Big cats represent primal forces. When you see one, even if it’s captive, the human response comes from deep inside the most primitive parts of our brain. Our alertness level perks right up. Instinctively, you sense something powerful and dangerous is nearby. Your DNA knows which one of you is more likely to be having the other for dinner, and not as a guest.
A little science about big cats, which is not a proper term in biology. Even so, it informally refers to cats of the genus Panthera. Species of that genus are the only cats that can roar, due to a specialized larynx. Included are the lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard and jaguar. Some folks also include the cougar (the feline ones, not the 40+ human females), the clouded leopard and cheetah. None of those can roar, but since “Big Cat” is not a scientific term, you can decide for yourself. I personally think cougars, AKA mountain lions, should be included since they are known to hunt humans.
That whole hunting humans is kinda important. It’s the part where our instinctive fear comes into play. You just know these cats are apex predators, the absolute top of the food chain. A million years of evolution have built that into our DNA.
At the same time, big cats are incredibly graceful. They move through their environment with a fluidity and economy that’s beautiful to watch. They are silent stalkers and ambush killers. By the time their prey senses their presence, they have only seconds left to live. Prey animals have to be both fleet and lucky to have any chance at all.
The role of big cats in the wilderness ecology is an important one. They cull the herds of grass eaters of the sick and weak. Supreme population managers. There are no retirement homes for deer and antelope in the African savanna, or the forests of Siberia or North America, one a plant eater is a few years past their prime, they are cat food.
All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. They don’t have a big collection of cats, but the lions and tigers they do have are in well designed enclosures. No wire screen, bars, glass or similar problems to deal with. No problem setting up a tripod and getting a good shot. You do need a long lens and patience. If you can manage that, a great big cat shot is in your future.