“Concerning couguar,” in Terrain

Puma_(Puma_concolor)

Concerning Lyons, I will not say that I ever saw any my selfe, but some affirme that they have seene a Lyon at Cape Anne which is not above six leagues from Boston; some likewise being lost in woods, have heard such terrible roaring’s, as have made them much agast; which must eyther be Devills or Lyons…
— William Wood, New England’s Prospect,1632

It was late fall when Jay Amidon saw his mountain lion at Tyringham Cobble in southwestern Massachusetts. He was on top of a steep hill, the hike’s pinnacle, taking in the view of Tyringham Valley, the broad fields that spill out of hemlock and hardwood forest, down into the town’s quaint center. It was that stark moment in fall, when every last leaf has dropped but the snow hadn’t fallen yet, and the wind rushed up from the valley as he looked out. He caught sight of an animal 150 feet down the hill, stretched out on a log or a rock, cleaning itself. It struck Jay how much the animal looked like a housecat with its back paw pointed skyward, the way it nonchalantly preened, yet the sheer size of the cat made his head spin. This was no housecat. It looked up in Jay’s direction, maybe even looked at him, but if the animal recognized Jay as any sort of threat, it showed no sign of it. It seemed, rather, to look right through him.

The creature was long and tawny, like the late-fall grass. Its head was small and round, as were its ears. Months later, Jay would see a pair of mountain lions at Catskill Game Farm in upstate New York, much bigger than the one he now looked at, but leaving no question in his mind. He stood looking at what state and wildlife officials would have told him he couldn’t have been looking at. It was probably a dog, they would have told him, or a bobcat, a deer, or yes—a housecat. That’s what you saw, they would say. And as he watched, he thought of how the late fall weather could be unpredictable, how at any moment the wind could shift.

If the wind had shifted? If the worst had happened (which has happened, albeit rarely, always in areas where mountain lions are known to thrive)? Perhaps Jay would have been lucky, the cat slicing quickly through his cervical vertebrae, lacerating his spine at the base of his skull, the way many successful large-game kills happen, and then dragging his carcass to the nearest cover where she would have gnawed off hunks of his flesh and carried them back to her den of very hungry kittens. She might have made a mess of him, scattering his organs the way some wild cats are wont to do, leaving gut piles for vultures to unravel like spooled thread. Before departing she may have half-buried his body, kicking leaves and dirt over it, and then ventured out with her kittens at dawn, the family returning to the cache to feast, the kittens pulling hungrily at muscle and tendons, down to Jay’s very bones.

But that didn’t happen. Before the wind could shift, Jay quietly turned around and went back down the path, back to the safety of his car, the town, to civilization, home.

*

Mountain lions materialize at dusk. They creep out from beneath shrubs, and they appear like apparitions. When they disappear, they dissolve like the Cheshire cat, vanish into thin air, disappear ghost-like. They are sighted or glimpsed, rarely carefully observed. They “atomize,” as Bob Butz said in his book about searching for mountain lions in northern Michigan. Edward Hoagland’s mountain lion “swerved aside instantly and was gone.” Brigitte Ruthman’s “lingered for a few seconds before pressing its body hard against the ground and slithering away.”

Mountain lions: also known as cougar, catamount, puma, panther, or if you talked about them a hundred years ago—painter, mountain screamer, ghost cat, caterwauler, or over 300 years ago—Lord of the Forest, Cat of God. The animal colonists in New England first believed were actual lions. Only the females could be caught, they believed, in order to explain the lack of thick manes—the males were too fierce to be taken.

Cougars are like a strange beauty that no artist can capture the likeness of, and that’s what draws us back again and again, trying to get it right, trying to decipher the mystery. For over 50 years the argument on the east coast of the U.S. has been, are mountain lions here or not? On March 2, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added a new adjective to the descriptors of the eastern subspecies of mountain lions, Puma concolor couguar: extinct.

Yet mountain lions still materialize.

Hundreds of sightings are reported each year from Michigan eastward. They are sighted with such frequency that several nonprofit organizations have sprouted in the last 30 years dedicated to recording sightings. One organization, the Eastern Puma Research Network, claims, “7,500+ credible sightings have been recorded by trained observers,” since its inception in 1983. The USFWS, though, would put that number around 100 since the 1930s. Why the discrepancy? It was one I’d just learned to live with. In rural Massachusetts we were inured to the sightings versus science discord.

I grew up in mountain lion’s liminal territory, where they take up more space in our collective imagination than they do in our forests, if any at all. They’ve likely been hunted to death, but there’s the possibility that some still prowl. In my corner of Massachusetts, I’ve heard dozens of mountain lion stories, first and second hand. Here, the Berkshire Hills give way to the Taconic Mountains, over the borders to New York and Connecticut. Here, the Mohicans told the story of a maiden who jumped to her death off a mountain, and the Puritans recorded stories of profane women who birthed monsters. Here, we are not far from where Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years in the Catskill Mountains after cavorting with the ghost of Henry Hudson. We don’t believe those stories anymore, but we have a hard time letting them go, the setting of fairy tales written over top of the landscape; a mossy forest floor beneath a hemlock grove, with toadstools emerging like elfin parasols, evokes something enchanting. Reality and fantasy mingle, making it difficult to untwine one from the other, especially when dealing with a creature so elusive.

It is possible that some of the sightings were of mountain lions—escaped captive animals that had come from western U.S. or South American strains, or individuals who had migrated east like a recently killed mountain lion found in Connecticut. But the possibility of the original eastern cougars having survived European colonization, mass deforestation, booming human populations was, up until March 2011, very unlikely. The extinction claim put an end to likelihood; it is impossible, they decided, for any cats to have survived.

In terms of sightings, I always fell on the side of the skeptics. The East Coast did not have suitable habitat to support populations of mountain lions, who need vast tracts of contiguous forest with adequate prey density. One study suggested that 425 to 800 square miles were needed to support long-term persistence of 15 to 20 pumas; they eat somewhere between 20 and 40 deer per year. Massachusetts only has about 13 contiguous square miles of roadless area. And where was the evidence? Most photos ended up being a trick of the light, a shadow with a snarl. No paw prints, no tuft of hair retrieved from a branch and tested for DNA, no forensically inspected deer carcass showed signs of puma predation.

You can read this essay in its entirety HERE, at Terrain.org.

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