As discussions surrounding environmental and special crises heat up in the media, Vulture Hound spoke to veteran big cat wrangler and project biologist Boone Smith about his latest collaboration with National Geographic, Big Cat Games, a show that challenges ferocious felines against each other in a series of trials that will determine once and for all who is king of the cats.
So where did your fascination with big cats start?
I grew up in a family where I often went with my grandpa and my dad fishing, so I was exposed to the great outdoors from a very young age. When I chose a career I worked with wildlife biologists for 6-7 years on some projects, so I’ve got special skill sets now, and I was really good at the capture end of it. I worked on a lot of different projects with different research groups, and now I teach them how take good care and radio collar the animals that they want to study and capture.
So how did you go from tracking to being a presenter?
Well, I was working as a biologist on a project for a group called Panthera and at the time the powers that be, the bosses, at National Geographic said “Hey, we’ve got a great project we feel like you guys should come out and do a documentary on” and so in the course of doing that, they wanted to see how you put a radio collar on a mountain lion, as obviously it’s got to be kind of tricky. I ended up running a lot of those capture crews and in the course of doing it they asked me a lot of questions, including what other projects I was working on. I told them I was actually looking into jaguars and they came along to a couple projects I was working on and filmed and asked me to host a couple shows! A lot of it was dumb luck- right place, right time.
How do you think that this show differs from your past work in terms of message and trying to communicate to viewers?
The footage I show of the big cats in this show is really different from say, an expedition where you are attracting them in the wild places. One of the big things when putting Big Cat Week together was to grab the widest audience possible. We wanted to show how adaptive and creative these animals are and they don’t always do what we have planned or think they will do, whether they’re in the Himalayas, the African jungle and Savannah or as captive in a facility where they take very good care of them.
Where did the filming for this actually take place?
Busch Gardens is typically known as a big, family-orientated amusement, but it has some incredible wildlife habitats, and the work they do with the tigers, cheetahs and lions is amazing. These guys work every day and they’re not hands on with the animals, because they want to keep them somewhat wild, but they also plan and arrange different challenges within the animals’ habitats on a daily basis, in order to exercise and stimulate them. We took advantage of the teams and what they do everyday, which is to keep these cats thinking and on their toes.
So how did you formulate the ways to test these animals against each other?
Each cat has a different skill set and what they excel at, so obviously something like a race won’t work because cheetahs are the fastest. We also know tigers are incredible swimmers, and we wanted to highlight their specialties but we were like, “I wonder what they’d do if we did this?” So a lot of the selection was based on examining their natural instincts observing their wild cousins. These cats obviously have large habitats, but they’re not comparable to what their cousins see in the wild, maybe hundreds of square miles. With a smaller habitat, that means they notice really quickly when something is different in the habitat, and we wanted to see them respond; were they scared, were they shy, were they aggressive towards it? The cool part is, because most of these cats have never seen the wild, to see that instinct still take over and to see that it’s really still in them is amazing. When they attacked the prey items, it was interesting to see how they approached it and knew how to bite for the back of the neck. How did they know that if they’ve never seen that or done that?
Do you have a favourite cat species?
I don’t think I could pick one- I thoroughly enjoyed watching them race the cheetahs, watching the mechanics of their bodies as they move is amazing. Then you’ve got the contrast; you’ve got the tigers that are just some of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen in the world. They’re big and they are really chatty, but they’re the biggest babies in the world. It’s funny because the Siberian tiger is the biggest big cat in the world but it doesn’t act like it. Then you’ve got something like the African lion, where a 500-pound male knows he is the biggest badass on the planet. Each one offers so much diversity across the world in these beautifully varied environments.
How do you think the world would be impacted by the loss of these big cats?
We want more people not be not only engaged, but actively involved and asking questions like, “Hey man, what can I do to help make sure there are lions and tigers across the landscape for a long, long time?” We are getting better at conservation, and we’re making a bigger impact, but they are really struggling, and we’re at a time where it is do or die. Either we will save the tiger or we will not, and its going to be a defining moment for us as human beings and I think we’re doing a better job at it then we’ve ever done before. It’s our job to bring that message home through programmes like The Big Cat Initiative.
So what are your future film projects for this year onwards?
My team and I currently researching mountain lions in Wyoming, and I’m also working with a group of biologists in Alaska, where we’re going to use some of the capturing techniques we perfected on mountain lions and use them to capture and collar the lynx, so the research projects we’re starting up this year are going to be challenging but incredibly exciting.
Big Cat Games airs on Saturday 6 February at 8pm on the National Geographic WILD channel.