Saturday, October 17, 2009

Photographs and Memories

"When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not. (Mark Twain)

While writing a recent issue of "Wild & Free Montana," a mental image fell out of a cardboard box in some dark, dusty corner of my memory. That issue was about photographing animals at eye level. And the mental image reminded me of an, um, interesting photo assignment that I had completely forgotten about -- the one where I was almost mauled by a cougar that had wrapped itself around me. Maybe I should explain.

Remember the Lincoln Mercury ad campaign back in the early 80's? It featured a cougar reclining on top of their sign, growling and twitching its tail. I was working for a newspaper in central Florida, and it was a local family that raised those cougars (yes, they had more than one). Car shows and dealerships around the country would hire these guys to parade a cougar around on a chain for the weekend. It was an event -- people got to see a "scary" animal, and this family got to make a living.

But then, up in some northeastern state, the cougar mauled a kid who got closer than he was supposed to. An off-duty cop shot the cat, and the kid survived. And that's when my newspaper entered the fray.

Back in Florida, the mauling story pounded out of the bulky Associated Press teletype machine and landed in the copy editor's hands. This was back in pre-history (1982) and my memory is pretty blurry. But somehow the editor added some copy to the AP story that potentially slandered the cougar's owners. Bad day for the kid, bad day for the cougar, and bad day for my employer.

The family met with the publisher and threatened to sue. Over the course of several intense meetings, they came to a tenuous agreement. The lawsuit would be dropped if the paper published a feature story that was "positive" about the family and how well-treated and safe their animals were.

Guess who got sent. It should have been that copy editor, but it wasn't. Instead, they sent a perky young woman reporter and me. Actually I had read all about the rare Florida panther and was curious to see a captive cougar up close.

(My prints from that day are long gone. But they had a menagerie of other big animals as well, and I do remember that the photo most popular with the editors showed a Bengal tiger swimming with its buxom woman owner in a wet t-shirt. Some things never change.)

But back to the cougar. While the reporter was busy interviewing the guy, I slowly approached the cougar and started taking pictures. The big cat was calmly laying in tall, green grass on what looked to be about 20' of chain, and the chain was anchored to a big steel stake in the ground. His tail started twitching slowly.

You see where this is going, don't you?

Photographing a cougar from a standing position makes it look smaller, like a house cat. So I dropped down closer to eye level for better photos, and crouched left, right and forward. All of my attention was focused through the lens, and I felt pleased that the cougar was now staring at me, eye-to-eye.

Then I stood up.

The cougar was on me, mouth at my neck, front legs wrapped around my shoulders, before I made it off the ground.

Now if you freeze the frame here and ponder the situation, the first thing that comes to mind is, HOW STUPID ARE YOU? The next thing is, how should one react in that situation? If it was a wild mountain lion, you would try fighting it off. But this was a trained cat, raised in captivity. What would you do?

I froze.

Camera slung over one shoulder, camera bag dangling from the other, and a 140-pound cougar draped in my arms. In my mind's eye, I can no longer see what happened immediately before or after. But I can clearly see myself standing there, hugging this cat, frozen in time and in place like an old black and white photo that you haven't looked at in years.

Almost as fast as the cat, the owner charged into the cougar and smacked it with a short length of chain. The cougar pushed off me and lept back into the grass. I slowly backed away and surveyed the damage. I didn't have a single scratch. But the cat got wailed on, and the reporter was suffering from a serious case of eye-popping.

It was an awkward moment, given that we were there to write a "positive" story about how safe these animals were. But we were supposed to be professionals, so by the time we had driven an hour back to town, we were able to play it down and dismiss what might have happened. Still, as word slowly leaked out around the newsroom, I think the reporter and I gained some stature. We did our jobs, after all, and no one got hurt and no one got sued.

They got their story, and I got one of my own. It's one of those old, fading images that you store in a box in some dusty corner, until you forget that it's even there.


  1. Back in the 80s I visted the Cincinnati zoo with a friend who worked there. They had a young cougar who they walked on a leash like a dog - until it decided it didn't like my tennis shoe and pounced on it. He didn't really do any damage to my foot but my shoe looked worse for the wear. Wild animals are, well wild and you can never tell what will get their attention.

  2. Wow, what a story! Even with a "trained" cougar, you could have been killed. But, you weren't, and instead you have a very unique memory of being jumped on by a big cat. All's well that ends well, I guess.

  3. This is one story that didn't make it back to your Mama! I guess finding out that you jumped out of an airplane was enough to forewarn you what Mama's reaction might be to this adventure. You lead a charmed life and I'm very thankful that we still have you!

  4. All three of you make good points. (1) Wild animals are still wild, no matter where you find them. (2) I'm lucky to be here, and (3) I need to remember that my mother sometimes drops by to read the blog.