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Kathy Lay enjoys the great outdoors

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Kathy Lay and her husband, James, decompress from their busy lives by hunting bears and lions with their cameras and a pack of hounds. As conscientious outdoors-people, Lay and her husband never kill the animals. They find a profound peace in sharing the wilderness with its natural inhabitants. (Submitted Photo)

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Kathy Lay, executive director of MainStreet Roswell, is an outdoors-woman extraordinaire. Lay and her husband, James Lay, hunt bears with their cameras.

“You don’t shoot it if you’re not going to eat it,” Lay said, “and we don’t eat bears so we don’t shoot them.”

They play hard.

“My husband and I go way back up into the remote areas,” she said. “My husband has been doing this for years. We go way back up into the remote areas. We have little bitty vehicles that go off-road that let you go off into the little crevices. We have dogs that are trained to track them.

“The dogs sit on top of the platform. We have some that have amazing noses. When they catch the scent, we let them down to follow the trail. We have GPS collars on our dogs. They track the bear. Usually, it’s a pretty quick race if the trail is hot. They chase the bears up the tree and bark like crazy. The bears climb up the tree, find a comfortable spot and just sit. We follow the dogs whenever we see that they’re all on point. We hike back to where they’re at and take pictures of the bears, pull the dogs back and leave.”

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Lay says it’s some of the most rigorous exercise she knows.

“It’s much harder than it sounds,” she said. “The bears are smart. Sometimes a bear will jump trees and leave and the dogs are left with an empty tree. Sometimes the bears are faster than the dogs.

“It’s a real challenge. It’s physically exerting. You have to drive for hours and hours on super rough roads until you reach that perfect timing where you catch their track. Sometimes you get a lot of them, sometimes you only get one or two in a season.”

An important part of it is knowing when not to go and why.

“We don’t hunt at the time that is detrimental to the bears,” she said. “We appreciate their existence and the quality of life. This is a sport of catching them, we don’t want to hurt them. In early spring, they’re really hungry and they have baby cubs, so we leave them alone then. There are certain seasons for training dogs.”

Lay said the bears do not act like most people expect.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “They are not aggressive. Because they are isolated from people they aren’t used to people. They typically climb the tree. We’ve had a mom with cubs who put a cub up one tree, another cub up another tree and then she went up one. We’ve had bears fall asleep in the tree. They’ll be sitting up there eating acorns, throwing the shells down at us.”

Lay said it’s a skill, it’s a sport, It’s challenging and it’s enjoyable.

“You have to think about food sources, berries, piñons and acorns,” she said. “You have to know the cycle of their food sources. They love to play in mud puddles so you have to check mud puddles for fresh prints.”

Their passion goes beyond the average weekend camper’s interests.

“We do a lot of fishing, a lot of hunting and camping,” Lay said. “But we don’t go to campsites. We go way back into the middle of nowhere. We have a cargo trailer with living quarters that we use when we can get it back in there.”

Bears aren’t the only wild animals they hunt.

“In the winter we look for lions,” Lay said. “They’re solitary animals. They’re incredibly aloof and secretive. They’re looking for vulnerability and a way to isolate their prey and once they’ve eaten they’re done. They’re incredibly difficult to track and there are far fewer of them than bears, so it’s a greater challenge. If there’s a little moisture the dogs are better able to follow the scent. Also, moisture makes it easier to see footprints.”

Lay said that when her husband first introduced her to this hobby, she had the same concerns most people express.

“When I first started I had the same misconceptions as most people,” she said. “But every bear that I’ve encountered has a certain behavior almost like dogs do. I would certainly not go after a bear in a place like Yellowstone Park where people feed bears. You’d get a whole different reaction. We put bells on our dogs’ collars to make noise. The dogs bark a lot. It creates confusion. It’s amazing to see how fast they can climb a tree.”

She said it’s a powerful experience, getting that close to nature’s wild animals.

“They’re amazing and beautiful animals,” Lay said. “It’s unforgettable, being out in the wilderness, getting that close to something that is wild and beautiful. We have wild horses run through our campsite.”

They take a mini-habitat with them, and that means they have to be responsible in their approach.

“We don’t do fires or gas grills,” Lay said. “We have a generator we use with an electric skillet. I fix enchiladas or huevos rancheros.

“We have dog boxes on the truck, so if we have inclement weather they go inside their box. We usually take five or six dogs. Our best hunting dog, my husband got for 10 bucks from a guy who had a hound in his back yard that had pups. They love what they do. We don’t have to worry at night about bears or anything else coming into camp because the dogs go crazy if anything comes in.

She said all the mountain ranges in New Mexico and the surrounding lands are great to visit in their hunts.

“We go to the Capitans and the Guadalupes,” she said. “We go up into the Four Corners area, the Manzanos, we go a lot of different directions. Any of the mountains in this area have potential.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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