He's a loner, he's lethal, and he's got your scent. Feline phantom, ultimate predator, the cougar has ghosted back into the American wild and your backyard. (Hey, Marge, have you seen the poodle lately?)
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
One evening last December, on a snowy ridge in the Absaroka Mountains outside Livingston, Montana, I cut some cougar tracks. They seemed to materialize out of nowhere, rising up a steep hillside tangled with wind-fallen trees. I bent and fit my fingers into one of the cold depressions, trying to conjure the cat into flesh and blood. It was dusk, and even though I could see the glow of porch lights in the valley below, the unexpected discovery of the cougar sign instantly transformed the woods into a dark and wild place. Shadows shifted, the wind battered dead branches, and I felt that old electric snarl of adrenaline that comes only in the presence of a large, meat-eating predator.
I’d been casing this neglected place for weeks; here at last was proof that I was walking where a cougar had walked. In some ways I’d been looking for this cat for years. Cougars have haunted my dreams, refusing to reveal themselves; when I was 12, scrambling alone up a moderately wild mountain in Pennsylvania’s Sullivan County Highlands, I thought I saw one, watching me. In that moment of trail fatigue when tree stumps become bears, I rubbed my eyes, looked back, and saw…nothing. But those few seconds of doubt and fear were enough to permanently rearrange my idea of wilderness. It hooked me deep, and I’ve spent a lifetime looking for places where I’m not at the top of the food chain. Twenty-five years later, the thrill was still there, clanging around my heart as I followed the tracks around a large boulder where the tight bunching of prints suggested the mountain lion had paused—perhaps to check out the dense folds of brush below, studying how best to approach dinner.
I kept climbing, hoping to cut fresher tracks farther up the ridge, but by the time I reached the timberline the sun had fizzled out behind the Gallatin Mountains and I’d lost them. I didn’t want to stumble around in the moonless dark, so I decided to head back. Halfway down, I picked up an iced-over deer trail and followed it until, bang, I hit the lion tracks again, big as my fist and frost-free—fresh. Remembering stories of cougars doubling back and tailing unsuspecting hikers for miles, I looked around. There were rocks and small pines, but no cat, so I followed the tracks down until I was nearly on all fours, scanning for a blood trail.
I’d topped a fold and begun the last scramble to my truck when something streaked across the snowfield a hundred yards in front of me. I squinted. At first I thought it was a deer, but the animal had a lower profile and ran like a wolf or coyote. Or possibly even a cougar. OK, I thought, a small and very scared yearling. But it didn’t bound or hop, and when I finally allowed myself to think that it really might have been a cat, it had disappeared over the hill and into the blackness below. By the time I retreated to the truck, the only thing I was sure of, besides being tired and cold, was that I wanted more than ever to find a mountain lion.
In the bar across the street from my office, there is a yellowed article on the wall from the March 17, 1953, Livingston Enterprise. Under the improbably long headline MOUNTAIN LION INVADES CITY AND ALARMS WEST SIDE; FINALLY SHOT, there is a photo of a calm-looking highway patrol officer kneeling over a dead cougar, cradling its head in his hands and giving his best Johnny Law stare. The accompanying article details how a “volunteer safari” tracked the “beast” after it jumped through not one but two windows of the H.O. Rice home, causing a mild uproar in this small mountain town.
Hundreds of curious folks visited a local taxidermy shop to see the cat before Chester Lazz, a member of the safari, had the animal tanned and made into a rug. I imagine that nearly every one of those present looked on the dead lion’s body, the massive, powerful jaw and long rope of a tail, and just for a moment put themselves on some dark trail with the animal, the fear blooming in their chests. Here, shot dead, was the beast that had haunted their steps in the mountains and slunk into their dreams. I doubt Chester’s own funeral would have drawn as many people.
It’s been 50 years since that volunteer safari assembled with their hounds and Remingtons, and the cat, once extirpated across hundreds of thousands of acres of its former range, is back. By cat I mean mountain lion, cougar, panther, puma, swamp screamer, catamount, ghost cat, shadow cat, or Puma concolor—“cat of one color”—an animal capable of snapping the neck of a whitetail deer in one pounce or jumping a six-foot fence with a 50-pound dog in its jaws. And by back I mean: “We’ve got cougars in basement window wells; we’ve got cougars running across busy intersections; we’ve got cougars in backyards and on back porches,” says Bill Thomas, who's spent 24 years as a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks information officer. “We have absolutely no shortage of mountain lions in Montana.”
Most experts agree that a person attacked by a cougar should fight like hell. Unless you resist, a puma will treat you like food.
Cougar sightings have been reported in the foothills of Los Angeles, on golf courses in the shrubby Portland, Oregon, suburbs, in Missouri, and in corn-flat Iowa. The eastern puma—a subspecies so endangered that it is still listed as “presumed extinct in the wild” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—has been sighted as far east as Pennsylvania. And in Michigan, where the state had long denied the eastern cougar’s return, DNA testing on scat has confirmed the presence of a breeding population of 50 to 80 lions in the Upper and Lower peninsulas. After decades of retreat and years of sizable “harvests” by hunters, after losing more than half of its habitat to development, cougars are boldly reasserting themselves—sneaking into sheep folds, making guest appearances on high-traffic trails, snatching terriers off treated-wood decks, trailing silently behind unsuspecting joggers, waiting.
“It’s the most amazing big-carnivore comeback story in the history of the world,” says 72-year-old wildlife biologist Maurice Hornocker, who in the 1960s did the first studies of the cat. Hornocker founded the Bozeman, Montana-based Hornocker Wildlife Institute, which, now a part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, still supports most cougar research. “Populations in some places are higher than when Columbus set foot on the continent.” In the early 19th century, cougars were present throughout the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and large portions of South America, all the way down to Patagonia. But by the 1960s, after a century of bounties and rapid habitat loss, they were long gone in the eastern U.S. (except for an endangered population of the Florida panther subspecies) and reduced to perhaps 6,500 cats out west, a number Hornocker stresses is at best a wild guess.
Cougars are notoriously reclusive, ordinarily impossible to see, much less count. The current estimates—extrapolated from statistics based on the number of cats collared by biologists, culled by hunters, and road-killed—stretch from 10,000 to 50,000 cats nationwide. (Compare that with the number of wolves—roughly 3,600 in the Lower 48—and grizzly bears—about 1,000.) What impresses biologists is that unlike those other large predators, the mountain lion has rebounded with very little management. Endangered in the East, hiding out in the West, cougars have never been reintroduced. They have crept back on their own.
But for every quietly returned Michigan mountain lion, there are the splashy attention-getting cats, like the cougar that walked into an elementary-school yard in Gresham, Oregon, in 1996, thinking bad thoughts. Of the 45 fatal cat attacks recorded in North America, 13 have occurred since 1976. There were 77 attacks in North America during the 1990s—roughly half of the 172 attacks since 1900. Each new encounter is a grim reminder that the cougar is ready to reclaim its historic place at the table.
All felines, wild and in litter boxes, share a certain hard-wired hunter’s view of the world. Fellow predators they eye with cool disdain, while prey bring out that empty soup’s-on stare.
On the night of February 8, 2001, after attending a yoga class and enjoying seafood fettuccine at a local restaurant, 52-year-old tugboat captain Jon Nostdal began the long bike ride back to his boat in Port Alice, British Columbia. The road ran along an inlet and was lined on both sides by heavy woods. There was a full moon, and stories of recent cougar sightings swirled through Nostdal’s head as he labored up and down the hilly road. He heard something he later described as “fingernails on a chalkboard” as he slowed to work his way up the last hill. The next moment, Nostdal felt something smack into his daypack, and he lost control of the bike. “The back of my head felt like it had been hit with a two-by-four,” he said. “When I tried to get up, it was like I was drunk.”
Nostdal quickly shrugged off his pack and saw a young mountain lion gnawing on his yoga mat. His scalp burned, and blood ran down his neck from where he’d been clawed. The lion abandoned the mat, exploded off the pavement, and clamped down on Nostdal’s arm. For more than ten minutes he fought with the cat, repeatedly dislodging it only to have it lunge again. “I was both terrified and enthralled,” he recalls. Mill worker Elliot Cole was driving home when the lights of his truck illuminated the scene. “I saw this man sitting in the road with a cougar wrapped around his neck and I thought, Oh, boy, this guy’s gotten himself in some trouble,” Cole says. Without thinking, he grabbed a heavy book bag and began bashing the cat, and when that didn’t faze the animal, he punched it several times in the head. It wasn’t until he grabbed Nostdal’s bike and pinned the wheel against the lion’s throat that it finally released its victim. Both men report that the lion’s utter silence, even as they were beating it, was the most unsettling part.
Canada strictly regulates cougar hunting, but Nostdal recalls that soon after the attack, a cat was found dead, tossed on the clubhouse lawn of Port Alice’s golf course. Whether or not it was the homicidal cougar, it wasn’t the only cat in town. In August 2002, 61-year-old retired mill worker Dave Parker was out for his nightly walk when a 100-pound phantom ambushed him from an overhanging cliff. Man and cougar went to the ground as the cat stripped the flesh from Parker’s face and prepared to sink its teeth into his neck. Parker had the presence of mind to reach into his pocket and pull out his knife, a three-inch blade. He managed to stab the cat twice before it pulled away, cutting its own throat on the upheld knife. Parker watched it crawl a few feet and then bleed out. He staggered nearly a mile to a pulp mill, where workers recall him looking like something out of a horror movie. Severely injured and in need of reconstructive surgery, he survived.
Most experts agree that a person attacked by a cougar should fight like hell. Unless you resist, a puma will treat you like food. Lions attack by ambushing, wrapping their powerful front legs around the neck of their prey, and sinking their fangs into the base of the skull. An adult cat weighs between 70 and 175 pounds and can measure eight feet from nose to tail, with the largest tom ever recorded tipping the scale at 276 pounds. The blast of their initial pounce is often enough to snap the spinal cord of a smaller animal; larger prey may require that they lock on to the throat, cut off the air supply, and go to work with claws and canines, severing arteries. Quick, clean—and solo. Except for mating pairs, or mothers with kittens, cougars travel alone, hunting roughly a deer a week to survive. Or whatever else is around.
Barbara Schoener, a 40-year-old endurance runner killed in Northern California’s Auburn State Recreation Area in April 1994, probably never saw it coming. A female lion hit her so hard they tumbled 30 feet down a steep hillside before Schoener got away and the cat chased her for 25 more. Deep slashes on Schoener’s hands and arms suggest that she struck back at her attacker at least once, but in the end the cat delivered its fatal bite and, after feeding, cached Schoener’s body under leaf molt and dirt. When lion hunters killed the culprit, they found that she had a kitten, who was put in a zoo and given the ridiculous name of Willow.
According to Paul Beier, a conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University who’s studied cougars in the increasingly developed Santa Ana Mountains, southeast of L.A., anybody who's spent a lot of time hiking out west has probably been closely watched by a cat. “They see this big hunk of meat walking around and they're confused, because it's on two legs instead of four,” Beier says. “Basically, they’re trying to figure you out and see if you run like prey or stand your ground.” Given our often oblivious proximity to mountain lions, Beier is surprised that there aren’t more attacks.
Children are particularly tempting targets. I’ve seen cats in zoos watching the smallest kids, ignoring their parents—back hunched, tail straight, wishing the Plexiglas gone. Children have been snatched from campsites, mauled on trails, dragged from family tents, or, like one four-year-old in eastern Washington in 1999, attacked in their grandparents’ backyards. When I related these stories to a father I met at a local hot springs near Livingston, he said that although he’s never seen a cougar, he keeps a pistol in his backpack. I told him I didn’t think the gun would do much good, that by the time he fished it out of his pack the damage would be done. The man shivered and walked away, clearly rattled, probably imagining all those times he’d let his children dash ahead of him on hikes. I’ve been guilty of the same thing. And yet I don't want to scare my curious daughter when she’s blasting down a trail by warning her that a cat may be waiting to eat her.
Natural human fear was not, in fact, what led to the kill-’em-all predator pogroms of western expansion. Rather, cougars were competition for game, and they ate livestock. Getting rid of them was a simple process: Run them down with dogs, tree them, and shoot them. By the turn of the century, the cougar had for all intents and purposes been erased east of the Mississippi. In North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, where the first cat was sighted in 1840, the last documented kill came in 1920. The Florida population hung on, but for the most part the eastern cougar was gone, and might have stayed gone if state agencies hadn’t begun to stock and protect deer in the 1930s, inadvertently setting the table for the cat’s eventual return.
Out west, the sheer vastness made mountain lions harder to kill off. But the predator wars continued well into the 1950s, with Arizona the last state to remove the $75 bounty on cougars in 1970. In 1964, when Hornocker, a young grizzly researcher in Montana, turned his attention to mountain lions, there was no season on cats; they could be shot on sight. Hornocker’s friends and fellow biologists told him that studying the lion was not only impossible, but unwanted. “They were vermin all over the West,” he says. “The only cougar I’d seen was a dead one hanging from the rafters of the Idaho Fish and Game office.”
Hornocker continued anyway. He located 14 subjects in the Missoula Valley, only to have most of them killed by hunters. So in 1965, he relocated his project to Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, beginning a seminal ten-year study that demonstrated that, due to their extremely large territories—male lions will defend up to several hundred square miles and several female cats from feline intruders—cats didn’t seriously affect elk and deer populations, much less livestock. His work helped to establish bag limits and create regulated hunting seasons, major factors in the cougar's comeback. Now, Hornocker predicts, “lions will hit the Mississippi in the next decade. The East and Midwest is beautiful cat country—full of deer and cover.”
As fences, freeways, and McMansions crop up in the very hills and woods where lions have ridden out our attempts to erase them, conflicts are multiplying. After carving out a sub-rosa existence among us, and feasting on the non-native whitetail deer herds that have proliferated with development, cats risk becoming victims of their own success. Although hunting is less popular today, western states do allow it, and most have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward cougars that enter urban areas—less controversial than hunting, but still lethal to cats. Even Hornocker endorses the policy. “I admire the folks in places like Boulder who take a ‘they were here first’ approach to lions in their backyards,” the scientist says. “But it’s a dangerous attitude, one that will change when a lion eats a child.” If cats and humans are to coexist, he says, we need to be “up-front about euthanizing any cat that’s lost its fear of humans.”
Anybody who's spent a lot of time hiking out west has probably been closely watched by a cat.
There are small signs that cougars and humans can learn to use the same land. In California’s Santa Ana Mountains, the Nature Conservancy has bought up 900 acres of the 2,300-acre Tenaja Corridor, a critical habitat link and one of the sites of Paul Beier’s research, hoping to protect the cats from isolation. The Conservancy plans to sell 100 of those acres in five- to 50-acre parcels to buyers who agree to a cat-friendly development plan: build on only two acres of the land, limit fencing and exterior lighting, and keep mouthwatering pets indoors.
But in most places, biologists agree that living with lions is going to mean not only the removal of problem cats, but also a certain amount of hunting—a tough but necessary step to ensure the long-term health of a species in a land where, like it or not, human concerns are paramount. “I’ve never opposed hunting as long as it is done morally and ethically and with reverence for the quarry,” Hornocker says. “But it has to be done on a sound biological basis.”
World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall disagrees. Goodall became interested in cougars in 2001 when, much to her horror, she learned that lions were still hunted in the West, and that in Texas, hunters could kill cats at any time and by any means, including poison. “To hear that they were shot by hunters with dogs, I just find this completely terrible,” Goodall told ABC’s World News Tonight in January, 2003. She and other advocates remind us that hunting orphans kittens, and the removal of an estimated 3,000 trophy cats a year in the West erodes the lion’s delicate social structure and robs the population of prime genes. Goodall has lent her support to the Cougar Fund, a Jackson, Wyoming-based group cofounded by activist Cara Blessley Lowe and wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen, but because cougars are doing so well on their own, most other conservation groups focus instead on wolves, grizzlies, and other endangered species.
It’s one thing to sling biology about cats. It’s an entirely different thing to seek the lion out in this increasingly crowded continent. For me, the how and why of the cougar’s return wouldn’t mean a thing unless I could step into its world. Call it a quest for wildness—and by that I don't mean ungroomed trails and blackflies. I wanted to find a cat, have it hiss and turn on me with those green-gold eyes and bare its teeth at me before it bounded away. I wanted to understand the lion on its own terms.
Warner Glenn knows cougars better than almost anyone in the country. Glenn is a second-generation cat tracker; lions are his life. I’m a meat hunter, but I can’t fathom wanting to shoot a lion to hang on my wall. Still, I respect men like Glenn, who represent a melding of the old and new ways of dealing with the tricky question of hunting. The Glenn ranch lies east of Douglas, Arizona, in the southeast corner of the state, down a washed-out two-track swarming with Border Patrol agents, trash, and sagebrush, the purple-mountain glow of the Peloncillos and Chiricahuas hovering in the distance. It’s a few thousand dry acres of prickly pear and red-rock earth, dotted with stubborn-looking cattle broiling in the desert heat and mule deer looking on with ungulate schadenfreude.
Glenn, 67, is not some pressed-Wrangler rich guy running down cows in an air-conditioned Range Rover. He wears chaps and boots, a tattered Carhartt jacket, and a white hat. He rises at 5 am and, after some eggs and a quick prayer for rain, works and rides until the sun beats him indoors. It’s a life he inherited from his father, who started hunting cougars to protect his herd and pretty soon became the go-to man along the border whenever a lion decided to munch on a cow or snack on a few sheep. In addition to breeding calves and colts, Glenn earns a living taking clients out for guided hunts and stalking the occasional problem cat for local ranchers. He’s passed that living on to his daughter, Kelly, a licensed guide and 41-year-old poster girl for the Ruger gun company. Kelly has hunted with her father since she was 12, working the hounds and mules as they track cats for days across the desert.
Hanging in the living room of the Glenns’ modest cement-block ranch house is a life-size poster of the Duke, and a mounted cougar head, its plastic eyes locked in some approximation of predatory rage. “I’ve seen lion numbers increase more in the past ten years than almost any time I can remember,” Glenn told me, the wall behind him full of framed photographs of cougars in juniper trees.
When he talked about killing lions, Glenn became serious, almost shy. His voice dropped to a rasp. “I’m not a killer,” he said, giving me the Old West, high-noon eyeball. “I’m a rancher and conservationist.” He described how, for him, it’s no longer about the killing. “You have to have a tender place in your heart,” he said. “Even though the animal needs to be managed, it’s sad to see one shot. But it’s what I do.”
Years of sweat and toil have made Glenn realistic about land use. He doesn’t see ranching as anathema to good environmental stewardship. In 1994, he and his wife, Wendy, helped found the Malpai Borderlands Group, a coalition of ranchers, scientists, and government agencies working with the Nature Conservancy to promote sustainable ranching and other livelihoods that support open space. Run out of the Glenns’ house, the MBG’s aim is to preserve the area’s unfragmented landscape and its diverse human, plant, and animal life—including a new arrival.
In 1996, Glenn ran into an animal that would speed his transformation into an environmentalist. Out hunting with his daughter and a client in the Peloncillos, on the Arizona-New Mexico line, Kelly’s hounds cut a hot track. But something about this cat was different. Not only had it gone a long time without treeing, but its prints were unusually large and oddly shaped.
In the rugged terrain, Kelly stayed back with the client, leaving just Glenn and the dogs, who finally bayed the cat on a steep rock outcropping. Warner dismounted, and was astonished to find himself face to face with a jaguar. He’d heard stories about the endangered subtropical cat the Mexicans call el tigre, seen pictures of dead jaguars hanging from trees, and knew that the cat had once ranged throughout the Southwest. But nothing had prepared him for the surreal orange-and-black creature staring back at him. He knew right away that he wasn’t going to kill it. He ran back for his camera, wrestled the dogs away, and watched the cat leap off. Glenn’s photographs forced officials to change the jaguar's U.S. status from extinct to endangered, and biologists have since confirmed the presence of a tiny itinerant population in northern Mexico.
Early one morning this winter, just after dawn, Glenn and I went for a ride. He saddled up the mules, holstered his pistol, and unleashed the hounds and we were off in a barking blur.
Picking a trail over the mesa with Glenn felt old and practiced—the dogs doing what they were bred to do, Glenn jumping down to neck troublesome hounds together and stopping to scan the horizon. For a moment I felt plugged into an ancient game, as the hounds sounded and darted ahead and Glenn turned to check on me, his eyes bright and alert. The land, which at first glance seemed relatively featureless, gradually revealed hundreds of arroyos and small valleys, rock overhangs and brushy draws—plenty of places for cats to hide. Overhead, the sky vaulted high and blue. It was easy to see why Glenn wanted the land to remain open and unaltered, full of lions, people, and other wild things. “The minute you’ve got roads and 40-acre parcels,” he said, “you’ve broken the landscape forever.”
The day passed without the hounds catching a scent, which was just as well, because Glenn will track cougars only on hunts with paying clients or when one is involved in a livestock killing. I left with the sense that, after so many years on the chase, lions were as essential to the Glenns as rain, that here was a rancher for whom a land without lions was not an option. But I was no closer to seeing one.
By this point I’d been looking for a cat for nearly a year. I’d trekked miles in the Absarokas and Gallatins in search of another cougar. I’d checked old burns, plowed through waist-deep drifts and over ledges, and all I’d gained was a bone-weary appreciation for the cat’s ability to go over, under, and through, navigating the terrain like a liquid ATV. I was desperate. Unless I strapped T-bones to my back, I was going to need a professional.
One bitter January morning, I met Toni Ruth, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, at the northern entrance to the park. Ruth is a small, blond 39-year-old woman lit with the glow of someone who’s spent way too much time in the woods. I’d been warned that not only was the Gardiner, Montana-based scientist one of a handful of researchers doing the grueling fieldwork of tracking cougars, but that I’d better be prepared to hike my ass off. Of all the biologists in Yellowstone—and the park is swarming with them—the lion people are the hardcore ridge-grinders. Ruth is dogged: Her 1990s research on cougars and wolves in Glacier National Park nailed the first solid data on interaction between the two predators, and her Yellowstone Cougar Project is part of the first to study what happens when one predator—the wolf—is reintroduced into others’—the cougar’s and the grizzly’s—turf. Ruth says things like “Current single-species approaches to large-carnivore conservation lack an understanding of carnivore assemblages and interactions at a wildlife community level.” That morning all she had to say, as if to dampen my enthusiasm, was “We’ve been out ten days without a cat.”
We geared up in the dark, bitching about the cold. Ruth’s team—young researchers Jesse Newby and Jason Husseman—checked radios and avalanche beacons, while Tony Knuchel, a hired houndsman, uncrated two black-and-tan hounds, Cooter and Buck. The goal today was to capture and recollar F125, one of the 15 to 17 adult cats wintering in the park’s 2,000-square-mile northern range, a female who’d been using the Rattlesnake Butte area, near the north entrance. F125 had a pair of kittens—more teenagers than fur balls—that Ruth hoped to fit with monitors. Three cats. I liked my odds.
We set off, and Yellowstone unscrolled its usual beauty. Husseman, a former wolf researcher, pointed and said, “Check out the alpenglow, dude.” I nodded but thought, Screw alpenglow; I want a cat. We topped a hill, and another, until we were on a steep north-facing slope that dropped off to the Yellowstone River. After traversing a narrow game trail, Ruth huddled the crew and pointed down toward the river. “We’re going to take a reading,” she whispered, as if some cat sense had told her we were close. Newby fiddled with the tracker, listening for the collar blips. He quickly froze and pointed to a tiny fold of trees that seemed deceptively quaint and manageable. There was a cat down there, but the trick was going to be cutting off its escape route, a steep, rocky ledge that led downriver and back the way we’d come.
Today more people die from bad egg salad than cougar attacks, but that does nothing to diminish our fixation on the remote possibility of a silent hunter pouncing on our backs.
I volunteered to go down the steep bank with Newby to head the lion off while Ruth and Husseman took the high route. Knuchel would hold the hounds until we radioed for him. Ruth looked down several hundred feet to the Yellowstone River. “Be careful,” she said. “I don’t want to call in a helicopter.”
Halfway down the rocky slide, it was apparent that Newby was part mountain goat and I was the human sled. I caused several loud slides that chunked off into the nothingness below, and Newby looked up, pissed and then alarmed. But when he took another reading, we still had cat. We split up, Newby taking the cliff edge while I crept silently along a game path 50 yards above. A little ways along, the wind shifted and I caught the familiar stench of dead things. That’s when I saw something white flash against the bark of a tree. I froze and squinted and there it was—the unmistakable white-and-brown mask of a cougar, sitting under a crooked pine.
There is an odd moment of swooning surprise when you glimpse any animal in the wild and your brain clicks through the appropriate responses, from fear to awe to who-cares-keep-moving. I settled on awe. For a long time it was just the two of us, the lion casually twitching its tail and cocking its head with unsettling feline calm while I tried to stifle my irrational urge to get closer. After all the time I’d spent searching, I wanted to stumble down the rocks and have it flash some tooth and claw, give me a taste of its power. Instead it regarded me as I suppose it regards most humans—two-legged, clumsy, an annoying interloper who, when the mood struck, it would try to eat or, more likely, simply saunter away from.
But the arrival of Ruth and Husseman changed all that. Sensing something hinky, the cat rose as Newby galloped out from a clump of trees, baying like a hound. Then the real dogs appeared, and in a flash the cat glided away, with the dogs in hot pursuit. Stunned by the speed of it all, I gave chase with the others, scrambling over a steep ridge, mainlining adrenaline, wanting to see the cat run one more time.
By the time I caught up, the dogs were howling and jumping at a tree like beery frat boys as Knuchel circled, taunting them, “Skin ’em up, skin ’em up.” Several times the lion crept out on a branch and fixed me with its gaze, its eyes full of sheer predatory disdain as it hissed, giving me a peek of fang.
Ruth unpacked her gun and hit it with a ketamine-laced dart. Newby climbed up and lowered the animal, and the crew went to work, measuring, snipping fur samples, siphoning blood, and shoving what looked like a high-tech meat thermometer up its ass. Up close, the cat was all bulging forearms and broad paws, its white fur stained with blood from a recent kill. Ruth pinched one paw, and out squirted a long, sharp claw. She pulled back its muzzle to display the powerful incisors. When we finally released F125, it was hard to watch it crawl and stumble away, its eyes dull and stoned, tail dragging limply behind. I looked away.
We never found the kittens, but nearby we uncovered a flayed bighorn sheep, its horns and hemorrhaged eyes giving it a slightly satanic look. Ruth went into full C.S.I. mode, snapping on latex gloves and flipping her Gerber knife open; she expertly peeled back the fur and gore to reveal a ruined throat and the deep, purple entry wounds of the cat’s fangs. “Feel that?” she said, guiding my fingers into the cold flesh. “She crushed the voice box and tore open the jugular.” Pointing to some fur hung up on a snag of fallen logs, Ruth re-created the kill, describing how the lion must have ambushed the sheep, ridden it down the steep slope, and then, after finishing the job, dragged it down here to this rock.
Even after all the blood and hair samples, the zoned-out lion whose fur I’d run my fingers through seemed no less mysterious. It felt more comfortable to imagine the cat as I’d first seen it, powerfully bounding away. As we crawled back up the cliff, I kept thinking how easily the lion used this steep, tucked-away corner of the park, and how it must have rushed the sheep, like some deadly dream, the bighorn not knowing what hit it until it felt the clamp of teeth and saw its own blood. This was the cat I’d been searching for, and when I told Ruth later, she agreed. “I hate watching the cats come out of the drug more than anything else,” she said. “My favorite thing is simply being out in cougar country, tracking a cat, thinking that around the bend I could find a kill or knowing that a cat may be watching me. I find great comfort in this. I've enjoyed curling up under a sunny ledge next to a cat track and taking a nap—a world of difference from how I am walking the concrete streets of some city.”
We should all be so lucky to experience a nap on a cat ledge, but the fact is, cougars will never attain the cuddly image foisted on other megaspecies to ensure their survival. Lions remain stubborn and untameable symbols of a wilderness as rightly unknowable as they themselves are. “Pumas are such masters of invisibility,” says retired Arizona Game & Fish Department biologist Harley Shaw, author of Soul Among Lions, “that even when we researchers began to collar and collect data on them, only a little of their mystery was lost.”
Once, when Shaw was giving a lecture at Saguaro National Park, a woman rancher asked him, “What good are they?”
“Instead of answering with the usual cliché about how lions are necessary for the balance of nature,” Shaw says, “I told her that I liked knowing they were out there.” For Shaw, they represent the part of him that will always want to forgo civilization and live in a wild landscape—as he puts it, “a rather mythical vision of perfect freedom.” For others, the cougar is something else—a focal point for hostility, a survivor worth protecting, a night stalker, a Native American talisman of power. “The secret to the allure,” Shaw says, “is how we each incorporate the creature into our own private myth.”
We have conquered the West, transformed the shrinking forests into safe places to stroll and sweat, but sometimes the woods bite back. And when they do, we respond with ancient fear and loathing. We forget that wilderness is supposed to be wild, that a hundred years ago almost nobody went into the woods without a gun or the sharp awareness that there were things out there that could kill you.
Today more people die from bad egg salad than cougar attacks, but that does nothing to diminish our fixation on the remote possibility of a silent hunter pouncing on our backs. The wilderness crank in me says this is a good thing, because even the most used-up patch of forest, river bottom, or rock field comes alive once you know there is something out there that will eat you, or at least try to, given the right circumstances. It forces you to pay attention, to unplug. Each cougar lurking out there is a stubborn reminder that, even as we pave ourselves into tight grids, they'll keep coming, against long odds—ghostly relics of a time not so long ago when the forests teemed with their predatory presence. And if we don’t understand their place in our midst, all we’ll have left is our fear.