The windchill was -41° Fahrenheit at Wildlife Prairie Park. It was bone chillingly cold, even with Sorel Pac boots, thermal underwear, and layers. I had to take a break about once an hour or two to warm up. But it was worth it.
I was there because of an article I had just read in Outdoor Photographer by Leonard Lee Rue. He said Wildlife Prairie Park (west of Peoria Illinois) was a great place to photograph wild animals in very large, natural, fenced enclosures. The park closed that weekend for the winter, a blizzard was on the way, so I packed up and drove to Illinois to beat the blizzard. The blizzard won that race. In the end it was a good thing. The snow made for better images.
When I came to the cougar enclosure there was a vertical fence about 25-30 feet high, and then a level section of fence that went from the top of the vertical fence and jutted inside the enclosure by another 5 or more feet to prevent a cougar from climbing up and over over the fence. Every large tree near the fence had about metal sheeting around the trunk up to about 20 feet in height so a cougar couldn’t climb a tree and jump out.
A cougar was walking around inside the enclosure. I learned later her name was Polly.
I climbed up the steps to an observation deck where I could see over the top of the fence. To my surprise, Polly climbed up a thin sapling near the fence, and as she did that, the sapling leaned toward the fence so she was even with and close to the level part of the fence. We were eyeball to eyeball and about 15 feet apart. A cougar can jump 30 feet and she was much closer to the level part of the fence than that. There were times Polly tested her footing on the sapling like she was ready to jump, but the sapling felt too springy underfoot. So she would settle down, rip some of the bark off the sapling with her teeth, and then get up to test her footing on the sapling again. This went on for quite a while.
I was nervous, but also determined to get some good photos. I was quite taken with the intensity of Polly’s look.
Frans Lanting is a world class wildlife and nature photographer, and one of my favorite photographers. His work is stunning. I became acquainted with his work at least 21 years ago when I found Okavanga, Africa’s Last Eden, in a bookstore and bought it. I was blown away. I have followed his work ever since. If I could pick any five photographers in the world to shoot with for a few days, Frans would be on that list.
When I met Polly the cougar I had not yet discovered Lanting’s classic image, “Cougar Face”. When I first saw it I was struck by the similarities. I looked up the story (video link below). In 1992 Lanting was in Belize and was able to spend several hours with a captive male cougar in a natural enclosure. On a very warm topical day he ended up with this stunning image. It is one of his signature images and a version of this image graces the cover of his book Eye To Eye. You can see his work at his web site, linked below.
I like to think that one bitter cold morning in Illinois I had my chance to channel my inner Frans Lanting.
Frans Lanting talks about “Cougar Face” in this 3 minute video
Frans Lanting – official web site
Frans Lanting’s Portfolios
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Wildlife Prairie Park – official web site