Deep in the thorny brush of a South Texas cattle ranch, an ocelot is quietly and casually padding over fallen mesquite leaves when it suddenly freezes mid-stride, prey in its sights. Then, with a flick of its tail, the spotted cat shoots through a maze of gray-green thicket with such stunning quickness that the camera has a hard time catching it. El Sauz Ranch, near Port Mansfield, is an ocelot haven, and the cowboys who steer cattle over the land, kicking up great clouds of dust, have become unlikely allies of the rare, exceedingly elusive feline. The vast majority of Texans will go their whole lives without seeing an ocelot in the wild, even as the entire United States population of the endangered cat is found in our state.
Lucky for us, though it’s hard to catch one of the roughly one hundred remaining Texas ocelots on camera, it’s not impossible. The folks at Fin and Fur Films, director Ben Masters’s production company, and the creators of last year’s Matthew McConaughey–narrated Texas nature documentary Deep in the Heart, have just released a series of five new short films, Our Texas, Our Future, focused on conservation in the state. One of the shorts, “Ranching With Ocelots,” includes rare footage of the spectral felines, captured on cameras filmmakers planted in the brush while following ocelot conservation efforts at El Sauz Ranch. At El Sauz, the profitable cattle-ranching operation enables landowners to keep large tracts of vital ocelot habitat intact.
The series (which you can watch in its entirety online) emerges from an unlikely partnership between Fin and Fur and H-E-B. At a screening in Austin earlier this week, Masters told the audience he was initially wary of signing on to a brand partnership. Why would a grocery store want to make conservation films? Was this just another example of corporate greenwashing? But the filmmaker said the company gave him complete creative control and didn’t deter him from injecting a strong pro-conservation message in his films.
The arrangement makes a little more sense under closer inspection. Like a benevolent wing of the state government, H-E-B has built a reputation for doing more than selling toilet paper and tortillas. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the store became a model of emergency preparedness, and for years it has provided financial support to teachers across the state. The company also champions its relationships with Texas farms and ranches. And with the one-hundred-year anniversary of the state parks system this year, H-E-B is focusing its philanthropic power on nature conservation. In addition to introducing a new sustainable product line, and providing financial support to various conservation organizations, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the company enlisted Masters to bring his message to the big (and small) screen. Where Deep in the Heart was all about the animals, this series makes humans its stars, highlighting hard-working Texans in the conservation trenches. Together the stories drive home a salient message: We’re at a point in the history of our state where nature conservation efforts have unprecedented resources and momentum, but at the same time wild spaces and wild animals have never faced anything so dire as the dual threats of climate change and population growth.
Casting a wide net, the glossy new series avoids tackling controversial topics head-on. The only real nod to climate change in the five films is an indirect one. The short entitled “Batsies” follows two bat biologists, Sara Weaver and Sarah Fritts, of Bowman Consulting and Texas State University, respectively. Wind turbines, though crucial for our transition away from fossil fuels, pose a deadly threat to bats throughout the state. The risk isn’t fully understood, but turbines now kill some 200,000 bats in Texas each year. At one point in the film Weaver discusses how hard that loss can be for her personally, having dedicated her career to these creatures. We watch her as she stands beneath a towering wind turbine, inspecting the latest casualty. “It’s very personal to have that individual bat in your hand,” she says. At another point in the short, Weaver slides her overshirt down to her elbow to reveal an upper-arm tattoo of Bracken Cave, in San Antonio, from which millions of bats emerge in the evenings. It’s home to the largest bat colony in the world. As Fritts notes in the film, wind turbines are not the only threat to the state’s bats. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has decimated bat populations across the country. Weaver and Fritts hope the data they’re collecting throughout the state will help solve excessive bat mortality statewide.
The same character-driven approach ties four of the five films together. A propulsive tension follows bear biologist Matt Hewitt as he steers his truck down a desert road in the Big Bend region in the early morning hours, after a remote sensor alerts him to the possible presence of a bear in his trap. The same tension permeates scenes of Hewitt tranquilizing the massive animal, then quickly working to collect its vital signs and to radio-collar the snoozing creature before it wakes up. As Texas’s population is predicted to jump from thirty to fifty million in the coming decades, encounters with a naturally reemerging population of black bears are becoming more frequent, and Hewitt hopes data he’s gathering in Far West Texas will ease that transition.
A similar story of species reemergence plays out in another short focused on the Gulf. Here, conservation-minded anglers have banded together to help bring back a once-decimated redfish population. The filmmakers’ skill at taking a complicated story, setting it against a beautifully shot backdrop, and still somehow injecting it full of energy, is evident throughout the series. In one scene, Pat Murray, a fishing guide turned president of the Coastal Conservation Association, wades out into the Gulf, casting for redfish and describing how his passion for fishing turned into a dedication to conservation. Suddenly his face tenses, his rod tip bends toward the sea, and we watch him reel in a stout, pink-dappled redfish. Throughout the series there are moments like this, when these wildlife advocates are caught up in the routine of their trade—driving a fencepost, checking a trap, surveying a field—and a sudden encounter with the animal they’re working to protect delivers a shot of adrenaline to their day—and to viewers.
The one film in the series that veers away from this character-driven narrative takes a wide-angled view of the last one hundred years of land conservation in Texas. The short titled “A Century Celebration: Texas State Parks” shows beautiful scenes of parks across the state, from buffalo thundering over a ridge in Caprock Canyons State Park to anglers happily casting for native fish in the Guadalupe River. As the film tactfully acknowledges, Texas state parks were woefully underfunded for most of their first century, and 96 percent of Texas land is privately owned. There are signs of progress, however. In 2019 Texans voted overwhelmingly in favor of funding state parks through sales taxes collected on sporting goods. Massive federal legislation, passed the following year, provides additional funding for state parks, and just this year the state legislature passed a bill that would, pending voter approval in November, invest $1 billion in the state parks system. We are primed to make the biggest continued investment in public lands in our state’s history, and it couldn’t come soon enough. If you’re in need of inspiration to make it to the polls in November, pull up these films on YouTube, or visit one of the select Alamo Drafthouse locations screening the film for free. After watching the series, you can’t help but root for Texas wildlife.
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