An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known. ... So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300. ... At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed. ... The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.” ... Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. ... Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. ... life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”
Suppose you wanted to build the perfect dog from scratch. What would be the key ingredients in the recipe? Loyalty and smarts would be musts. Cuteness would be as well, perhaps with gentle eyes, and a curly, bushy tail that wags in joy in anticipation of your appearance. ... You needn’t bother trying. Lyudmila Trut and Dmitri Belyaev have already built it for you. The perfect dog. Except it’s not a dog, it’s a fox. A domesticated one. They built it quickly—mind-bogglingly fast for constructing a brand new biological creature. It took them less than 60 years, a blink of an eye compared to the time it took for wolves to become dogs. They built it in the often unbearable negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit cold of Siberia, where Lyudmila and, before her, Dmitri, have been running one of the longest, most incredible experiments on behavior and evolution ever devised. ... Except for house pets, most domesticated animals do not form close relationships with humans, and by far the most intense affection and loyalty forms between owners and dogs. What made the difference? Had that deep human-animal bond developed over a long time? Or might this affinity for people be a change that could emerge quickly, as with so many other changes Lyudmila and Belyaev had seen in the foxes already? Would living with a human come naturally to a fox that had been bred for tameness?