Shooting a cougar, a photographer explains

Editor’s note: Below, Herald photographer Mark Mulligan shares how he got the killer shots of a cougar that was released back into the wild near Arlington on Wednesday.

So, to answer the obvious question, I was not crouched down a few feet from the cougar’s mouth. I was in the bed of a truck about 20 feet away to the cougar’s right. The picture was taken with a camera remotely triggered by a radio transmitter I had on the camera I was holding.

Every time I fired my camera, the remote fired.

When reporter Eric Stevick came into the photo office Wednesday morning to tell us he’d just gotten a call from the state fish and wildlife department that they were going to release a cougar, I was quick to say I’d run out the door.

We had to hurry, though, and as I ran out the door, I realized I should grab the right equipment to set up a remote-controlled camera —- in case they wouldn’t let me get close at the release. I really had no idea what to expect.

I honestly haven’t set up a ton of remotes, and I especially had never done one for the release of an animal.

Thankfully, the three agents and the best dog I’ve ever seen, Indy, were incredibly helpful, open and clear about their plan. They’d open the front of the trap, the cougar would run out, they’d hit it with some bean bags and shoot firecrackers at it to make it clear that humans are no good (if they see the animal again, around livestock, etc., then it will be killed, if not by a farmer, then by the state), and that’s that.

Of course, nothing ever goes as planned, and the cougar refused to come out for 30 minutes. Apparently it was unprecedented for the wildlife officials. In the past, they open the doors, the cougar sees daylight, and bolts. Not so this time.

At one point, the cougar even slid out of the tipped trailer, only to jump right back in.

Finally, though, with the help of a little pepper spray, the lion decided it was time to go. It jumped out and was gone in a flash.

In the final picture you can see my remote (covered from the rain with whatever I had in my car). I only got one usable frame from the 5D Mark II —- I have stepping down and then a tail. I wouldn’t have minded having a camera with more of a motor drive, but even more so, I wish that I had not BACK FOCUSED the camera. Argh. I’m really kicking myself. I was careful, because I had no idea what would happen in the frame, to up my iso so I could shoot at f11 and 320th of a second. But I bumped the focus a little too deep and the cougar’s face is not sharp. Really kills me.

All things considered though, I had an amazing time. The Fish and Wildlife officers were amazing. I say this a lot about a lot of different things, but if I didn’t do what I do for a living, I’d want to do what they do.

Hopefully I’ll get to do more of this in the future. It was an amazing treat to photograph such a beautiful animal, and I feel lucky to have been there.

Read the story and see the photos: “Cougar prowling Arlington caught, released in wild.”

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