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Cameras Reveal the Secret Lives of a Mountain Lion Family: Filmmaker Q&A with Sharon Negri

From Persecution to Coexistence: An Image Makeover for America’s Lion Article by Rucha Chitnis This summer, America woke up to the unequivocally endearing footage of five mountain lion kittens born in the Santa Susana Mountains, just north of Los Angeles.  They made national headlines. “They nailed their Hollywood-area debut with adorable hisses, deep blue eyes...

From Persecution to Coexistence: An Image Makeover for America’s Lion

Article by Rucha Chitnis

This summer, America woke up to the unequivocally endearing footage of five mountain lion kittens born in the Santa Susana Mountains, just north of Los Angeles.  They made national headlines. “They nailed their Hollywood-area debut with adorable hisses, deep blue eyes and darling little claws,” wrote Karin Brulliard in the Washington Post.

This rousing reception is atypical for mountain lions in the United States, who have been in dire need of a new publicist. “When mountain lions make the news, it’s typically for train-wreck coverage,” observed Dr. Rick Hopkins, a conservation biologist in California. “Most people have strong feelings about large predators,” he said. Sharon Negri, director of WildFutures, who has devoted the past 30 years to the protection of these big cats, concurs. “This fearsome portrayal of America’s apex predator as solitary, vicious killers has also beset the animal with unfounded misconceptions,” she says.

Negri is acutely aware of the power of narrative and how it has led to the demonization and persecution of mountain lions throughout their range. This year, she produced a short video, “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions,” to give the public an intimate view of these secretive animals to debunk myths and shift perceptions. The video features rare footage caught by motion-triggered cameras in mountain lion dens and feeding sites, among other locations, by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. The star of the video is a mountain lion female, F 61, who has given birth to three kittens. But the odds are stacked against survival. Narrated by bear biologist and wildlife filmmaker Chris Morgan, the video reveals the social and family bonds of mountain lions and how these are crucial for their long-term survival. Negri believes in the power of film to educate the American public and build understanding and empathy for animals for their long-term conservation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that at least 66,665 cougars were killed between 1907 and 1978. Seen as dangerous predators to be eliminated from the landscape, they were hunted, trapped, and shot in many regions to extinction. While 14 states in the U.S. have legalized hunting of mountain lions, California led the charge to give full protection to the cats, while allocating $30 million a year for critical wildlife habitat through a landmark 1990 initiative. Negri played a pivotal role in mobilizing volunteers and the public to pass this initiative. We asked Negri more about this work and her video.

What led you to produce “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions”?

I produced this video to counter the negative narrative about mountain lions as solitary, vicious killers and show the public a more accurate nature of these amazing animals.

To give you a bit of context, the mountain lion has over 30 recognized names. The scientific name, Puma concolor, means “cat of a single color.” But it could have easily been called the cat of many names. They have the largest geographic distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere.

Their range spans 28 countries—from … North America to the tip of South America. This wide range has enabled this large cat to interact with many different people and cultures. Many people led to many opinions and attitudes and many misunderstandings about the very nature of this secretive cat. Early colonists viewed this large predator as threat to livestock, game, and personal safety, and prior to the 1960s they were considered vermin and thousands were trapped, poisoned, and shot for bounties. Today those perceptions still persist.

After working to change policy and management for lions, I was inspired by Jane Goodall’s remarks a few years ago where someone asked her about the value of videos. She said that animal videos can shift public perceptions and attitudes, but first you must connect to the hearts of people. When I saw Panthera’s extraordinary remote-camera footage in the wild of a mountain lion mother and her relationship with her kittens, I knew we had the potential to enable people to really connect with the beauty of these animals, change their perceptions, and ultimately inspire them to take action to advance their conservation.

What led you to advocate for mountain lion conservation efforts in California? 

I always had a love of nature, animals, and wild places from a very early age. During the ‘60s, when my father was a legislator, I first began my interest to right those things I knew to be wrong. When I was in Africa in 1983, I was struck and saddened by the senseless slaughter of elephants and was considering how I might work to stop [it]. When I returned to the states, I learned that a bill was moving through the California legislature to open a hunting season on mountain lions for the first time since the bounty era in the ‘60s despite the fact they were guessing the population of lions and failed to look at the impact a hunting season would have on their population.

Had the legislation passed, it would have allowed hunters to chase these animals with a pack of hounds up a tree and shoot them at point blank for merely a trophy on their wall. The clear lack of science and the ethical issue of hunting a large carnivore for sport led me to work to improve how these animals are managed and protected.

What was the public perception about mountain lions in California during that time?

I met with thousands of citizens over the course of three years and learned that most knew they may never see a mountain lion in the wild, but they wanted to know they were there living wild and free on the landscape. Public opinion polls at the time told us that the majority of the public believed shooting these animals for fun was repugnant and believed these animals to be an important part of our natural heritage deserving protection. In 1990, the public overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that permanently banned sport hunting of mountain lions in California and allocated $30 million a year for 30 years for critical wildlife habitat. During the campaign, hundreds of newspaper editorials and local governments from around the state came out in favor of protecting the big cats.

Is there a tipping point in the public support of mountain lions as evidenced in the favor of P22, the Los Angeles cougar who is co-habiting an urban area?

Yes, there has been a huge wave of public support building for these American icons.  The response has been truly amazing. My guess is that part of the growing interest and support for P22 is that this animal’s struggle to survive may not be all that different than our own. P22 is isolated on an island surrounded by a mass of human population. He is struggling to survive in the same way so many of us are—we want freedom to roam and be safe from poisons and persecution. Thanks to the media, people from all over the world read about and saw pictures of P22—both when he was healthy and after he was poisoned. The pictures of his emaciated body were heart-wrenching. It is truly a tribute to this animal’s resilience and perseverance to live that he not only recovered from being poisoned but managed to cross eight lanes of highway to find a mate. The public fascination with and response to P22 has given me hope that perhaps we can coexist with our urban wildlife neighbors.

What do you think the national impact of the video has been?

The impact has been overwhelmingly positive. Historically, this animal has been one of the most misunderstood and misperceived of the large predators. Thanks to the researchers and their hidden cameras, we are now able to debunk the myths and preconceived notions about these animals by reaching thousands of people with videos and social media.

Jane Goodall was right when she said that videos can change the attitudes and perceptions of people about animals. In an online survey for “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions,” 98 percent of respondents said that the video was effective in revealing the importance of family bonds of big cats for their long-term survival, and 85 percent of survey respondents said they learned something new about mountain lions. Survey respondents were most surprised to learn that mountain lion mothers adopted orphaned kittens, had strong family bonds, and that kittens were able to share meals peacefully with their parents. Jane Goodall said that once we understand, we can truly care, and then are we more likely to take action. We know that thousands of viewers have turned to the website to learn more and take action.  The ability to reach millions of people online and raise awareness about new discoveries about these amazing animals’ behavior and plight, and to have them take action on their behalf—I think this is the real impact of the video.

What is needed for the long-term conservation of mountain lions throughout their range?

Scientists agree that loss of habitat and excessive hunting are the major threats to mountain lion populations. While the mountain lion is considered one of the most adaptable of the large carnivores, it is also vulnerable to extinction. Extinction rates for large carnivores are one of the highest in the world. In the U.S., mountain lions were eliminated from the entire eastern half of North America only 200 years after colonization, leaving only a remnant population in Florida. Add the impact of hunting, and these animals are getting slammed. Recent compiled data show that in the past decade, sport hunters killed 29,000 mountain lions in the U.S. alone.

It will take government agencies, scientists, conservation groups, hunters, fishers, and everyday citizens coming together to address these threats and ensure we have large connected lands for these and other animals to thrive. The bottom line is we can’t wait until a mountain lion population is on the brink of extinction before we take action. Given the complexity and intensity of issues facing wildlife, from climate change to loss of habitat, we will need to work together if these animals are going to be part of our natural heritage long into the future. I am hopeful this is already beginning to happen, but much more is needed.

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Author Photo Rachel Link
Rachel Link curates content for National Geographic's Short Film Showcase. Each week she features films from talented creators that span a range of topics. She hopes that this work will inspire viewers to explore the world around them and encourages filmmakers to keep pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling.