Filming the Elusive Ocelot in South Texas

A discovery brings wildlife filmmaker Ben Masters to tears.

Ocelot roams brush in South Texas
An ocelot roams the brush in South Texas.

Fin and Fur Films Productions

When wildlife filmmaker Ben Masters saw that he had recorded footage of an ocelot with her cubs, he began to cry. It was quite an emotional moment for Masters, who has spent months following the elusive cats through Texas.

Once found throughout the U.S. Southwest, the only breeding wild population left in the country is in South Texas, where there are estimated to be between 80 and 120 of the animals left.

Ocelots are classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are known for their blotched coats and long, ringed tails.

Masters filmed a PBS Nature documentary “American Ocelot” featuring the wildcats in Texas. He spoke to Treehugger about his experiences.

Treehugger: What inspired your fascination with ocelots? What was the impetus for the documentary? 

Ben Masters: Texas is the only state that has a breeding population of ocelots, and they have an almost mythical status and following here. You see them on license plates, on shirts, and in the news, but historically there have been very little quality photos or footage of them. As a Texan wildlife filmmaker, filming ocelots was somewhat of a holy grail because of their rarity and beauty. The impetus of filming them was largely my personal fascination with them, something that is instilled in a lot of Texans growing up.

How did you follow the elusive species? 

We relied heavily on the research of wildlife biologists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and the East Foundation. The ocelots have been extensively studied for several decades so we knew where they lived. Once we had a general area where they lived, we placed consumer-grade trail cameras all around the brush and identified some trails that were hot spots. That's when we moved in our professional-level cameras and started to get the really amazing footage. What you see in "American Ocelot" is several years worth of footage! Camera trapping is very much a game of patience.

What was it like when you captured the footage of the mom with her babies? 

It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It literally brought me to tears. We spent months of our lives trying to get a good shot of ocelots and to be able to get a mom with two cubs in the same frame was an unexpected moment of sheer joy.

What were the highlights of your research and filming? 

The biggest highlight for me was getting to know the ocelots at a personal level. There's been a lot of research at the population level, but we were getting to see and experience what it was really like to be an ocelot out there in the brush. What they experienced hunting, how they killed their prey, how they taught their young to hunt, and so many other things that were just fascinating. It was really neat to show a lot of these behaviors to the scientists who'd been studying ocelots for decades but haven't gotten to know them at a personal level and to see their faces just light up with happiness. 

Why do you think it’s so important to document rare species like this? 

Images speak to the general public in a way that a scientific report will never accomplish. If the general public and policymakers can't see the animals they're trying to save and restore, how else are they supposed to care about them?

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What were some of the more interesting projects you did and what’s next? 

I studied wildlife biology at Texas A&M University and have a film company called Fin and Fur Films based in Austin, Texas. We have a team of about eight people and we focus on wildlife, adventure, and conservation stories. We produce a feature film every 2-3 years and around six short films a year. We just released a movie called "Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story" that is narrated by Matthew McConaughey and also has a great ocelot sequence. We're currently creating two feature-length Blue Chip films as well as six conservation shorts. Exciting times for sure!

Watch "American Ocelot" on PBS or YouTube.

View Article Sources
  1. Filmmaker Ben Masters

  2. "Ocelot." Defenders of Wildlife.

  3. "Ocelot." Texas Park and Wildlife.

  4. "Ocelot." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.