The first time that Montana-based wildlife filmmaker Casey Anderson closed her eyes with the mountain lion that lived in her backyard, he was close enough to hear her creak in the bones of a dead deer. Then he noticed that she should have recently given birth. It was then that Anderson knew he had to make a film about the mountain lion, nicknamed Mama Mo, and his three puppies: Eeny, Meeny and Miny.
There was only one problem: mountain lions are not easy to detect. "I've been told a thousand times that you can not make a documentary about mountain lions," says Anderson. "Every time someone has tried, it's just a documentary about people looking for mountain lions, who do not really find them."
So he turned to military-grade thermal FLIR cameras to track down the family of mountain lions even at night. He mounted a stabilizing camera platform designed for helicopters in his truck. And he spent two years filming Mama Mo and her puppies before he knew that the documentary would reach the television screen. "I knew it was a unique opportunity," he says. "If you can shoot a mountain lion for five days in a year, you win the Super Bowl and we were filming it for months."
The product of this high-tech effort is a documentary called The Mountain Lion and Me, produced by Anderson and VisionHawk Films. It premieres today at the Smithsonian channel at 8PM ET / PT. A series of shorts, Wild Tracks, will be available at the Smithsonian Earth subscription service on March 26. The Verge spoke with Anderson about the film, the camera technology he used and how it feels to see a mountain lion eat his dinner.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Casey AndersonPhoto: VisionHawk Films
How did you end up making a documentary about the mountain lion in your backyard?
I bought a house about ten years ago and began to realize that there was activity of mountain lions in the area. I started to follow clues, and the clues led me to this [mountain lion] and that led me to fall in love with her. It's really a dream come true, it's like one in a million having a mountain lion raise a family right outside my back door. It's ridiculous, everything had to collide perfectly to make it work. On some level, I prefer to live in a wild place. But still, having a cat raising a family and being relatively lenient in the sense of allowing me to witness, watch and film. Everything had to go well. I am a lucky boy.
What happened when you met the mountain lion, Mom Mo?
One day I woke up and had these tracks of mountain lions very fresh at my entrance, and I followed them to a dead mule wanted. Once you find a death, the odds are that they will return. I set up a blind, and I put that in, and lit the killing area with infrared light. And then I used infrared cameras to record the cat when she entered. I was waiting there until midnight, sitting there thinking, "Okay, this is not going to work," or "What did I do wrong?" And I remember looking down to pick something up and look back at the monitor, and there's a [mountain lion] in my frame looking at me. She looked at me for about 10 minutes. It was like the last chicken game. You are sitting there, thinking: "He who moves first will lose."
I knew I had been waiting for hours, so if I made a wrong little move she would run away. But she ended up settling in and eating. There were signs that she had been breastfeeding, from what I could see. And that made the mystery bigger, then the obsession began. Not only do I have a cougar in my backyard, but I also have kittens somewhere that were small enough to not take them to slaughter with her.
Mama Mo and kitty.Photo: Smithsonian Networks
What were you feeling? You were afraid?
No. It sounds stupid. I mean, I was very excited, I was shaking. When you're sitting there like that, and it's just me and this cat, away from any other person and you can hear the bones creak, and you get the false sense of security that this little store is somehow going to protect you, you're in a small bubble, and she will stop, look up and stare into your eyes for five long minutes, and then the hair on the back of her neck rises, and you feel a vulnerability, because lions kill people Once in a while I had been in similar situations so many times that I knew that if I did not bother her, it would not bother me, so I think there is a mutual respect, I knew there was something there, but I did not know what it was. She started to realize that she was going to be at the table often and that she did not care at all.Fear is funny.I definitely had moments of having a little high consciousness, because the last thing you want to do is to become accommodating.
Mountain lion engraved in the snowPhoto: VisionHawk Films
How did you get the footage you needed for the movie?
It happened of simply that I follow her tracks, I lowered the patterns, realizing that she uses this shelf, she uses that cave, and then I go a step further. Now they have camera traps that if you walk they will take a picture and they will send me an email immediately. So I'll be in bed at 2:30 in the morning, I'll receive an email and I'll go, "Mom Mo is here."
So I jump and go with FLIR cameras [thermal sensing] military grade to find body heat in the dense rocky mountain. And then I just follow it until the sun comes up. I have a 1000 mm truck [Canon lens] to be able to film it while I drive on the road and be perfectly stabilized. That's what he took. Set up the motion sensor traps, where you walk on a shelf or whatever, that's easy. Once you find those patterns and put them in their place, you will get those shots. But we wanted to tell everything that was going on between those shots and make this more dynamic, more compelling and give a little more behavior.
Truck with the Shotover F1 camera system.
Photo: VisionHawk Films
What was the best time for you?
There is a moment in the program when one of your kittens starts to get sick and starts to fall behind. There was one night when we saw her relentlessly trying to get this kitty to survive. Basically changed a switch from predatory mom to loving mother and it was at times like that, for me, it was almost shocking. You think and expect them to have these emotional feelings towards their offspring. But there is a side of his science that somehow pushes him aside. But when you actually see it, it's really shocking. That was one of my saddest and greatest nights to see, I would say. And I have some pictures of my neighbors that do not realize it and the cat is a ninja walking next to them. It just bursts me.
Mama Mo poses for the camera. Photo: VisionHawk Films
What do you expect this documentary to achieve?
Just to show what this new wild life is, this coexistence between animals and humans, even great predators, we can live in the exact same area. And they are adapting to us all the time. They are going to use the houses and the fences to hunt the deer, I have seen when there is a 747 flying and she will use the sound of that plane to mask her footstep as she approaches the deer. They are adapting. This cat grew up without knowing that there were never fences or airplanes. This is your wildnerness, this is your home, as much as ours is. That cigar [wilderness] no longer really exists, and it never existed for this cat, and it never existed for us. We have this coexistence, and the ability to live together and prosper if we understand and respect it. And that's what I hope people see about this.
The Mountain Lion and Me will premiere on March 14 at the Smithsonian channel at 8PM ET / PT. Casey Anderson's six short episodes, Wild Tracks, will be available for broadcast on March 26 at the Smithsonian Earth subscription video service at SmithsonianEarthTV.com.