The border city of Brownsville, Texas, is one of the southernmost towns in the contiguous U.S., bested only by Miami and the Florida Keys. But it’s special for a different reason: It sits at the confluence of an array of ecosystems—the Texas Gulf Coastal Plain, the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico. That range makes it one of the most biodiverse regions in the United States. Some consider the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas to be the last great habitat of the American Southwest.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, north of town, is the area’s shining jewel. Across its 98,000 acres roam 45 species of mammals, 44 types of reptiles, and 417 bird varieties, among countless insects and plant life. At least ten endangered or threatened species occupy the refuge, such as the northern aplomado falcon, Texas indigo snake and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. The mix of coastline, inland lakes, tidal flats and prairies makes it a paradise for kayakers, birders and hikers, as well.
The area’s most mysterious resident, however, is the focus of a new film by Texan outdoorsman and documentarian Ben Masters. In American Ocelot, he seeks to document the life of the endangered animals—wild, brilliantly patterned cats that weigh from 20 to 40 pounds and are notoriously elusive. Deforestation and habitat loss have put the species at risk. In 1995, there were upwards of 120 cats in Texas; today fewer than 80 survive.
Though they’re shy by nature and make homes in difficult-to-reach areas—often using dense, low-lying brush for cover—Masters was determined. Armed with custom detectors, he repeatedly trekked through the wilderness to set up cameras and check on them. He recalls one particularly onerous day: 100 degrees, high humidity, no wind. It entailed “crawling through thorns and getting smothered in ticks,” he says. “It was miserably awesome.” Sometimes he would go more than a month without landing a usable clip. But all that work paid off: Masters captured some remarkable moments, including a mother ocelot hunting an armadillo and, in another shot, a group of kittens on the prowl.
The 32-year-old Masters, who studied biology at Texas A&M, thrives in uncomfortable conditions. His award-winning 2019 film The River and the Wall explores the ecological impact of the border wall through a 1,200-mile journey by horse, mountain bike, canoe and foot across remote and challenging terrain. Another, Return of the Desert Bighorn, follows wildlife biologists as they reintroduce bighorn sheep into far-flung areas of West Texas. For Masters, who grew up in Amarillo and now splits his time between Austin and Bozeman, Montana, there is something attractive about a challenging subject that gets him into the wild. The ocelot provided one in spades.
“It has almost a mythical status in Texas,” says Masters. “They’re rare, but just so beautiful.”