the Wild." (AZ Wildlife Views Magazine)


  1. Thanks for taking us along on your visit to the wild cats and others. Thrilling to get so close with you.
    and that's a great article in the AZ Wildlife 'zine. appreciate the link.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Carole, your comment above was published but it must not have showed up for you. Thanks for persevering!!! Others have had trouble posting as well, and it's irksome.