Chasing Big Cats: Snow Leopards and Perseverance


I’ve always been nervous about meeting new people. Socializing is not my natural state. I hated Santa--coming into our grandparents’ house, demanding me to sit on his lap. I’d run and hide under the dining room table when I heard that jolly ho-ho-ho. My stomach does flops thinking, not about the presentation to 300 people, but of the awkward mingling with conference attendees and fellow speakers before and after. I avoid parties where I don’t know at least three people closely (I gladly host them, happy in the knowledge I can always escape into hosting duties such as serving food or MCing a game). Spending three weeks on a frigid Indian mountainside in December with a handful of strangers who mostly speak languages other than my own was quite possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever attempted.

This post is about leaving your comfort zone. A critical element of personal development—and more importantly, of becoming the best designer you can possibly be.


That morning arriving to Leh, after thirty hours of travel and four flights, I was not ready to sit and drink tea with five strangers—in a country I’ve never been. We made small talk about how the flights were and where we are from. We weren’t sure what kind of tea to drink. What is Masala? Is it with goat’s milk like my friend warned me of? How much caffeine does it have? Do I need sugar??? I didn’t know who actually spoke English and therefore could handle me asking them a question, and who would look at me panicked not understanding what the tall blonde American lady is demanding! I was tired, cranky, but also excited to finally be here. To finally be on the hunt for the elusive snow leopard.

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Several days later, after “adjusting” to the elevation of Leh (around 11,000’) and after spending a day together birding around the Himalayan foothills surrounding the town, we loaded up the SUV with our gear to hit the mountains. We headed to our camp in Hozing Valley. Situated among mountain ridges between 12,000 and 13,000’, our base camp consisted of three small sleeping tents (one for each of us), and two larger mess-style canvas tents—one serving as kitchen, one as the dining room. The dining tent had a propane heater; the kitchen had a cook and a cook’s assistant. We had a simple pit-toilet outhouse—a hole in the floor. We had no running water, no heat in our sleeping tents. It was December, and it was cold. Very cold. The coldest night was about -35 F.

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The days were filled with hiking nearly vertical slopes among boulders and on gravelly sheep-made paths, to sit in the sun on ridges overlooking the valley. We’d sit for hours, scanning the rocky cliffs with binoculars and spotting scopes. We’d layer up for the frigid morning walks starting at sun up—before the sun passed over the ridges, when accidental water spills turned instantly into icicles. Some mornings--the coldest mornings, I’d be wrapped up so thick, my shadow looked like an astronaut: two wool base layers, two pairs of snow pants on my legs; a wicking shirt, two wool base layers, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, a down jacket, and a ski jacket on top; a scarf; two hats (one a beanie, and one a thick, (faux) fur-lined Nordic thing); three pairs of socks; a pair of wool gloves beneath a thick set of mittens. At 10:30am, the sun came up over the ridge--its warmth allowed us to remove layers, and caused our feet to sweat as we trekked up several hundred feet of steep slope in astronaut gear. Then, when the sun found its way behind the ridges again at 3:30pm, our toes began to numb as our sweat-soaked socks and boots literally froze.

It was fun. I definitely lost 5 pounds.

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But the reward was delivered on the third day: a snow leopard! The build-up to the sighting was screenplay perfection. Our trackers spotted a blue sheep (the snow leopard’s favorite prey), dead on the ridge above our camp. They inspected the frozen carcass and found no obvious signs of trauma, just a dribble of blood at the corner of his mouth. Certainly within the realm of possibility of a snow leopard kill. Later, a local reported snow leopard tracks on the road leading to our camp. Trackers dispersed across the valley, scanning the rocky ledges and cliffs with spotting scopes. We sat quietly scanning, until one of the trackers came running down a steep hillside, and delivered the news: a snow leopard.

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His (we assumed he was a male, although no one could confirm) kill was located just 150 yards from our camp—a very, very lucky chance occurrence. We watched him for four days, as he stayed to feed on the frozen carcass, fully within view. During that time, we watched patiently as he slept in the sun. And slept in the sun. And slept in the shade! And slept in the sun. Someone always had their eye on the lens, watching. And when he shifted position, we’d yell, “Head up!” and everyone ran to the scopes. He stretched like a housecat, and curled his long tail around him, using it as a pillow. We’d squeal and coo, like children. We’d celebrate every evening with a toast of cheap brandy, before heading to bed at 8pm. We became compatriots in battle, bound by one, big, fluffy kitty cat.


The trip was 12 days in the Himalayas, split between two locales. We stayed at our tented camp for eight, adjusting the itinerary due to seeing the leopard. We also stayed at a homestay for the balance, where the accommodations were slightly more luxurious, but still with limited heat, and no indoor plumbing. At the end of the trip, we said good-bye to the local guides and staff (five of them), and the couple from Spain (who were the only paying tourists other than me) departed. My tour guide, Marta, and I headed onto Talla and Bandhavgarh to search for tigers. The accommodations there were absolutely luxurious with toilets and showers, a real bed, and a space heater. And the climate was balmy at 55-65 F. We had an amazing day and a half exploring Bandhavgarh Tiger Preserve, where 65 tigers reside in 172 square miles. Chances of seeing tigers is slightly better than seeing snow leopards in Leh, yet we saw only one, and only for five minutes.

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Even so, my trip was blessed with wildlife. Everyone we talked to spoke of how lucky we were. Most people see a snow leopard on our itinerary, but they are usually much, much further away, and for only a few minutes. We saw two (the second was just a brief interlude—a more typical tourist experience), and we saw a tiger.

I like to think this luck was a reward for my bravery. For not cancelling the trip when I couldn’t find a travel partner. For not chickening out--knowing that I get cold very easily and don’t like curry (especially now!). And it reminds me that good things generally come from sticking your neck out.

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For many years, my annual reviews at PGAV consistently pointed to one major downfall of my performance: not being assertive enough. I realized in India—as I pondered if I really knew how to identify frostbite—that I had become quite assertive. I ‘stopped asking for permission, and started asking for forgiveness.’ And many times I failed, but many more times, I didn’t. It was more than not failing. It was succeeding. Taking chances and not waiting for the “perfect time” has changed my trajectory in my professional life. I always think about design from the options that we haven’t yet tried. I explore the crazy ideas that seem, on first glance, unrealistic. I don’t back away just because there is a potential negative—because there might also be a bigger positive you don’t yet see. However, it doesn’t mean we waste time going in never-ending circles. I’ve become strong enough and brave enough to make decisions based on logic, reasoning, and a little gut—and run with them.

And you should too. Step out into the cold, or into a room full of strangers, every once in a while. Speak up. Take action. Take a chance… and maybe you, too, will be blessed with big cats.

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Connection through Design

I hear it over and over again.  The same conversation that inevitably goes something like this…Zoology and landscape architecture?   Well, those don’t have anything to do with each other!  What do you do?  I respond, Zoo design.  Their face bares an expression of shock and dismay, ultimately giving way to a smile.  I await this continuation…Well, there must not be much of a calling for that profession, eh!  Uncomfortable laughter.  I smile politely and respond, Actually, if you think about it, most zoos (not to mention aquariums and theme parks) are regularly undergoing some sort of construction, and when they aren’t, they usually are planning for something new.  Someone’s gotta do all that work, especially when you consider there are more than 100 accredited zoos across the U.S. alone.  Add in the non-accredited, the aquaria and the theme parks, plus think about the rest of the world!  There’s plenty of work to do.  Not enough folks to do it, actually.


And that leads me here.  I’m hoping to educate and learn.  I hope to reach those people that never thought there were such people as us.  I hope to reach students that have an idea that they want to do this, but have no idea how to get there (just like me when I started school).  I hope to reach people that need resources, but can’t find them.  I hope to reach those that have resources to share.  I hope to reach parents and children (that’s everyone, folks) who are just curious about the profession, because curiosity in our work means you’ve been touched by our work at some time.  And if we’ve been successful in connecting with you, we’ve been successful.  That’s what it’s all about. 


 “Connection” is a term we use a lot in the industry.  Connecting people to wildlife.  Connecting man to nature.  Connecting the one child’s smile to the one silly, furry otter face.  Connection is happiness.  Connection is curiosity.  Connection is inspiration. 


Discovery Cove, Orlando, FLWe often say connections create action.  In reality, we know that’s not exactly true. How many of us can say that after visiting the zoo and watching the grizzly bear play in the artificial fresh water stream, heart swelling with delight and the good ole’ warm fuzzies…How many of us can say we went home and started calling others in an effort to collect money to contribute to saving the grizzly habitat?  Or, stopped using so much water?  Or, even just recycled that water bottle you were carrying the entire trip to the zoo?  Not many of us.  Zoo designers’ work is important; don’t get me wrong.  But, what we do is much subtler than we sometimes forget.  Connections fill people with wonder, and, if for one second, they feel empathy for that critter they’re connecting with, we’ve succeeded.  Empathy is what builds caring.  Empathy is what builds action in the future.  Empathy is what makes the busy young professional volunteer time at a wildlife rehabilitation center.  Empathy is what makes a research scientist out of a video game addicted kid.


So, how can you get into Zoo Design?  A great question.  Mostly, it takes passion.  I don’t know everything about the profession.  In fact, I’m a fairly new comer to the game in comparison to some of the big dogs.  But, I’ve been in a love/hate relationship with zoos all of my life, and I dug in as an adult.  I started learning to really critique exhibits from the animal side of things, from the keeper sides of things, and, of course, from the visitor side of things.  I started looking and learning.  I started asking questions, and I haven’t stopped.  I keep looking, and keep learning.  Hopefully, with this project, I can teach a little and learn a lot.  Hopefully, I will become a better zoo designer.  Hopefully, I can create connections.    

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