[ Theme music plays ] BEN: The brush country of deep South Texas.
It's home to an animal so rare that it was once thought to be lost -- the ocelot.
Fewer than 120 are known to exist in the entire United States.
My name is Ben Masters.
I grew up fascinated with ocelots.
I want to better understand the challenges they face and what can be done.
TEWES: The ocelot's range within Texas has been shrinking because of a number of human-related factors.
The efforts for ocelot conservation, I feel, have been in vain.
Time is not a friend of ours.
BEN: And thus began one of the greatest experiences of my life.
We got it.
We got the ocelot kittens.
Oh, my God.
♪♪ She has no clue how important the survival of her kittens is for this species.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Soft music plays ] ♪♪ BEN: The brush country of deep South Texas.
Parts of it are so thick and thorny, it's nearly impossible to walk through.
Painful to even crawl.
♪♪ You're an outsider here, limited to brief glimpses into the brush -- just enough to wonder what's hidden and what's hiding.
♪♪ It's home to an animal so rare that it was once thought to be lost.
And it has become nearly mythical.
♪♪ The ocelot.
♪♪ Fewer than 120 are known to exist in the entire United States.
♪♪ ♪♪ The ocelot is somewhat of a Holy Grail for wildlife filmmakers.
They're rare and, in my opinion, they are the most beautiful cat species.
Possibly the most beautiful animal there is.
♪♪ Few quality images have ever been taken, and they're shrouded in mystery.
♪♪ My name is Ben Masters.
I grew up fascinated with ocelots, studied wildlife biology, and became a wildlife filmmaker.
Capturing images of these cats has become somewhat of an obsession.
♪♪ So, these research cameras -- we have about 10 of them placed in the brush, and they're gathering intel on which of the trails the ocelots are using.
This spot right here, in the last month, we've been able to find five different times that an ocelot has walked past through here.
So, it's pretty high use for ocelots.
And now we're going to set up one of the nicer cameras.
And the way that it works is, we have these laser beam breaks that we're going to put on the trail.
The cat is going to walk through them.
It's going to trigger the camera to turn on to begin recording.
We'll, hopefully, get a shot.
Sometimes it works, and a lot of time it doesn't.
For three years, I've been camera trapping in this brush, and only once have I gotten a glimpse of an ocelot crossing the trail.
But I've come to know them through the cameras, and I've gotten a peek into their secretive lives.
♪♪ Our... waiting game... begins.
[ Soft music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The ocelot is perfectly adapted to the forest of thick brush they call home.
♪♪ Their pattern of rosettes, stripes, and spots allow them to disappear into the tangle of vegetation and dappled light.
♪♪ Twice the size of a house cat, they prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
♪♪ They are the royalty of the South Texas brush.
♪♪ ♪♪ Ocelots are facing many threats, and I want to better understand the challenges they face and what can be done.
♪♪ I'm going to meet with a variety of people working with ocelots.
And nobody has been researching them longer than Dr. Michael Tewes.
BEN: So, can you walk me through how this trap works?
TEWES: It's a very safe trap.
It's been a very effective trap that we've used for 35 years.
It's called a Tomahawk Live Trap.
It's got a door here and a treadle there that's attached to this treadle back here.
And, we put, in a separate compartment, a pigeon that cannot be harmed in any way, but the cat thinks it's going to be dinner.
And it comes close to the pigeon and steps on this treadle, and it's trapped.
[ Pigeon coos ] My name is Michael Tewes.
I'm a wildlife biologist, a professor, and I do research on wildcats, particularly small wildcats.
When I began the ocelot research in 1981, I had professors telling me they didn't even exist in the state anymore.
After trying to catch one for four or five months, to see that trap and see the long ringed tail of that ocelot flag up in the air was just an explosion of joy.
♪♪ ♪♪ To be able to study ocelots for 37 years, it's an unbelievable fulfilling of a dream.
♪♪ BEN: For 40 years, Mike has researched and tried to conserve the ocelot.
It was somewhat of a miracle that he was able to find any at all.
♪♪ Worldwide, the ocelot is one of our most widespread cat species.
But the last 150 years have been really tough on them and other predators in the United States.
Virtually all of the forests in their historic range were logged in the early 1900s, which destroyed millions of acres of ocelot habitat.
♪♪ Professional hunters ran dogs and set traps across the state to kill off the wolves, bears, jaguars, and mountain lions.
And then, in the '30s, the federal government helped pay for poison to be spread across Texas in an effort to kill off the coyotes.
♪♪ Everything combined has been tragically successful.
♪♪ The last wolf was killed from Texas in the '70s.
The last jaguar, shot in the '40s And the last jaguarundi, hit by a car in 1986.
♪♪ Bears were totally eliminated but have slowly begun to come back.
The mountain lions are widely persecuted to this day.
♪♪ Sadly, the ocelot was bycatch to all of these anti-predator efforts.
And they were trapped for their fur to make fashionable coats.
♪♪ A century ago, ocelots ranged across much of Texas and into Louisiana and Arkansas.
But due to habitat loss and our intolerance to co-exist with predators, they are now found in only two small populations.
The northern population, on private lands, has at least 50 to 75 ocelots.
The southern population contains between 12 and 20 ocelots.
They are found on public land at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
So, Hilary, where are we headed, and what's the objective for today?
SWARTS: So, we are checking a trap line today that is in really prime ocelot habitat.
It's been a successful trap area in the past.
So, we have an ocelot that we collared, actually, a week ago today in this area.
And, it has a radio beacon that signals for two hours a day.
[ Radio static and pinging ] You can hear that kind of sharp ping.
♪♪ He is alive and well.
My name's Hilary Swarts.
I'm a wildlife biologist with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service.
And I'm the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife species lead for ocelots.
Right now, we have 12 individuals that we know by pattern.
On some level, that feels a little disheartening, because if I'm not mistaken, when I started here six years ago, we had 12 individuals that we knew.
So, in terms of looking for the population to just burst under my time here or on my clock, uh, that's not really happening.
♪♪ There just aren't a lot of cats.
♪♪ When you have this really reduced genetic diversity, you also have a reduced sort of immunity response across your population.
So, a disease outbreak is certainly a potential risk.
♪♪ There's a lot we don't know because there are a lot of private lands that, for one reason or another, have not necessarily been explored for ocelot presence.
♪♪ BEN: Most landowners that likely have ocelots have not allowed the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct research on their property, because they are concerned that the Endangered Species Act could negatively impact their ranching operations.
There are two exceptions.
The Yturria Ranch has embraced ocelots since the 1980s and is protected through conservation easements.
The East Foundation's El Sauz Ranch contains the largest population of ocelots, which co-exist inside a working cattle ranch.
[ Cattle mooing ] WILKINS: This particular ranch is about 27,000 acres.
This country's been continuously under production for over 150 years.
That long-term continuous use of this property for grazing, we maintain this incredible wildlife diversity out here.
My name is Neal Wilkins and I'm president of the East Foundation.
We own a little over 200,000 acres of ranchland in deep South Texas.
Our El Sauz Ranch, where we are now, has got the largest population of ocelots in the United States that we know of.
♪♪ So, there's about a 3% chance, per year, of a Category 4 hurricane or greater hitting the coast that house most of our ocelots.
That means there's a 30% chance that sometime over the next 10 years, we're going to have a Category 4 hurricane or greater hit that part of the coast.
Furthermore, this year was a big wildfire year.
We probably lost some ocelot habitat.
We could have lost a whole lot more.
♪♪ If we don't figure out how to translocate ocelots, and get new populations of ocelots in Texas, away from the coast, we almost certainly will lose ocelots in our lifetime.
♪♪ Are we willing to have all of our eggs in one basket and exposed to a big catastrophe like that?
♪♪ BEN: [ Grunts ] Okay.
Graceful, like a cat.
[ Grunting ] I've reached it.
[ Device clicking and beeping ] Looks like mouse.
[ Device clicking ] Long-billed thrasher, rabbit, mouse.
I focused my camera trapping on the East Foundation's ranch.
Finding them was a needle in a haystack, even if it was the largest population.
But the search was this fascinating look into the brush and into the sometimes ridiculous dramas of wildlife.
♪♪ One of the biggest challenges is the animals themselves.
♪♪ [ Coyote sniffing, licking ] [ Clatter ] For the pigs -- the pigs had no respect for the cameras.
[ Pig rubbing against camera ] ♪♪ No cats.
That's the way it goes.
♪♪ While my trail cameras waited for ocelots in the brush, I met back up with Dr. Michael Tewes and his research team, as they tried to catch an ocelot in the ranch population.
TEWES: We've got 16 traps at 12 stations, looking for ocelots, but we may have bobcats or nothing at all, which is often the case.
So it's like a big jackpot.
You never know what we're gonna have in the traps.
♪♪ The wood rat.
We got the food of the ocelot.
This is your lucky day.
It's gonna be fast.
♪♪ It's a raccoon.
MAN: Good morning.
Good to see you.
Come on, little man.
There you go.
There you go.
TEWES: It's a skunk.
BEN: Not many people I know that get sprayed by a skunk more than you.
MAN: I don't know what the protocol is for a skunk.
♪♪ TEWES: Looks like you ought to work at NASA.
MAN: I'm actually not feeling as bad about it now.
♪♪ ♪♪ Success.
I'm putting it in the "win" column.
[ Laughs ] ♪♪ [ Bobcat hisses ] TEWES: It's only a bobcat.
[ Chuckles ] ♪♪ [ Pigeon coos ] ♪♪ [ Trap rattling ] We have one ocelot.
[ Ocelot snarls ] Fantastic.
[ Ocelot growling, snarling ] It's, uh, nature's masterpiece.
All the different spots and rosettes, blotches.
It's, uh -- It defies description.
[ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ Going to prepare for sedation.
Get the table set up.
I'm bringing my students down so they can enjoy the moment.
♪♪ The plan is to sedate the ocelot, evaluate its health, obtain samples, and then attach a GPS collar and release it so we can track its movements.
WOMAN: I've never seen an ocelot before.
I'm so excited right now.
TEWES: It looks pretty good-size.
♪♪ Is everybody ready?
♪♪ ♪♪ We just sedated the cat.
Now we're waiting for it to go to sleep, calm down, before we pull him out.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ TEWES: Ah.
It's waking up.
WOMAN: [ Speaking indistinctly ] TEWES: Yeah.
♪♪ WOMAN: Here we are.
Back in the box here.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Speaking indistinctly ] TEWES: Get eye covers.
And some cotton swabs.
MAN: Who is it?
Officially, ET-33M, or as we now call him, Romeo.
[ Monitor beeping ] ♪♪ WOMAN: We just finished taking blood.
We put the collar on.
Now we're taking body measurements.
[ Monitor beeping ] ♪♪ 30.5.
TEWES: It's a new record.
WILKINS: Giving him, uh -- One of the two anesthetic drugs that we gave him is reversible, so that was the reversal agent.
♪♪ TEWES: One, two, three.
♪♪ ♪♪ We've learned a lot, as you can imagine, over the years.
We need to have good information, scientifically-based data, to make our management strategies.
♪♪ BEN: The information gathered from the collars for research is crucial for management decisions.
But what I love most about camera trapping is you get to see beyond the data and witness their day-to-day behaviors.
And you never know what you might find.
[ Birds chirping ] [ Camera chimes ] There's something that you need to see.
[ Chuckles ] [ Chuckles ] Oh, my God.
Oh, my God.
♪♪ I hope you can see that.
♪♪ [ Chuckling ] We got it.
Those are -- We got the ocelot kittens.
[ Chuckling ] Oh, my God.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ And thus began one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Getting to watch two of these precious kittens grow up.
♪♪ Merely weeks old, we were the first people to ever get to see what it takes for a wild American ocelot to raise her young.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ During the earliest videos, the mother, who we affectionately called Mama Jane, would often carry the kittens in her mouth.
♪♪ At other times, we saw her traveling with only one of the kittens.
♪♪ But in most of the early observations, Mama Jane was out by herself, hunting, to provide for the kittens she had left hidden in the brush.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Bird squawking ] ♪♪ Birds would often call out as she traveled, warning others there was a predator on the prowl.
♪♪ [ Birds squawking ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Ocelot sniffing ] ♪♪ An armadillo.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Bird squawking ] ♪♪ Busted.
She'll have to keep hunting.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Brush rustling ] ♪♪ Success.
Back to the kittens.
[ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ ♪♪ I couldn't help but to admire Mama Jane and all she did to raise her young.
Every day, she was out hunting to feed herself and her offspring.
And she had no choice but to leave them alone and vulnerable for hours at a time, which is something that I couldn't imagine.
♪♪ She likes to dance.
WOMAN: She does.
BEN: Everything's open, right?
MOM: Are you having a good time, Bird?
BEN: My wife gave birth to our first child, Birdie, as we were camera trapping the ocelot kittens.
WOMAN: This is so cute, I'm gonna cry.
BEN: [ Laughs ] Her first stuffed animal was an obvious choice.
BIRDIE: [ Laughing ] ♪♪ BEN: I know it's ridiculous, but I couldn't help but notice how pampered my baby was, compared to the ocelots out in the brush.
[ Thunder rumbling ] ♪♪ Seeing what those kittens could live through made me a little bit more willing to have Birdie be free-range... which was nice... WOMAN: Hello.
BEN: ...because she quickly got tough enough to help out with the camera trapping.
Got some leads.
Got some leads.
Okay, now trigger it.
You think a lot about the future when you have a kid: what lessons you can teach them that will set them up for success; what skills you can pass on.
♪♪ You'll do pretty much anything to give them the best chance at life.
♪♪ This ocelot mom -- she's doing everything she can to successfully raise her young, but she has no idea that her and her kittens represent 3% of the entire U.S. population.
♪♪ She has no clue how important the survival of her kittens is for the species.
♪♪ TEWES: In 1982, when we caught the first ocelots on the refuge, it coincided with a very ambitious program instituted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and NGOs to create a connection of reserves and refuges.
The ocelots were used as a flagship species to start this land acquisition.
BEN: One of the goals of the Rio Grande corridor was to connect our ocelots to the nearest population in Mexico.
What no one predicted was, the human population would triple in the Rio Grande Valley, a border wall would be constructed, and many ranches would be converted into agriculture and wind turbines.
Today, a dispersing cat would have to travel at least 50 miles through inhospitable terrain to connect with ocelots in the United States.
TEWES: The chances of an ocelot moving from the population in Mexico and successfully entering into Laguna Atascosa Refuge are nonexistent, in my opinion.
♪♪ BEN: Without natural corridors, our best option is to capture ocelots from the nearest population in Mexico and bring them to Texas.
These types of translocations are very common.
♪♪ In the 1990s, mountain lions were captured in Texas and taken to Florida to save the genetics of their cats.
Since then, the Florida population has grown from 30 to over 150.
♪♪ In Spain, the critically endangered Iberian lynx was captured from the wild in the late '90s, placed in captive breeding pens, and then reintroduced to former habitat.
Their numbers have increased from less than 100 to over 1,000.
From Canadian wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone to Mexican desert bighorn sheep being translocated to Texas, rewilding efforts have taken place across the world.
♪♪ But ocelots, our most beautiful and endangered cat?
For 30 years, scientists and conservationists have urged the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service to begin reintroductions, and not once has it been attempted.
[ Cattle mooing ] Part of the challenge is that recovering endangered species can be very difficult on private lands, and Texas is 95% privately owned.
♪♪ WILKINS: There's this conflict out there where ranchers with good motives, with good conservation ethic, can be forced into, at times, making decisions that might not be in the best interest of the species, simply because there's a conflict with the Endangered Species Act.
As part of ranching, you've got to, obviously, graze cattle; build fences; at some points, clear small areas of brush; conduct prescribed burning; those types of things.
It's pretty scary to have the oversight of the federal government onto private lands, and you can understand that.
And I think everyone understands that -- that particularly good land stewards should not be treated as though they are criminals, simply by virtue of the fact that they happen to have an endangered species on their property.
SWARTS: There's the Endangered Species Act, and that carries with it certain things, but the Fish and Wildlife Service, I think, is wise to the fact that if you make it too scary for somebody to say they have endangered species on their property, they're either gonna never tell you about it, or they're gonna actively get rid of them.
It's the last thing we want to have.
BEN: One of the tools used to recover an endangered species is the Safe Harbor Agreement.
Under a Safe Harbor Agreement, the landowner volunteers to help research and recover endangered species on their property, with the legal assurance that the federal government has no control over the agreed-upon management practices.
WILKINS: If the Fish and Wildlife Service were to understand that these ranchlands are stable, they would trust the idea that conservation of ocelots can occur without a heavy hand of the federal government.
On the other hand, if ranchers were able to know that they could maintain their profitable land use and at the same time contribute to ocelot conservation, I think we could find a solution there.
The issue is one of understanding and trust.
For the ranchlands that are left in South Texas,, that are north of the valley, as long as we can maintain profitability for those ranches, those ranches are gonna be there.
Large landowners, like the King Ranch, the, Kennedy Ranch, the Armstrong Ranch, they know and understand wildlife and wildlife conservation as well as anybody.
SWARTS: Those private lands, right now, as ranches, they're doing great for ocelots.
If they don't change anything, that's great.
But who's to say?
This land turns over to that person, this landowner passes away, their kids don't really care -- poof -- turbines.
Wind turbines everywhere, and no habitat at all.
♪♪ BEN: As of right now, in the year 2022, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and landowners have not created any Safe Harbor Agreements, and there are no plans for reintroductions.
The ranch population is confined by grasslands and unsuitable habitat, while the refuge population is confined by agriculture and development.
All of the ocelots are inbred, genetically isolated, and a percentage of the population is lost each year to road mortality.
[ Vehicle approaching ] [ Traffic passing ] ♪♪ TEWES: The worst-case scenario for ocelots is we keep doing what we're doing.
Time is precious, and we are losing this small window of opportunity, that we have to recover ocelots.
[ Rain falling ] [ Footsteps approaching ] [ Soft music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Sighs ] It's been about... three weeks now, and we have not seen both of the kittens.
[ Camera clicking ] I got one video that has one kitten, so one of them is alive, but the other one, it's been three weeks now, so I'm assuming that -- that that one is dead.
[ Camera clicking ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Ocelot meowing ] ♪♪ My assumption was that she was just searching in vain for a kitten that died.
[ Ocelot meows ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Ocelot meowing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Ocelot meows ] ♪♪ TEWES: It's very frustrating, after 37 years of working on ocelots, to think that we still haven't made major contributions to ocelot recovery at a level that will make a difference.
[ Ocelot meows ] We need a revolutionary paradigm shift from where we have been, the last 37 years, to where we are now.
[ Ocelot meows ] [ Owl hooting ] ♪♪ BEN: The biggest frustration for me is that right across the border in Mexico, there is a thriving population of ocelots that could potentially be used to save our genetics and be a source to create new populations in the United States.
[ Engine starts ] Not in Texas anymore.
I decided to drive a few hours south and meet up with some biologists in Mexico to learn more about their ocelots and if they would be willing to help save ours.
CELIS GURRIA: This is what we call the Tamaulipan thornscrub.
This is a good habitat for cats.
I feel good about capturing photos of ocelots here because the habitat is very similar to what we have in Texas.
Let's set up some camera traps.
Visiting Tamaulipas, for me, is like seeing Texas before all the trapping, poisoning, and habitat loss.
It's like stepping back in time and getting to see the wild cats that used to roam my home state.
I'm gonna point it that direction, down the road.
Can you -- Can you stand in the frame for me?
[ Birds chirping ] There we go.
People won't believe me it's not Texas until they see a jaguar or something like that walking through.
CELIS GURRIA: Yes!
Just watch yourself because I'm hungry.
BEN: Ah, it's good framing.
CELIS GURRIA: [ Growls ] BEN: I'm glad I'm not a javelina [ Both laugh ] CELIS GURRIA: [ Speaking Spanish ] ♪♪ BEN: We're gonna place cameras from lowland thornscrub at sea level, all the way to the mountaintops in the cloud forest, to see the variety of habitat that ocelots can live in.
[ Birds squawking ] ♪♪ This area is just completely different than where we're filming ocelots in Texas.
[ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ CELIS GURRIA: [ Speaking Spanish ] BEN: There it is.
[ Chuckles ] There's our first ocelot video.
Looks like a beautiful young male.
♪♪ It was amazing to see ocelots in habitats that are completely different than where we find them in Texas -- in deserts to rocky hillsides and thick forests.
It really opened my eyes to see the variety of places that this cat could call home.
When I went home to Texas, I couldn't stop thinking about all of our landscapes where ocelots once roamed and possibly still could today, if given the chance.
Over a million acres of forest in East Texas has regrown over the last century.
And much of South and Central Texas is becoming more brushy and forested.
There are vast tracts of both public and private lands that has potential habitat for reintroductions.
Most importantly, Texans want more ocelots.
♪♪ WILKINS: We're looking out at an expanse of thousands of acres of Tamaulipan thornscrub.
Good potential ocelot habitat that we think would be ideal for releasing ocelots.
We've got one property, our San Antonio Viejo ranch.
A little over 150,000 acres.
And the southern one-third of that ranch, it's the same type of habitat that is throughout the former range of the species, and it's habitat in which the species could probably live, thrive, and reproduce.
The barriers for bringing ocelots from Mexico into Texas are political, primarily.
The Endangered Species Act requires permitting.
We just need to be able to get a good bilateral working agreement going between the United States and Mexico.
♪♪ BEN: Going on a brush crawl.
Let's go find some ocelots.
( Birdie babbling ) Go find some ocelots.
♪♪ Good job, Birdie.
Let's go find some more cameras.
♪♪ BIRDIE: Camera?
♪♪ BEN: Look.
There's your camera.
♪♪ BIRDIE: Okay.
♪♪ BEN: Like this.
BEN: Good job.
♪♪ BIRDIE: Tiger.
[ Ocelot meowing ] BEN: Ocelot.
BEN: The ocelot's talking.
[ Ocelot meowing ] BIRDIE: [ Chuckling ] BEN: You love it.
Do you love the ocelot?
Whenever you have a kid, one of the things that really changes in your life is your whole concept of purpose.
Like, it takes you from doing things for myself, or doing things for the wildlife or the organizations that you're working with, and it just -- it makes that whole next-generation thing make sense.
BIRDIE: [ Laughing ] BEN: I'm gonna get you back.
BIRDIE: [ Laughing ] BEN: It's tough having kids right now, because just the world that they're growing up in -- you know, the species loss, the climate, you know, changing -- you know, they -- they didn't have choice.
They were just brought into this world.
♪♪ I think that -- that the ocelot, for me... [Chuckles] it represents hope, because it's something that we can actually pull off.
There's no reason not to do it.
It's just gonna take action.
BIRDIE: [ Speaking indistinctly ] ♪♪ Ocelot recovery is one of the greatest conservation opportunities of our time.
♪♪ An opportunity to prove that our generation took bold efforts to save and rewild our most magnificent and endangered species.
♪♪ ♪♪ Mama Jane went on to successfully raise her surviving kitten.
We named her Hope.
♪♪ Hope that landowners, state and federal agencies will work together to recover this incredible species and begin new populations in the United States.
♪♪ ♪♪ Hope for our children to inherit wild landscapes teeming with our most magnificent cat.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ To learn more about what you've seen on this "Nature" program, visit pbs.org.