Wild dogs and cats – my crazy project
I have photographed wildlife all around the world for years. Then the pandemic kept me (like most of us) under virtual house arrest for a while. During this period, I conceived a project to photograph each the species of wild cat and dog in the world. Which I know is crazy ambitious, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. When I finish, I will put the photos in a book. It isn’t an urgent quest, but at the same time I want to complete it before I am too feeble to ride in the back of a safari vehicle.
Of course, some of the species are incredibly rare – like the Borneo bay cat, for example – so I am unlikely to get them. Others are not that hard to see if you can get to where they live – the Ethiopian wolf is a good example. If you go to where they live, you’ll probably see them, but Ethiopia currently has a political crisis/war, which seems to be trending toward calming down but hasn’t yet. If wait for perfection I will never finish the project. At some point I will call it good if I get to a critical mass of sightings. I am not sure what critical mass means yet – I’ll have to see as I go along. Although I prefer seeing the animals in person, a camera trap also works.
Another factor is that there is a constant battle among the taxonomists who classify species between the “lumpers” who want to lump closely related subspecies together, and “splitters” who want to give full species-hood to sub-species or variations. The total number of dog species by some accounts is 33, of which about 23 are foxes, and about 40 species of wild cats. But that can change at any time. Much of the recent splitting comes from genetic testing – for example the Oncilla was split into Northern and Southern species – but they are visually identical. The Pampas cat was split into three species – again not distinguished visibly. There doesn’t seem to be much point in having photographs of “different” species that are not visually different, especially when they are hard to find, so I will likely decide to represent such close relatives with a single member.
Similarly, I doubt that I will be able to get all of the subspecies. For the Gray Wolf, it happens I have the North American version, and oddly I got great Red Wolf shots last year. I have seen the super rare Indian Wolf, but didn’t get a photo. Getting all of the different Gray Wolf subspecies would probably make the project too hard.
I want to see these and photograph them in the wild, and I want to use my own photos, but when it finally comes to put a book together I may use photos of captive animals and possibly photos from other people. Even if I don’t get see a Borneo Bay Cat, or the Short Eared Dog, I probably won’t omit them from the book. I plan to include some natural history info in the book so it won’t just be pictures.
On a case by case basis I think I will include some of the feliniforms – Hyena are neither a dog nor a cat, but are a feliniform and besides, there are only 4 species, most of which I already have photos of, so they are easy to add. Similarly, I will have a section on civets and genets, because they are often referred to as being cat-like. But I won’t try to systematically cover all carnivores because they are just too many.
It helps that I have a bunch of the cats and dogs done already from previous trips, so I am not starting from scratch. I’ve got close to half of the wild dogs, and a have good start on the cats – especially the large ones. However there are a lot of small cats, and they all seem to like to hide and be stealthy.
I am telling you all this because I have found that success in seeing animals is partly about patience and technique but largely about going to the right place. There are Puma in Washington State where I live – even one sighted in my suburban neighborhood. But it would be essentially impossible to get photos as good as I got in Chilean Patagonia. It’s the right place to go if you are serious about a Puma photo. There are bobcat that visit my backyard on occasion, but I suspect that Point Reyes will get me better photos. Similarly, I am planning a trip to the Pantanal for Jaguar.
For a big, famous animal like a Jaguar it’s often the case that people have already figured out the best places to see them, and created infrastructure so you can find somewhere to stay, and even a guide that can help find them. But that tends not to be true for some of the smaller species. Sometimes – like the wildlife lodges in Sabah like Tabin or Deramakot I visited recently – enough mammal fanatics (a lot thanks to this site!) have made the trip that there are lodges and guides that know all the small mammal species and are used to requests to find them. But for a lot of my list that isn’t the case, or anyway, I haven’t heard of the places.
For example, I have seen Kit Fox in the Southwestern US many times, but don’t have good, close photos. It is possible to see them many places but the density is low. There is probably some place – maybe in a national or state park – where they are at least somewhat habituated and the density is high enough that it is possible to see them with reasonable reliability. But it probably also isn’t famous enough for that information to have spread out beyond the local area. Small mammals are considered incidental – you might go to a destination to see big mammals (elk, moose, bears) – but there are few enough people that would go just to see a small mammal – or that is the perception so that means there isn’t much available information.
I am posting this to solicit comments – any comments are welcome – but I am particularly interested in suggestions of the best place to go to see wild dogs and cats. I am happy to hear about any such place – even for species I already have a photo of, one can always get a better photo.
Within the US, besides the Kit Fox, the Swift Fox is another one that I need to find a good location. Even more common animals like Gray Wolf, Coyote, Gray Fox would be good to get more photos of.
In the UK there are places you can see foxes in an urban setting. That would be a cool angle – but where to go?
Further afield, there are a lot of cats and dogs where the information on where to see them is even more scarce than they are. So any suggestions would be good.
great post and a great project. I wish you luck. I have one or two tips you might find helpful. Your urban fox idea is a good one, I have seen some great shots of this subject. A good bet would be suburban London or along the Thames in central London at night and low tide. I have a good spot for caracal (at least it was last year) and a hot tip for black-footed cat and could try to put you in touch with my contacts for those, if you wish. If you are interested contact me at: email@example.com.
The Pantanal is, of course, a must for jaguar, Sierra de Andujar / Coto Donana for Iberian lynx and Sri Lanka is good for small cats. But this no doubt you know.
Meanwhile, I have a question for you. My wife and I will be in the Greater Yellowstone area and California for 6 weeks in May and June and mountain lion is at the top of our list. We will also be in Point Reyes looking for bobcat and gray fox. Any tips you might have will be very gratefully received.
Miles – I wouldn’t bother with Mountain Lion in CA. I’ve lived here my whole life, and have done a lot of night driving over the last 6 years and still haven’t seen one (much to my dismay). They prefer dense cover in steep terrain and are amazingly good at evading people. If you still really want to try, the forest service roads in Central Coast Ranges (between Monterey and Ojai) and in NW CA (inland Humboldt and Trinity counties) would be my choices. But expect a lot of hours to get a sighting, and even if you do, it will likely be flash across the road… Yellowstone’s Northern Range and the National Elk Refuge actually produce sightings from time to time (the open habitat there helps) and may be some of the best places in the US to attempt for a proper view of one, but in winter, not May-June.
Bobcat is straightforward, a few nights in Pt. Reyes should get it. I’d recommend Marshall Beach Rd first (especially around the barn at 38.1299, -122.9079), but also Pierce Point Rd (I’ve had the best luck in the first couple of miles) and Lighthouse Rd (between Estero Rd turnoff and Cypress tunnel). They are very easy in winter (when I usually see 3-4+ in a day), but a couple of mornings/afternoons should be sufficient any time of year.
Pt. Reyes is decent for Gray Fox, but far from the best place for that species in my experience. If you stick to Pt. Reyes, a few night drives on Bear Valley Rd (+ the visitor center parking) & Limantour Rd should be sufficient. Further afield, they are the most common carnivore you see on night drives in Manchester Beach (e.g. on the roadside by the KOA camping), the Santa Lucia Mountains, Hoopa Valley (& basically anywhere in inland Humboldt), and around Humboldt Redwoods SP (e.g. Dyerville Rd). I’ve seen 8+ in a night in these places before.
yes, I suspect May will be too late for mountain lion in the elk refuge, but we shall be staying just across the street so it’s worth a try. However, I am hoping the Northern Range might turn up some signs. In Humboldt County I was thinking of trying the forest roads off Bald Hills Road near Orick. Do you know it?
As for California, I’ll settle for a flash across the road any time! But, yes, Point Reyes is already on the itinerary and we’ll be checking the places you mention. And on your advice we have also scheduled in some time in Manchester Beach. So thanks again, much appreciated.
Hi Miles – sorry for the late reply. Re Humboldt you’ll be better off looking further inland the Bald Hills Rd (good for bears though, in the open hilltop “prairies”). Particularly in white fir or tanoak/douglas-fir forest. You might try Red Cap Rd near Orleans, Big Hill Rd in Hoopa, Underwood Mountain Rd near Big Bar, Friday Ridge and Waterman Ridge Rds near Willow Creek, and (snow permitting) parts of Forest Route 1 from Horse Mtn to Mad River. But I’ll offer a few caveats:
1) The chance of seeing a Mountain Lion anywhere in CA on a short trip is tiny. But I hope you’ll see plenty cool mammals on these roads – I have over the years (e.g. Ringtail, Humboldt’s Flying Squirrel, Snowshoe Hare, Trowbridge’s Shrew, Mazama Pocket Gophet, lots of bears, etc.), but they come slowly and a single night drive may not produce much of interest. NW CA is rewarding, but often quite slow.
2) We’ve had a very late, cold spring in CA and anywhere above 4000ft, especially on north facing slopes, may well be snowbound. That includes parts of the roads I mention above. If you encounter snow blocking the road, turn around.
3) Some of these areas burned in large wildfires over the last few years. Many remote parts of CA are profoundly changed. I haven’t been to some of these places recently, so I can’t vouch for the habitat quality everywhere.
Hi Nathan, I had a similar plan with the bigger cats, so here’s the felid species I have seen since I started about a decade ago. I hope it helps:
1. Tiger: Kanha in India
2. Snow Leopard & Eurasian Lynx: Hemis in India (though Mongolia seems like the best spot now)
3. Lion, Leopard and Cheetah: Serengeti (Tanzanian part)
4. Jaguar: Kaa Iya in Bolivia with Nick’s Adventures (though Jaguarland Reserve and Pantanal have better odds)
5. Puma: Corcovado in Costa Rica (Patagonia has far better odds)
6. Sunda Clouded Leopard, Marbled Cat and Leopard Cat: Deramakot in Borneo with Mike Gordon
The missing species that obsesses me is the Mainland Clouded Leopard. I am still praying that a good, steady location will be found eventually. From my research so far, Nepal should be the place, but their infrastructure is problematic for good odds.
Nathan, i would try Panna for both the Indian leopard, and jungle cat. (also saw rusty-spotted there on a night drive)! Pench was also good for leopard.
Haha, those deramakot beds are the worst (well apparently only some of them). Thought it was literally wood the first time I laid on it.
Seems like you have had fantastic travels for the cats already. If any of you guys ever want to team up to go after a cat, let me know. Clouded leopard is high on my list as well!
Nice project and I hope you don´t go insane trying to find all those mammals. Some of the are more or less impossible.
Mainland clouded leopards are possible in both India and Nepal. I know that one was recently spotted at Manas NP.
A Golden Cat at Eaglesnest, India but very hard indeed and many tried including me without success.
I am one of those that have been to Borneo, (several times) searching for Sunda clouded leopard without success. I think Deramakot and Tabin are probably the best places so that is why I´m going there again.
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Fantastic (and fantastically ambitious) project! We would love to have you join our cat expeditions tours where we target the smaller wild cats (for good photography) like manul, bobcat, caracal, Iberian lynx. Feel free to DM me ☺️.