“You look fine. You look super-relaxed,” Boone Smith told me as we sat across from each other at a poolside table last month. What he was responding to in my face and/or body language had to do with a mountain lion cub that was standing on the table.
The cub—which was about six weeks old, born in captivity and now living at a rescue in California—was, yes, impossibly cute, with massive paws and glimmering blue eyes.
The expression on my face was, I assume, an illustration of my struggle: I wanted to reach out and pet it, and I also kept imagining headlines about cute animals that suddenly mauled people. “I have cats, but this one is very different,” I said, watching it out of the corner of my eye to make sure it didn’t leap onto my head.
It’s somewhere between this attraction and fear, and between the anthropomorphization and acknowledgement that these are wild animals that need our help and our respect.
Perhaps that’s a good way to describe the mission of Big Cat Week, which starts its seventh stunt week of programming tonight on NatGeo Wild at 9 p.m. ET.
Its television shows (see the schedule below) are part of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, which was created in 2009 and now “funds on-the-ground research and innovative conservation projects to protect our planet’s top felines and leads a global public awareness campaign to shine light on” the threats faced by non-household cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and cheetahs.
Last year, it funded was 29 projects in 16 countries, Smith told me.
Back to the cub that was on a leash, yes, but also wandering around the table and looking all around, including at my face. “Easy to get sidetracked,” Boone Smith told me, referring to the cub, not the funding. Smith has appeared in previous NatGeo WILD specials and documentaries, and is serving as a spokesperson for this year’s initiative.
I asked him how the cuteness factor, like of the animal sitting on the table between us. Does it help by bringing attention, or inhibit by making people conflate domesticated animals and wild, endangered ones?
“Everybody loves kittens—everybody loves the little guys. How do you not? Look at him—he’s gorgeous! He’s got the big blue eyes. You can’t help but love him, and he’s inquisitive and he’s all over the place right now,” Smith said. “It’s great once in a while to have an animal ambassador like this—that’s from a facility that does it the right way, that takes great care of their animals. It’s not a sideshow; these guys are conservation-based. They’re not a petting zoo. This is a conservation-based organization.”
He added, “It’s one thing to see it on film, and it’s another thing to see it in person, too. And we want to give folks as much experience as we can with that. Again, it comes down to involvement. When people go, Wow, mountain lions! And mountain lions in California—it’s in the news a lot. For them to see a mountain lion that’s potentially exactly the same as one that’s in your back yard, obviously people connect a little differently.”
The specials and documentaries that are part of Big Cat Week even help people like Smith connect to the animals he works with every day. “Having worked as a biologist and a researcher,” he said, I sit down and say, Oh, I’ve never seen that before! That’s what’s great that we bring to the table every year.”
The Big Cat Week schedule
Here’s what will air as part of Big Cat Week this year, according to a NatGeo WILD press release:
- Battle for the Pride (Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c): Follow a pride in Botswana to discover the brutal realities of family life for lions. • Storm Cats (Monday, Feb. 20, at 10/9c): In arid Botswana, water is life. Witness the incredible stories of the region’s iconic big cats, like lions and cheetahs, as they fight for survival in the dry landscape before the rains bring new life
- Jaguar: Super Cat (Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 9/8c): Jaguars are South America’s supreme predator, but they’re also one of the most elusive animals on the planet. Follow a pioneering team in Brazil as they track and follow individual wild jaguars to gain amazing new insights into their lives.
- Ultimate Rivals: Cat. vs. Dog (Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 9/8c): In the wilds of Southern Africa, competition between cats and dogs is fierce. Witness the deadly showdowns that take place between big cats like lions, cheetahs and leopards and jackals, wild dogs and hyenas.
- Soul of the Cat (Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 10/9c): Produced by National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and world-renowned filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert, explore the similarities between domestic cats and wild cats.
- Kings of the Kill (Thursday, Feb. 23, at 9/8c): In Africa’s Serengeti, lions, leopards and cheetahs employ different hunting techniques to catch and kill their prey.
- African Cats (Friday, Feb. 24, at 9/8c): Disneynature’s African Cats captures the real-life love, humor and determination of the majestic kings of the savanna. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the story features an endearing lion cub, a fearless cheetah and a proud leader of a lion pride who must defend his family from a rival lion and his sons.