Thursday, November 26, 2015

NGW's ‘Cougars Undercover’ Review: Cats Dwelling in the Realm of High Drama

An intimate look at creatures living on the edge. You can have your “Shark Week,” and your “Tornado Week” and even your “Meat Week,” which probably isn’t something we need to contemplate right after Thanksgiving. The preference here: “Big Cat Week,” on Nat Geo WILD, which kicks off with “Cougars Undercover,” which is not just first-rate nature programming, but dwells in a realm of high drama. Even tragedy.

‘Cougars Undercover’: Four month old mountain lion kitten. 
‘Cougars Undercover’: Four month old mountain lion kitten. Photo: National Geographic Channels

‘Cougars Undercover’

Nat Geo WILD, Friday, 9 p.m.
It may well be that homo sapiens responds affectionately to other species in direct proportion to how much they resemble humans. Cougars—a.k.a. pumas, panthers, catamounts—are ferocious, even ruthless. But they have soulful faces, and the kind of grace people can only dream about unless they’re Misty Copeland. We admire them for their self-reliance, alpha temperament and preference for solitude. Yet what’s being discovered by Mark Elbroch, our human intermediary with the cats—and the senior scientist of the Teton Cougar Project (part of the Panthera organization)—is that they’re far more social than we thought. Through the use of tracking collars, GPS and long-range cameras, what the team discovers over its yearlong study of two cougar families is a complicated network of social interaction that goes beyond sex and fighting to a sharing of food, even a sharing of mates (the females in a puma ménage à trois are described as “using the male like a resource”).

Like their human admirers, no two cougars are alike: One female cat is sort of the tiger puma mother, cuffing a misbehaving cub in the head, snarling with reprimand. Another is described by Dr. Elbroch as a hippie—“lots of love, but not necessarily all the sustenance.”

The fate of the cubs is less about nurture, though, than nature. The discouraging word from “Cougars Undercover,” narrated by David Attenborough, is that the population in the study area north of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is estimated to have dropped by half over the past seven to eight years. The presumed causes: brutal weather, an evaporating food supply, other cougars and wolves (which were reintroduced in the mid-’90s and have flourished at the cougars’ expense). Mountain lions aren’t considered endangered, it seems, and hunting them remains legal. Which is an additional note of urgency in a program whose subjects are already living on the edge.


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