Using the Cougar

An uneven yet illuminating collection of essays honors the noble 'felis concolor'

The mountain lion survives in the West in numbers that sustain fairly liberal hunting policies in 10 states, including Arizona: That is testament to the big cat's stealth. That the cougar, felis concolor, the cat of one color, dies by the bullet more often today than it ever did in the old days of bounties and government-sponsored predator-control agents is one of the many postmodern ironies that haunt this territory in the 21st century.

In her essay "A Short, Unnatural History," one of 20 included in the illuminating new collection Listening to Cougar, Wendy Keefover-Ring, a carnivore-protection activist based in Colorado, writes that "... compared to present-day figures, few pumas were killed during the bounty period because of the lack of technology and limited access in hard-to-reach places in the unroaded and often impenetrable West."

It is only recently, within the past five years or so, that it became illegal in Arizona to kill a female lion with spotted kittens. Otherwise, you need only buy a tag and find somebody with a pack of trained dogs to take you out. One of several Arizona-based hunting outfitters will do it--for a minimum of about $3,000. Your average predator-control agent used to get a mere $50 for each lion scalp.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department seems to agree with Keefover-Ring's assessment, reporting on its Web site that "information indicates that lion harvests have gradually increased over time. Recently, the annual kill has ranged between 250 and 350 animals, of which approximately 15 percent were taken by predator-control agents."

In Colorado, the only state to keep detailed records of the predator-control era, between 1929 and 1965, agents or ranchers killed about 45 cougars a year, based on payouts for bounties; from 1997 to 2006, similar to Arizona, some 345 cougars were killed each year, Keefover-Ring reports.

So it is that the mountain lion survived the years when it had a bounty on its head, and agents of the government were employed to kill--shoot or poison--a lion on sight. But the cat may end up falling away regardless, just as it did in the East and South, where it once roamed not so long ago.

This collection of essays about the cougar gives us a hint at how this strange state of affairs came about. Most of the pieces in the book take a familiar form: A writer is in the wilderness attempting to reconnect with something lost; a mountain lion happens upon the scene--powerful, wild, scary and above all elusive; and that something lost is found through a brief interaction with the cougar, which is used as a symbol and stand-in for a connection to what is wild and primeval. It's nearly always a spiritual, even religious interaction. Many of the writers don't see the cougar as a predator, and a nearly perfect one at that; instead, they see it as an abstraction, in the same way that Old West pioneers saw the great predators not as necessary parts of the ecosystem, but as the stuff of their bad dreams, the monsters that kept the wilderness wild instead of wholly reclaimed for commerce. One might ask: What's the difference?

The best essays in this collection are those that eschew the easy spiritualism that has infected so much of the conservation movement and instead treat the great cat as only that: nothing more but certainly nothing less. It is on these terms, the lion's terms alone, that it will be saved, and it must be saved. A real working ecosystem must have predators; otherwise, we're just living in some Western World display in a dream-home-crowded theme park, one in which, as one essay here suggests, you need only find a place in the woods to meditate and, lo and behold, a friendly cougar will slink up to say hello.

As uneven as this collection is, there are at least five or six essays that contribute greatly to the growing literature on mountain lion behavior and conservation. The best-written piece, and the one that reverberates most in my mind, is by J. Frank Dobie, reprinted from a 1928 issue of Country Gentleman magazine. It chronicles a horseback hunt for a mountain lion in the wilds of New Mexico, an epic ride that, despite including a pack of trained hounds and guides that knew the territory well, took two weeks of camping out and hard riding--and resulted in the killing of just one lion.

"He was game and noble game," Dobie writes, "the noblest and most beautiful predatory animal on the American continent. As a bullet found its mark I felt, momentarily, mean and ignoble. I shall never forget him."

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