Cat in Thin Air project launched!



The Andean Mountain Cat has been in my heart for a very long time. It is a high altitude specialist and less than 2.500 remain. This is not another sad depressing environmental story however. The Andean Cat has a real chance at survival, but its up to us who care to make sure that happens. The Andean Cat Alliance has been working exclusively on this amazing species since 1999, and they have made real progress. Since however there are less than 10 high resolution pictures of this cat in existence, I want to do my part in helping the Andean Cat by getting more high resolution pictures which can then be used to introduce a ton more people to the cat.

And so, the Cat in Thin Air Project was born. The goals of the project are to first get more pictures of this very elusive cat, but then, and much more importantly help with established education programs as well as create additional avenues to show the cat to the world. Have an interest in wild cats, go check out the project page, want to help? Email me!

Pumas are Better for our Health

You read that correctly, pumas are better for our health! How can a wild animal like a mountain lion be better for our health? We have all heard about the web of life. All things are connected, and there is a natural balance within an ecosystem. Pumas show us how removing part of that system shifts that balance, creating a system that is harmful to people.

Web of Life

Let’s first look at the web of life that a puma lives in:

Cougars are better for our health

The web of life for a Puma (very simplified)

In this very simplified (though accurate) system, pumas play two roles as the top predator in the ecosystem. They feed primarily on deer, and they keep coyote numbers in check. One one hand, this leads to a normal sized deer population for the ecosystem. On the other it means that there are more foxes in the system, because there are less coyotes predating them. This leads to mouse numbers that are also at normal levels for the system. Ticks feed all the animals within the system.

Now let’s compare the above system to that of the east coast of the United States, where pumas are no longer found.

Pumas are Better for our Health

Web of Life without the Puma

Without the pumas, deer numbers have increased tremendously, causing vegetation to diminish due to overgrazing. More importantly, coyote numbers have increased, causing there to be fewer foxes, in turn leading a much higher number of deer mice. In this system there are a lot more deer for adult ticks to feed on and a lot more mice for larval ticks to feed on.

This is where the health aspect comes in. Ticks carry disease, including Lyme disease. Ticks get Lyme disease when they feed on mice, who are hosts to the disease causing bacteria. With more ticks present, there may not be a larger percentage of ticks that carry Lyme disease but there will be a larger number of individuals that are vectors of it. Due to the fact that cougars are not controlling deer or indirectly mouse numbers on the east coast, more Lyme disease carrying ticks are around, which leads to a higher rate of incidence for the disease in the area.

Tick and Lyme Maps

Let me illustrate the point with some maps.

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

In the US, both the Black-legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the Western Black-legged Tick (Ixodes pacificus) carry and transmit Lyme disease.

This is the area in which Lyme disease has the highest incidence rate (or, where it happens the most):

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US (see Lyme Disease Association Analysis) — the darker the red the higher the number of incidences

As you can clearly see, the highest chance of infection is limited to the east Coast.

Now let’s look where Pumas currently live in accordance with the above data:

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Even though Lyme disease and their vectors are present on the west coast of the US, mountain lions keep the tick numbers low (by keeping the deer and mouse numbers lower), therefore creating an overall healthier system for people. More mountain lions eventually means a lower chance of getting Lyme disease.

Is there space for pumas on the east coast?

Historically, cougars used to occupy the east coast where Lyme disease is so prevalent now, but they were extirpated from the region in the early 1900’s. Could a case be made for re-introducing cougars to the east coast? Now that they have been gone from the region for hundreds of years? Is there even space for them? Even though the western United States has greater areas of fully protected land, the eastern states still have plenty of habitat for pumas as well.

US population density - Copyright Ian Offord

US population density – Copyright Ian Offord

The population density map shows that cougars have no space left on the actual east coast. Nor would you want them to wander into New York City or Boston. Once you are more inland however, the population density is low enough where you can have successful co-existence between these cats and people. Having an re-introduction plan would help of course but even naturally, pumas are moving more and more east as time passes. Maybe sooner than later, Lyme disease will be less of an issue in the States, and all due to a wild cat.


Most Endangered Cats in the World

Updated in 2017 to reflect new taxonomic decisions made by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s Cat Classification Task Force1 and 2018 after determination of six tiger subspecies2.

Being cat obsessed, I always want to find out more about these amazing animals. So recently I was searching for the most endangered felines in the world. I ended up finding conflicting results (I think this is partially due to the fact that listing certain species is ‘sexier’ than others and that some addressed subspecies while others did not). So I decided to do my own research. It took some time, looking up every subspecies of wild cat, but it was well worth it.  And now, in honor of Endangered Species Day, which was this last Friday I decided to put together a list of the ten most endangered felines in the world. Now a list depends on the parameters set and since the exact numbers of breeding individuals for many subspecies or even species is not known, I will deal only with the numbers that are known.

This is the overall list of the most endangered wild cats in the world, including subspecies and species.

1. South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)

South China Tiger SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered, most likely Extinct in the Wild
Population Size: 72* (Captive Only)
Population Trend: Unknown

2. Balkan Lynx (Lynx lynx balcanicus)

Balkan Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size3: 20-39
Population Trend: Decreasing

3. Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)

Asiatic Cheetah Silhouette

Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size4: Less than 40
Population Trend: Decreasing

4. Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)

Arabian Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size5: 45-200
Population Trend: Decreasing

5. Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)Amur Leopard Silhouette

Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size6: Less than 60
Population Trend: Increasing

6. Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

Iberian Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size7: ~ 156
Population Trend: Increasing

7. Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas)

Javan Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size8: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing

8. Barbary Serval (Leptailurus serval constantina)Barbary Serval SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size9: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing

9. Northwest African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki)

Northwest African CheetahStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size10: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing

Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)

Sri Lankan Leopard
Status: Endangered
Population Size11: 700-950
Population Trend: Decreasing

There are a few really interesting things to note when looking at this list. One thing for example is that all but two of these subspecies and species’ population numbers are decreasing (the exceptions being the Amur Leopard and Iberian Lynx). This downward trend is really not a great sign for the survival of these cats in the long run.

Another interesting thing is that seven out of the ten cats are larger cats (though not all of them are classified as Big Cats). Larger animals require larger areas to contain enough prey to sustain themselves. As their habitat is constantly disappearing so do their numbers decrease. The only plus side of this is that if we can protect these large cats, so do we protect lots of habitat not only for them but many other animals as well.

Another thing to note is that only one species (not subspecies) has made the list, the Iberian Lynx. It proves how threatened of extinction this animal really is. Some tiger and lion subspecies have gone extinct due to humans in recent times, but if the Iberian Lynx was to disappear for good, it would be the first cat species to go extinct since the Saber-toothed Cat, which died out 11,000 years ago.

On a personal note, in creating this list, it was amazing was to discover the Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of Eurasian Lynx I had never heard of, and it is the most threatened cat of extinction!


  1. Cat news, Special Issue, Number 11, Winter 2017: A revised taxonomy of the Felidae
  2. 2018, Liu: Current Biology: Genome-Wide Evolutionary Analysis of Natural History and Adaptation in the World’s Tigers
  3. Balkan Lynx Population (2015):
  4. Asiatic Cheetah Population (2016): Cat News, Special Issue, Number 10, Autumn 2016: Cats in Iran
  5. Arabian Leopard Population (2008):
  6. Amur Leopard Population (2014):
  7. Iberian Lynx Population (2015):
  8. Javan Leopard Population (2008):
  9. Barbary Serval Population (2015):
  10. Northwest African Cheetah Population (2008):
  11. Sri Lankan Leopard Population (2015):

Blackfish: Watch and Believe It

Blackfish Movie Poster

My sister pointed out the movie Blackfish to me recently. I have no idea why I had not heard of it before but I am so glad I know about it now. And so should you. This documentary talks about Orcas (Orcinus orca) and how cruel it is to keep them in captivity. Now, you may feel compelled to stop reading here as you may be thinking to yourself, not another story about the cruelty of animals in captivity. Well here is why you should listen.

Orcas are incredibly social animals. They grow up in family pods. Now imagine being kidnapped (let’s face it, that’s what it is) away from your family and being thrown into a small concrete pool with four others of “your kind” — to be explained further later — and be expected to get along. Fights and altercations are common among captive Orcas, and it is understandable, these particular individuals would never be together in the wild, so why would they get along when they are forced to be together in captivity. In a recent BBC article about Orcas, I read that scientists have discovered that the species we call Orca is made up of at least ten different ecotypes (Orca populations that hunt in very different and specific ways) of which four are genetically distinct and all of them have not interbred for over 200,000 years (that’s longer than humans have been around). This basically translates to there being more than one species of Orca. Now in captivity, Orcas from both the Atlantic and the Pacific share enclosures (and are artificially bred together). It makes total sense to me that these incredibly smart animals have a reason not to get along. Of course that doesn’t matter to us people as long as they perform their show duties….

Dolphins, of which Orcas are the biggest member, are incredibly emotional animals. In fact, the parts of the brain responsible for emotions is much larger in them, than us humans, meaning dolphins have a greater ability to feel emotion than us. (You can read one writer’s views on the dolphin brain and how it relates to captivity here). Now imagine that you are back in your concrete enclosure, starving because you have not gotten food (tricks are encouraged through food deprivation), are forced to live with others you don’t get along with, and have the emotional wherewithal to feel everything. Orcas lashing out at their human trainers, though of course awful in all aspects, is understandable. I do believe that these marine mammals know what they are doing and if they are attacking the trainer, they are doing so by choice. Now one thing I would like to stress is that it does appear that the trainers care more about the animals and their well being than anyone else and this is by no way an attack on them. The film maker, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, agrees (you can watch an interview with Gabriela here).

So, how can we prevent these magnificent animals from being in captivity in the future? The answer is very simply, don’t go to the parks that keep Orcas in captivity! There are a few points that are important to make. The animals currently in captivity can probably not be freed — growing up in their concrete environment, especially without a true family pod, would probably not survive in the wild. These animals should be cared for until their deaths, but the breeding program employed at the parks should be completely halted. If you don’t spend your money at the park, they will have to realize that there is no long term future for them and their Orca shows.

Now, I know that me telling you not to go to a park is not really fair. I am telling you to not do something but I am also not giving you a solution. Well, here is the solution. Let’s say you are in San Diego and you were thinking of attending the park with your family but feel ethically weird about it. What else could you do? Did you know San Diego has some of the best wild dolphin and whale watching in the world! And guess what, its cheaper than going to the park — check out San Diego Whale Watching. San Antonio has great birdwatching. Check out the local Audubon society’s website. For Orlando, there is great birdwatching at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Do you have a wildlife activity you would recommend somewhere near the parks? If so let us know!

If you do visit a park housing Orcas and other dolphins, please take a moment to closely observe their behavior and you will see that they are not normal and often show signs of mental problems. These animals simply do not belong in captivity. I hope you agree.

Update: California Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced a new bill, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB 2140) that would ban the captivity of Orcas for entertainment of performance purposes. If you feel as strongly about this matter as I do, please sign the bill here.


Endangered Neighbor: Brown Pelican

Sebastian Kennerknecht-IMG_32564-Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican in breeding plumage, San Diego, California

This Endangered Neighbor was taken off the US endangered species list in 2009 due to their population rising to what authorities consider to be large enough numbers. As we all know, this doesn’t mean they are in the clear, but so long as we make sure we don’t repeat history, Brown Pelicans should have a stable future. To do this, we need to look at that history to see how we got Brown Pelicans in trouble in the first place.

Chemical Pollution

IMG_25576 - Master

Brown Pelican ‘reading’ contaminated water sign, Santa Cruz, California

DDT was one of many contaminates released into the environment after world war II. The problem with DDT was (and still is) that it causes thin egg shells. Brown Pelicans incubate their eggs by standing on them. Because of the thin egg shells caused by the pesticide, pelicans were literally crushing their own eggs. In 1969 only 12 of 300 nests contained whole eggs on West Anacapa Island (the only breeding colony in California), the rest were crushed. In fact, the nearshore waters of southern California have experienced the highest levels of environmental contamination by DDT anywhere in the world. This was not only caused by local agriculture, but by the Montrose Chemical Company which was discharging hundreds of pounds of DDT directly into the southern California oceans.

In 1972 the use of pesticides like DDT was banned in the US (though we are still the number one producer of DDT, now shipping it abroad), which was probably the biggest historical factor in bringing Brown Pelicans back.

As you can see from the image above, chemical pollution is still a problem, not from DDT, but from agricultural and industrial run-off.

Plastic Pollution

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Brown Pelican carrying Plastic Spoon, Santa Cruz, California

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Brown Pelican about to catch plastic spoon in mouth, Santa Cruz, California

Plastic pollution is a constantly increasing modern threat since pelicans often consume them, thinking it is food. Save our Shores reports that they pick up 60 lbs of trash per beach clean up. That is nuts!!! Not only that, but they average around 385 lbs of garbage per river clean up, so you can imagine how much trash gets swept into the ocean that we simply don’t even know about.

The Solution

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The nice part about this step, is that in reality, it is relatively easy. There are a few different easy steps you can take to help Brown Pelicans survive.

– Eat organic foods (therefore eliminating agricultural run-off)
– Buy re-usable bottles and bags, eliminating plastic bags and bottles.
– Throw your trash away in proper containers, but re-use as much as possible.
-Volunteer with Save our Shores (check out their calendar for their frequent clean up days)

…. see, all those steps are super easy!

If we all take these small steps we can ensure to be graced by the beauty of Brown Pelicans for years to come! To see more Brown Pelican images, besides the images below, visit the Brown Pelican Portfolio!

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Adult and juvenile Brown Pelican in flight, Santa Cruz, California


Brown Pelican peeking around rock, Santa Cruz, California

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Brown Pelican in Flight, San Diego, California

*If you are interested in purchasing any of the pictures displayed in this post, please check out my fine prints page for pricing.*