The animal world is an amazing place, filled with a spectrum of surprises; nothing can be predicted while filming in Mother Nature’s untamed domains. And, while looking for amphibians or reptiles, this explorer got pounced on by a predator in what turned out to be the encounter of a lifetime.
From an early age, 34-year-old Coyote Peterson of Newbury, Ohio has felt the importance of animals in his life. This passion has led him to become the host of a series of digital animal education shows for Wilderness Productions, and it is during these shows that things often seem to go awry.
Indeed, he’s no stranger to being bitten or stung by the wildlife he’s filming, and Peterson has been up close and personal with some very dangerous creatures. “I believe the best way to share animals with the world is right from their natural environment,” he said on the Coyote Peterson website.
Despite his experience in the field of the natural world, though, he couldn’t have predicted what would happen when he was filming a Brave Wilderness show in the Osa Peninsula, which is home to at least half the wildlife in Costa Rica. Peterson was doing some nighttime “herping,” looking for reptiles and amphibians, when luck intervened.
On his YouTube channel, Peterson said, “[I was] walking down the trail… I literally stop and I’m shining my light on this giant wolf spider, the biggest wolf spider I’ve ever seen.” These predators are mildly venomous and deadly hunters in their own world, but the jungle had another surprise in store.
In fact, the explorer got more than he bargained for when he heard movement and something zoomed by his feet. Peterson caught sight of what had been hunting him and wanted a closer look; it was a much rarer sight than a wolf spider, after all.
Peterson noticed that his stalker seemed to like his herping equipment so he tried rattling it against a log, using it as a lure to draw the predator closer. The noise was effective predator bait; in a matter of seconds, he had a visitor.
It turned out to be a rare feline called an ocelot, also known as a dwarf leopard. “This is a wild cat; however, she is used to humans,” the amazed Peterson said. “She hangs out on this trail – we were told if you walk this trail at night, there’s a good chance you’ll come across it.”
Ocelots are generally nocturnal, so it’s no surprise Peterson’s inquisitive new friend was so active. They belong to the small spotted cat genus Leopardus. The ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, is the biggest of these small cats.
Peterson couldn’t believe his luck as the ocelot climbed around him and played with his travel pack. “This cat blends so perfectly into its environment,” he said. “All this cryptic patterning allows them to stay hidden in the shadows as they’re moving through all this foliage.”
Ocelots can be found all over South America and some even in parts of North America, such as Arizona. They use urine to mark their territory and are fiercely protective of their living space; they’ve been known to fight other ocelots to the death.
Although they tend to hunt mammals, like opossums and rabbits, as well as snakes and amphibians, this little one liked the idea of honing its talents with its new human playmate. Indeed, as soon as Peterson took his travel pack off, the feisty feline leapt right up onto his back to wrestle.
Luckily for the explorer, the chaotic cat was just a kitten or its roughhousing would have been far rougher. “These cats are lethal once fully grown, and they can take down pretty much anything that’s out here in the Costa Rican rainforest,” Peterson explained, with a handful of wild cat.
“All they have to do is run, leap, sink in those front claws and then a bite to the jugular and she’s got a meal,” he said. “This is a kitten… she’s only about half grown right now.” After looking at the way she moved and tussled with Peterson, imagine how dangerous a frenzied adult ocelot might behave.
“Yeah, she’s got hold of me now,” Peterson winced, as the ocelot wrapped herself around his neck. “See, that’s what she would want; she’s going for the jugular.” Needless to say, grappling with a wild ocelot is not something you should try at home.
“I would never recommend you go out in the wild and ever try to get this close to an ocelot because if it didn’t want to play, it could really do some serious damage,” he said. It was a unique encounter with a wild cat, and even though she was taking it easy on Peterson, he still got some punctures from her claws and teeth.
“If I was one of her littermates, this is exactly how she would be playing,” the naturalist said. “I’m getting slight little itty-bitty punctures here and there, but nothing that I can’t take. Not to be this close to such a cool rainforest creature.”
Ocelots were considered a vulnerable species between 1972 and 1996; they were hunted for their fur, which could fetch a high price on the market. Their numbers have since increased, and they are now rated “least concern” on the Red Data list of threatened species, indicating that they are no longer considered threatened.
Although they are wild cats, ocelots can be kept as pets with the right license (but it is a fairly rare occurrence). Artist Salvador Dali, for instance, often took his pet ocelot Babou with him when he traveled, and the musician Gram Parsons owned one for a time in his young adulthood.
Peterson spent close to three hours with this playful wild kitty, and he considers it one of his career highlights. “This is probably the most unique thing I have ever done with an animal,” he told the filming crew. Let’s hope this ocelot continues to give explorers the encounter of their lifetime.