When a filmmaker discovered a mountain lion in his backyard, he made a documentary

The first time that Montana-based wildlife filmmaker Casey Anderson locked eyes with the mountain lion living in his backyard, he was close enough to hear her crunching on a dead deer’s bones. Then, he noticed that she must have recently given birth. That was when Anderson knew he had to make a film about the mountain lion, whom he nicknames Mama Mo, and her three cubs: Eeny, Meeny, and Miny.

There was just one problem: mountain lions aren’t easy to spot. “I’ve been told 1,000 times that you can’t do a documentary about mountain lions,” Anderson says. “Anytime anybody has ever tried, it’s just a documentary about people looking for mountain lions — not actually finding them.”

So he turned to military-grade, thermal-sensing FLIR cameras to track the mountain lion family even at night. He mounted a camera-stabilizing platform designed for helicopters on his truck. And he spent two years filming Mama Mo and her cubs before he ever knew the documentary would reach a TV screen. “I knew how unique of an opportunity it was,” he says. “If you get to film a mountain lion for like five days in one year, you’re like winning the Super Bowl. And we were filming her for months on end.”

The product of this high-tech effort is a documentary called The Mountain Lion and Me, produced by Anderson and VisionHawk Films. It’s premiering today on the Smithsonian Channel at 8PM ET / PT. A series of shorts, Casey Anderson’s Wild Tracks, will be available on the subscription streaming service Smithsonian Earth on March 26th. The Verge spoke with Anderson about the film, the camera tech he used, and how it feels to watch a mountain lion eat her dinner.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Casey Anderson with binoculars
Casey Anderson.
Photo: VisionHawk Films

How did you wind up making a documentary about the mountain lion in your backyard?

I bought a home about 10 years ago and started noticing that there was some mountain lion activity in the area. I started following tracks, and the tracks led me to this [mountain lion], and that led me to kind of falling in love with her. It’s really kind of a dream come true, it’s like one in a million to have a mountain lion raise a family right outside my back door. It’s ridiculous — everything had to collide perfectly for it to work. At some level, I prefer to live in a place that’s wild. But still, to have a cat raise a family and be relatively forgiving in the sense of letting me witness and watch and film, everything had to go right. I’m a lucky guy.

What happened when you first met Mama Mo?

One day, I woke up and I had these mountain lion tracks very fresh in my driveway, and I followed them to a dead mule deer. Once you find a kill, odds are that they’re going to return. I set up a blind, and got in that, and illuminated the kill area with infrared light. And then I used infrared cameras to record the cat as she comes in. I was waiting there until about midnight, just 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 looking back at the monitor, and there’s a [mountain lion] in my frame staring at me. She stared at me for probably 10 minutes. It was like the ultimate game of chicken. You’re just sitting there, thinking, “Whoever is going to wiggle first is going to lose.”

I knew I had been waiting hours, so if I made one little wrong move she would run away. But she ended up settling in and eating. There were signs she’d been nursing, from what I could see. And that made the mystery bigger. So then the obsession began. I’ve not only got a mountain lion in my backyard, but she’s also got kittens somewhere that were small enough that she didn’t bring them to the kill with her.

Mama Mo and kitten.
Mama Mo and kitten.
Photo: Smithsonian Networks

What were you feeling? Were you afraid?

No. It sounds stupid. I mean, I was so excited, I was shaking. When you’re sitting there like that, and it’s just me and this cat, far from anybody else and you can hear the bones crunching, and you get this false sense of security that this little tent is somehow going to protect you, you’re in a little bubble. And she’ll stop and look up and stare right into your eyes, for a long five minutes. And then the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you do feel a vulnerability because lions do kill people once in awhile. I’d been in similar situations so many times that I knew if I don’t bother her, she won’t bother me. So I think there’s a mutual respect. She knew something was there, but she didn’t know what it was. I think, over time, she started realizing that I was going to be at the dinner table quite often, and she didn’t care at all. Fear is funny. I definitely had moments of having a little heightened awareness because the last thing you want to do is become complacent.

Mountain lion print in the snow
Mountain lion print in the snow.
Photo: VisionHawk Films

How did you get the footage you needed for the film?

It went from simply me following her tracks, getting patterns down — realizing that she uses this ledge, she uses that cave — and then taking it one step further. Now they have camera traps that if she walks through it will take a picture and immediately send me an email. So I’ll be in bed at 2:30 in the morning, I’ll get an email and go, “Mama Mo is right here.”

So I jump out and go out with next-to-military grade FLIR [thermal-sensing] cameras to find body heat on the dense rocky mountainside. And then I just follow her till the sun comes up. I’ve got a 1000 mm [Canon lens] on a truck, so I can film her while driving down the road and be perfectly stabilized. That’s what it took. Setting up the motion sensor traps, where she walks down a ledge or whatever, that’s easy. Once you find those patterns and put them into place, you’re going to get those shots. But we wanted to tell everything that was happening between those shots and make this more dynamic and more compelling and give some more behavior.

Truck with the Shotover F1 camera mount, and the moon in the background.
Truck with the Shotover F1 camera system.
Photo: VisionHawk Films

What was the coolest moment for you?

There’s a moment in the show when one of her kittens starts to get sick and starts to lag behind. There was a night when we watched her relentlessly try to get this kitten to survive. She just basically flipped a switch from predator mom to loving mom and it was moments like that, for me, it was almost shocking. You think and hope that they have these emotional feelings toward their young. But there’s this science side of you that kind of pushes that aside. But when you see it really appear, it’s really impactful. That was one of my saddest, greatest nights to watch, I would say. And I’ve got a few shots of my neighbors being oblivious, and the cat being a ninja walking right by them. It just cracks me up.

Mama Mo poses for the camera.
Photo: VisionHawk Films

What do you hope this documentary will accomplish?

Just to show what this new wild is, this coexistence between animals and humans, even big predators. We can live in the same exact area. And they’re adapting to us all the time. They’ll use the houses and the fences to hunt the deer, I’ve watched when there’s a 747 flying over, and she will use the sound of that jet to mask her footfall as she sneaks up on deer. They’re adapting. This cat grew up never knowing that there were never fences or airplanes. This is its wilderness. This is its home as much as it is ours. That pure [wilderness] doesn’t really exist much anymore, and it never existed to this cat, and it never existed to us. We have this coexistence and ability to live together and thrive if we understand it and respect it. And that’s what I’m hoping people will see from this.