On a hot Texas day last June, wildlife photographer Karine Aigner came face to face with a bobcat, and an unexpected relationship began.
“I’d been told bobcats had been denning under the house for years, but for the six summers I had spent teaching photography workshops at the ranch I’d only seen them once or twice.”
Bobcats are notoriously shy, and while they live throughout the United States, getting more than a passing glimpse is rare. She had never considered them serious photography subjects.
But, that week, after having spotted one of the kittens dart across the patio, Aigner decided to try her luck. “I convinced myself I’d be well hidden behind my pseudo photo blind of camo netting fastened on each side to patio chairs,” she says. “I was winging it.”
She sweltered in the hot afternoon sun with her 600mm lens trained on a water bowl the owner of the house kept on the deck.
“The sun began to sink, and she appeared—as bobcats do, silently and out of the blue,” Aigner recalls. Her heart raced as she watched as the animal she would come to call Momcat lapped water from the bowl, one of her kittens by her side. “We locked eyes for what seemed an eternity-my camo set-up obviously wasn’t working.” (Also read “Out of the Shadows, the Wildcats You’ve Never Seen.”)
Aigner rearranged her schedule so that she could spend the rest of the summer with Momcat and her three kittens. She spent her days silently watching as they went about their daily routine—sleeping together under the house until the heat subsided, then venturing out together to drink, play, and groom.
“Without warning, Momcat would foray out past the fence,” Aigner says, “And as if by some unspoken command, three little bobtails would line up on the deck and watch her leave. When I thought about it, it almost seemed as if she was leaving them in my care. Bobcats will move their dens at any sign of danger. Momcat never did. “
Aigner watched Momcat chase off other bobcats and kill a raccoon mother with six kits that had come to the bowl to drink. There were evenings she brought home rabbits and rats—depositing them for the kittens right in front of me, and there were nights she left the kittens completely alone. (Get National Geographic’s tips for photographing wildlife.)
She watched as the kittens eventually became more brave, and more curious, until they had the courage to venture out and hunt on their own.
“Momcat let me into her universe,” Aigner says. “She allowed me to see what it is to be bobcat; and what it takes to be a single mom of three. We both took refuge in each other’s worlds. I had no intention other than being present, and she seemed to know that.”
The summer came to an end, and just as the kittens were moving on, it was time for Aigner to return to her regular life. But the experience stayed with her. When she returned to Texas in the fall for work, she decided to pay a visit to the ranch.
“My logical mind knew they were supposed to be gone, but my hopes spoke otherwise,” Aigner says. “I knew better than to grow attached to a wild animal. I secretly referred to them as ‘my kids’ but, I’d never named them. My heart was racing.”
Aigner checked under the house as she so often had, but the kittens were gone. As Aigner turned to go, a bobcat slowly walked down the stairs facing away from her. It stopped at the bottom and turned towards her before calmly sitting down to lick its paws. (See 47 mesmerizing pictures of animals in the wild.)
“It is a rare bobcat that will groom itself in front of you. I knew it was her, “ Aigner says. “She turned to me, and, we locked eyes as we had in the beginning.”
In this moment, Aigner says, she realized the gift she had been given. “There is an unspoken connection between living creatures. They teach us so much, if we just allow ourselves to slow down, and pay attention.”
Aigner watched Momcat slip back through her hole in the fence, and with tears rolling down her cheeks, whispered: “Goodbye Momcat. Thank you.”
For more of Karine Aigner’s work on bobcats, please follow her on Instagram at @kaigner.