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The cat called cougar thrives throughout the Americas, from boreal forests in Alaska to the steppes of Patagonia, and it lives in deserts, jungles and mountains in between. Within this enormous range it's known by many names, including puma, panther, catamount and mountain lion—but few people ever see one of them in the wild. Cougars are very good at avoiding people, even in places where both live side by side.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in prime cougar habitat. My home is surrounded by wild land, with a mosaic of meadows, forests and canyons—and an abundance of deer, their favored prey. I knew the cats were right there, moving through the woods nearby, but they were invisible.
Yet even elusive cats are predictable in their habits. After a local researcher showed me how to look for telltale signs of cougars, I began to get a sense of their movements. With those insights, I deployed camera traps in promising spots. Over a period of several years there were lots of trials and errors—and then the first successful frames. But my ambitions grew.
One of my favorite spots was on a game trail through a scenic redwood grove where I set up one of my systems in weatherproof boxes. Cougars came and went, and they enabled me to fine-tune the positioning of cameras, sensors and strobes over time. I made the lighting more theatrical, with two strobes aimed at where a cat might pass from either side and a third one aimed to illuminate the forest in the background.
Wildlife photography takes time, but connecting with cougars through camera traps turned that notion into a waiting game that played out over a period of years. Then one day a young cougar did what I dreamt it would do: It froze when the sensor triggered the system for the first time, revealing its unique profile and long, sinuous body, and turned to cast a wary look back at my camera—a portrait of secrecy foiled.