BIG BEAR LAKE -- The large cougar steps gingerly to the water's edge -- careful not to wet its paws -- and sips from a pool.
The night is cloudy, breezy, cold and dark. We stand motionless only a few feet away, watching, wondering if this predator can even see us, or if it is simply ignoring us.
But our presence is detected by another large cat, which saunters forth and, in an unbelievable display, bounds 20 feet up a tree to catch a better view of the intruders.
And we wonder, "How much wilder can this night get?"
Already we've encountered coyotes and greeted them with a collective howl.
But they just looked at us oddly while a distant pack of wolves, of all creatures, sent harrowing cries floating into the blackness.
Indeed, the forest is far livelier after the sun sets and nocturnal animals embark on patrol. So is Moonridge Animal Park, an obscure little zoo on the outskirts of town.
We're on one of its "Flashlight Safaris," which are held Saturday nights from September through October at a cost of $6 for children and $9 for adults.
"It's great," says George Disabella, here from Apple Valley with his wife and four children, "because it gives the kids a chance to get up close to the animals.
"But it also gives them an appreciation for the fragility of the animals and how they can be hurt and how you have to be careful."
Our excursion begins at 6:30 p.m., with zookeeper Josh Cummings introducing us to Hooter, a great-horned owl who was rescued after being struck by a car and suffering a broken wing.
These stalwart birds of prey have eyes that fill nearly half their skulls. They can rotate their heads 270 degrees and discern shapes of moving objects in almost total darkness.
Their hearing is so acute that they can detect the sound of a mouse walking on the forest floor nearly a mile away. "Even if he cannot see a thing he can catch that mouse on hearing alone," Cummings says, with Hooter perched on his forearm.
Then how, someone asks, does so cunning an animal get hit by a car?
To which comes the explanation: "Have you guys ever had a flashlight shined in your face and it kind of blinds you? That's what happened to him as he flew in front of the car. Now he can't fly at all."
We meet Simon the possum and learn he's a marsupial, not a rodent, and that possums can have up to 52 teeth -- more than any other land mammal.
Simon and Garfunkel were in their mother's pouch when she was killed by a car, so they ended up here. And detect a theme: wildlife and civilization are an unhealthy mix that does not favor the former.
Once inside the 2.6-acre park we shine our lights on coyotes. Their yellow eyes glow and we learn that nocturnal creatures have what is called a tapetum lucidum: a light-gathering tissue that helps for night vision.
"If you want to make them howl you've got to howl first," Cummings says, prompting a wail that causes the lanky canines to slink away, as if ashamed to be in our company.
Thankfully, the timber wolves, who cannot see us, answer with a call of the wild that brings wonderment to our shivering group.
"We'll get to them later," Cummings says.
We find the grizzly bears less frisky and content to linger in the dark recesses of their enclosure, and who can blame them?
Grizzlies once ruled Big Bear Valley with a renowned ferocity but were eradicated by settlers and replaced by non-native black bears, which are so numerous they're considered pests.
Tutu is the ancient mother who roamed the Wyoming wilderness in the early 1990s. But she raided one too many dumpsters and fell victim to a "three strikes" law and was sentenced to death.
It was learned, however, that she had cubs -- now named Harley and Ayla -- and an extensive campaign was launched to find them a home.
So here they are, eking out a meager existence. Harley may weigh 700 pounds, Cummings says, but he still tries to suckle on mom.
We stroll past deer and find the bobcats. Mica snuggles up to our leader, who explains that she was formerly an illegal pet.
"She's not a whole lot bigger than a house cat," the zookeeper says. "But these are by far the most ferocious of the wildcats here in North America."
As a wintry wind whistles through the pines, and chills to our marrow, more and more creatures are waking up.
Beavers play in an icy pool. Raccoons probe a creek with tiny black hands while barn owls commune wide-eyed on their perches, gazing through gleaming yellow orbs.
We finally meet the wolves and they're cajoled into song and treat us to a night at the opera. "They're my favorite," says Sophia Disabella, 7, getting a nod from her brother and two sisters.
But that is before they meet Canyon and Cascade, cougars -- also called mountain lions -- who arrived as kittens in 2003, after their mother was killed by a rancher trying to protect his goats.
We watch them tussle and leap, and learn they can bound 15 feet straight up, and can broad-jump 30 feet.
"Only the snow leopard can jump higher -- 20 feet up and 40 feet across," Cummings says.
But there is no such animal here to prove him right, alas, as poor Ivan passed away recently after a struggle with cancer.
And on this dark note on the darkest of nights, the critters are left to themselves.