I've made a lot of pictures of the mountain lions at the Rio Grande Zoo. Several years before we moved to Albuquerque I met up with a cougar in the wild. I didn't get a photograph at the time, but the memory is indelible.
|Rio Grande Zoo -- 2014|
In the Organ Mountains
When we first came to Las Cruces I used to spend much of my free time exploring the Organ Mountains that are just a few miles to the east of town. It is a small but rugged chain that rises up suddenly out of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert flatlands, like many of New Mexico's mountains. I was back in the Organs recently, one of the very few times I have visited them in many years now. My last old dog is no longer up for such hikes, so I was alone.
I went up over the first set up steep hills and down into a valley that has a narrow streambed that snakes east to west out of the peaks. I shot a few pictures of the hills and plant life, including some fall foliage in the bottom of the arroyo. I was surprised at that point to hear quite close by a yowling cat sound; it was the same kind of ready-to-fight call that our housecat, Richard, makes when he spots a coyote or a rattler through the south patio windows. This sound had a good deal more timbre to it, though, and I began to hope that it was a bobcat or smaller. Of course, it was a mountain lion.
The big cat jumped down into the dry stream bed about fifteen feet from me, way too far inside my comfort zone. I could only clearly see its head through the boulders and brush. I very briefly considered trying to get a picture of the animal, but my old folding camera was not cocked or focused, and I felt that I could not afford to let my attention stray from the nearby cat because it was not more than a jump-and-a-half distant from me. On thinking about the situation later I surmised that the noisy and aggressive approach probably meant that the lion was a female with nearby cubs. I think she was just acting the way she might if a wandering male cougar had come into her territory.
I had read enough accounts of lion attacks to understand their quickness and power. One doesn't want to run from any aggressive wild animal, but unlike similar confrontations with bears, there seems not to be an option with the big cats of playing dead. If attacked, one is well advised to fight just as hard as possible; once those teeth are into the windpipe there is no appeal. As I looked into her large, dark eyes in the space of a few brief moments, it was clear to me that the lion was quickly going through the same set of calculations that I was.
It seemed to me at that point that the only practical alternative was to take the initiative. I stepped forward, threw up my arms and yelled at the cat. She turned away, still looking in my direction. Then, with a single bound she was gone, only briefly showing me her tawny back and long, powerful-looking tail. After the first leap, there was no sound of her movement through the thick brush of the arroyo bottom.
I immediately began moving cautiously up the arroyo. It seemed likely the cat would not follow, but I still paid careful attention to my backtrack. After travelling about a hundred yards, I moved up the slope out of the arroyo bottom and carefully scanned my surroundings, starting with the near ground and then out to the middle and far distance. I could hear some jays and other birds making some noise quite far to the west, so it seemed that the cat was continuing to head away from me. I shot a few more pictures, but had some difficulty concentrating on the task, and I decided to head back to the car. I kept to the high ground north of the arroyo and eventually put a big hill between me and the valley.
From the ridge crest, I could see the great number of houses that have been built close up to the flanks of the Organs in the past few years. My guess is that their owners are experiencing some missing small pets. I'll be surprised if there are not also some reports of unfortunate human-cat encounters in the not far future. My sympathies will be more with the mountain lions. As for me, I'm sure I'll return to explore the Organs again, but I'll probably find some sturdy dog to take along.
(My favorite cougar shot at the zoo was made in 2008 with my trusty old Spotmatic)