by Amanda Giracca
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.
Tyringham Cobble, where Jay Amidon saw the
Photograph courtesy The Trustees of Reservations.
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.
The possibility of Eastern cougars surviving
European colonization, expansion, and habitat loss
is unlikely, and yet...
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.
People like my friend Rick Palumbo would say that whenever “bits of evidence were brought forward authorities would always mysteriously lose the information.” He originally hadn’t believed that mountain lions existed in the Northeast, but after his own sighting he started researching. “If it was confirmed that they’re here,” he told me, “they would stop development.” Building projects would cease, he said, to avoid strain on the habitat of an endangered species. The area would lose money. The government was hiding something and the reasons, he believed, were vastly economic.
Rick’s sighting: In late winter of 2002, he awoke at dawn and decided to drive to Butternut Ski Basin—it was the first real snowfall of the year, too good to pass up. He headed south on Route 23 in the town of Monterey, the next town over from Tyringham, navigating the curves in growing daylight. A few miles from the slopes he rounded a sharp turn, hitting a straightaway at a small school for troubled boys, right near where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. About a quarter mile ahead he could see a deer carcass on the side of the road—not an uncommon sight—and next to it was something he couldn’t quite wrap his brain around: an animal sat towering over the carcass. He stared. As he drew closer the animal took form, and as it turned and ran off into the woods he finally made sense of what he was looking at—the long tail, the sheer size of the animal, the ripple of muscle at the shoulder, the way it was off in the trees with one leap, then another. He slammed on the brakes, the other cars having to pull out around over the yellow lines. He sat gathering his wits. In the afternoon he would return to get a better look. He’d try to identify the tracks, but there would just be a mess of them in the bloody snow—he wouldn’t be able to differentiate deer from predator. What he would notice was that the deer had been dragged, 25 or 30 feet, a long bloody swipe in the snow. A feat a dog or bobcat would have trouble with.
As I listened to Rick’s story, I realized I stopped taking notes somewhere after the account, when he started to talk about he cover up. I was interested in what he saw, or rather what I thought he thought he saw, and less so in whatever conspiracy he believed. Jay’s story, too. I listened patiently, but with a grain of doubt swirling in my mind like a piece of tree bark stuck in an eddy. It wasn’t until days after hearing them that I realized I was editorializing Jay’s and Rick’s stories, exactly what wildlife officials tended to do to sightings. I was listening, but I wasn’t really hearing them. What was the point in collecting stories if I had already made up my mind? When the USFWS publicly announced the extinction claim, my skepticism suddenly shifted. How can they be so sure? It put an end to something that didn’t really seem finished.
Six days after the extinction announcement, I retraced Jay’s steps at Tyringham Cobble. It had been about 15 years since his sighting. The previous night had left a dusting over everything making the icy trail—weeks of snow melting, giving way to footsteps, and freezing over again—practically lethal. I found myself examining every animal track I came across—bobcat, coyote, deer, dog.
At the top of the steep little hill, the slope on the other side was finally relenting to the sun, and bare patches revealed damp, bedraggled grass. Beyond the treetops, Tyringham was nestled down between the hills, looking picturesque in all that snow, the little church and old farmhouses reminiscent of another era, when this hinterland settlement would have been closed off entirely in winter and the roads out of the valley impassable. An era where people still believed in witches, that evil lay within the untamed New England forests, that the dark hollows beneath the hemlocks held haints and ghouls or wild vicious beasts and did their best to keep the wilderness at bay, carving out their nooks of farmland. Even now the graveyard had a fence around it, like the forest was threatening to encroach and subsume the graves and the cultivated land around them.
It was Jay’s outdated story, but also this one that sent me up to the cobble: Recently, a farmer claimed to have seen a mountain lion about a mile up the road, dragging a deer carcass uphill—backwards—at top speed. I learned this after calling a state forest ranger who couldn’t tell me anything “official.” No, he said, when I asked if there’d been any evidence of mountain lions in a nearby state forest in the past hundred years. No proof. But he’d gone on about his farmer friend, how the farmer knew the wildlife around here, how he’d never seen an animal accomplish a feat like that. No bobcat could drag a deer uphill. I didn’t ask the ranger if his friend had called MassWildlife, or the environmental police, or one of the various organizations dedicated to keeping track of sightings. Like Rick, most people I spoke with didn’t trust wildlife officials. When I asked Jay about what Rick had said about the authorities, he responded, “Yeah, why do they do that?” There was also the rumor that officials knew cougars were here, but that making a big fuss about them would get people riled up—sending them either out to the woods to look for the cats, or retreating in unnecessary fear, and therefore it was best just to say nothing at all. It was also possible that they just really weren’t here.
Mountain lion sleeping in its artificial enclosure at
the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Photograph by Simmons Buntin.
As I stood on the little rock outcrop at the top of the hill, I could almost see Jay’s cat; I located what I thought was the spot, an old rotten log laying next to a dead tree. I pictured the cat sharpening its claws against the soft, foamy bark, stretched five or six feet from rump to snout, or sitting pertly and looking out into the valley, its whiskers raised to the wind. Expectant. Lonely, maybe.
Years ago I observed a pair at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. The day I visited, they were cuddled in sunlight on a ledge behind a thick glass window. I was lucky to see them so close, to watch the soft pale fur of their bellies rise and fall as they slept. I soaked up the sight, afraid that at any moment they might wake and retreat to a hiding place. I stared at their paws tangled up together—a wildcat’s paw seemed like such a private thing to see, especially so relaxed with the claws retracted. Nearby an elk leg was warming in the sun, road kill that the staff collected from the highway, and the mountain lions were trusting and well fed enough that they could leave it out in the open like that.
But I didn’t find any tracks at the cobble. Nor any signs of a deer carcass, not even a tuft of tawny fur on a tree branch, no scrapes in the snow or claw marks on tree trunks. No eerie sensation descended as I walked, no ghost-like chill, no blurs slipping through the trees in the distance, no sense of being tracked, no eyes peering out from the depths of the forest. Just the sun, bright against the snow, and a barred owl hooting weakly through the trees.
The closest I’ve ever come to seeing a mountain lion in the wild was in 2006 in the Peruvian Amazon where for two months I volunteered on a parrot and macaw research project. It’s a place where ecology is so strange that myth pales in comparison—six-foot-long river otters, a fungus that paralyzes moths and slowly consumes their bodies, leaving a moth-shaped shell of white powder clinging to leaves. There are flesh-eating diseases, parasites that enter your body via the urethra, and a plethora of elusive carnivores.
Peru has a long history with the puma. The mountain city of Cusco was constructed in the shape of the cat, the walled fortress of Sacsayhuaman on the city’s outskirts the head, where you can walk among the resurrected stones zigzagging in a seemingly random pattern, the zigzags said to represent the great cat’s teeth. Pumas’ predation on vicuña and alpaca sparked one of the first great hunts to extirpate the cat (unsuccessfully, of course). Bruce Wright, in The Ghost of North America, wrote about how the Inca stopped trying to defeat the pumas, and learned to use them to their advantage, They kept them starved in dungeons where victims would be thrown for punishment, Roman and Christian style.
I was in the Tambopata-Candamo reserve, east of Cusco, near the Bolivian and Brazilian borders, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. During the day I conducted point counts, or watched for birds feeding along trails through the jungle. Sometimes my work lasted until near dark and I’d walk back to the lodge with a headlamp, identifying animals by the color of their eyeshine in a beam of light.
One evening I was a quarter mile from the lodge when I came across a dead sloth in the path. I was thrilled because I’d never seen one, and the animal’s post-prey status gave me full license at a long and careful examination. A natural historian’s delight, to come across a recent kill. The sloth was on its back, and I slowly flipped it with the tip of my boot. As I did one back leg stretched out, slow and sloth like, but it was only nerves, because the sloth’s entire back was missing, a bloody cavern where its spine and tail should have been. I noted the spine-first kill and the puma tracks in mud near the trail. I stayed long enough to snap a few photos, to rub some of its coarse white hairs between my fingers, but only long enough for that.
This is the sort of evidence one would hope to find in the eastern United States. In 1997 Massachusetts did find “compelling evidence.” At Quabbin Reservoir, tracker John McCarter found the remains of a beaver carcass. He found the upper and lower portions of a beaver jaw lying near large animal scat. 30 feet away he found a cache, a mound of leaf litter beneath which lay beaver entrails and tufts of fur. The scat was sent on a cross-country journey—to a forensics lab in Oregon, then to the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, and then to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Three years later, in July of 2000, the scat was determined to be of a North American mountain lion. It’s still unknown whether it was a native Eastern cougar, or a Western cougar. It was assumed the cat was likely not a remnant from the original eastern populations, but an escaped captive. It’s the only “official” evidence in Massachusetts since the 1800s.
When I returned to the lodge after seeing the sloth, I told my coworker, Sergio, about my find. Excited, he ventured out hoping to catch a glimpse, but when he got to the trail the sloth was gone.
Sacsayhuaman, the head of the cougar, a walled fortress
near Cusco, Peru.
Photo courtesy e-Travelorganizer.com.
Now that the Eastern cougar is extinct, it no longer needs to be on the endangered species list. This means large parcels of wilderness along the East Coast are no longer under federal protection. There are few tracts of land throughout the East that could support viable cougar populations, and with the delisting there’s the chance that those tracts may dwindle, be parceled off, opened for development, logged, or drilled. To delist an endangered species during an economic recession is terribly convenient—and maybe that land should be opened up; who’s to say, really? But to just decide the animal is not here, or at least not in numbers enough to prove potential repopulation, then it really becomes impossible for it to be here again. The land opens up for human use. We carve away at it, reducing further any chances of the cat coming back, and thereby reducing the chance to regain ecological balance to impoverished Eastern ecosystems.
Pumas, being the predators they are, keep a check on deer and small game populations, who, if not checked, can over-browse vegetation and affect distribution of certain nuts and seeds. Under pumas’ control native plants could flourish; the undergrowth of forests would thicken and take on a multi-level structure once again. Thick, abundant forests would draw various insects that depend upon certain leaves or bark to deposit eggs, to adhere a cocoon, and these insects would draw songbirds. The woods would fill up the way it used to be, rich and vibrant, humming and diverse; it might begin to resemble what the colonists found when they first stumbled off their boats, dazed and malnourished, before they began to cut it all down: a dank wonderland not unlike the Old World forests of fairy tales and fables.
When colonists arrived in North America they brought a deep-rooted Christian fear of wilderness, and mountain lions with their elusive ways and predatory tendencies were often viewed as a devil-animal—child attackers, cold-blooded killers.
“Snow White, according to the old German folktale, so threatened the ugly queen that a huntsman was ordered to drag her into the forest, put her to death, and cut out her lungs and liver,” writes John Stilgoe in Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845. “In the folk imagination of the Middle Ages the forest is the logical setting for such atrocity. After all, it is a great chaos, the lair of wild beasts and wilder men, where order and shaping are not, where hapless peasants are first be-wildered, then seduced into all manner of sin.”
As Puritans made their way inland in the late 1600s, they built huts in muddy lots ringed with tree stumps. They carried their church with them, tabernacle and government house in one, notched and dismantled, ready to be resurrected as soon as the forest was cleared to receive it. Before they learned how to properly cultivate the land, there were winters of hunger, of a cold deeper than any they’d experiences in Europe. Around their settlements, night brought the sounds of wolves howling in the wilderness, preying on deer and other game that the colonists were learning to survive on. Circumstances were grim; fear of the unknown blossomed, leading to drastic measures, like witch trials. Paganism was conflated with the New World’s vast wilderness.
When Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth trekked into the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts in 1694, he was not so charmed with the natural beauty: “The greatest part of our road this day was a hideous, howling wilderness.”
“Hard indeed is it to quit the pleasant scenes of one’s native country to explore new and dreary regions,” states the editor’s introductory essay to the 1764 reprint of William Wood’s New England’s Prospect. “This was assured in the most solemn manner to the emigrants to this country, it was upon the faith of these engagements they ventured over, and employed their whole time and fortune in cultivating and improving the country, in extirpating the savage inhabitants, incidentally laying the foundation of the most extensive commerce, and in spreading the gay face of smiling plenty over the fields now fertile and cumbrous, which once were bogs and wilderness.”
By the 1700s, historical accounts attested to the threat mountain lions posed on livestock and humans alike. Pioneers practiced ring-hunts; men would disperse themselves at a 30-mile radius, and slowly close in on a circle of land, shooting any animal they enclosed, not just mountain lions. One such hunt in Pennsylvania in 1760, as later described by Bruce Wright, resulted in 41 pumas, the bodies of which, once skinned, were burned in one giant reeking pyre. Some hunters boasted having killed over 50 pumas within their lifetime. By 1838, the animal was extirpated in Ohio, and likely several other Eastern states; and when dime store novels emerged telling of westward pioneers’ triumphant battles with the sometimes ferocious, sometimes cowardly cat, the men of the east were already nostalgic for the heyday of panther hunting, when it was not just an act of cunning bravery, but a civic duty to rid the land of the predator.
Photograph by Simmons Buntin.
Photos published echoed this sentiment. In an 1881 photo, Vermont hunter Alexander Cromwell reclines with his legs crossed, elbow propped on a tree stump, his rifle leaning across his body at a menacing angle. His cat—the Barnard Panther, believed to be the last killed in Vermont—is stretched before him in a position that could be mistaken for sleeping, except its eyes are open, as is its mouth, dumbfounded. Even in a 1967 photo, a cat dangles gracefully from a tree, the back feet cinched in a noose. It was a specimen that roused the hopes—by this point we were just three years away from the first Earth Day—that the Eastern cougar was not gone. The DNA was never confirmed Eastern or Western, but it was a kill that, ironically enough, propelled the listing of the Eastern cougar subspecies on the federal Endangered Species list in 1973. The happy hunter, John Gallant, tilts the animal’s chin so we can see the face, the way he might cup a delicate young girl’s, too shy to look at the camera.
“Wilderness is the spatial correlative of unreason, or madness,” Stilgoe wrote of the Middle Ages, “of the unhuman anarchy that informs so many folktales emphasizing the ephemeral stability of Christianity, society, and agriculture.” Out of this developed an even stronger human madness, carried overseas to the New World: the ability to not only carry out God’s wishes, but to play God, deciding who stays and who goes.
Mick Burns’ sighting happened about a mile south of Rick’s—on a back road winding past the Rawson Brook goat farm. “There’s not much to tell, really,” he said, as though his story wasn’t good enough: no attacks, no caterwauling, no Aldo Leopold-like “green fire dying” as he and the cat locked eyes. He told me his story a few days after my hike at the cobble. My boyfriend and I invited him to dinner, and he showed up in his rugged jeans and flannel shirt, carrying in his calloused hands a white paper box, inside of which sat the daintiest of cheesecakes—complete with frosting swirls and bright cherry topping. All evening Mick shared stories about his house in a rural town about ten miles from ours, out in the woods. Robins had built nests in the rafters of his barn. He had watched them start nests and abandon them, sometimes finding the traces—a few dead branches, a few threads wound together. He had followed the nesting habits of his birds for a few years, watching how each year they built nests in almost the exact same spots. At one point I commented, “Sounds like a nature wonderland out there.”
“I think it’s everywhere,” he replied. “It’s just a matter of whether you choose to pay attention or not.”
Mick’s story: He’d seen a deer run across the road just past the goat farm. Then another followed, or at least what he thought was another—except this one had a long tail streaming out behind it. “It bounded once across the road,” Mick bounced his finger across the table, “and was gone.” As though he had to make up for such a brief encounter, he told me that a couple of days later he was talking to a guy who lived near the goat farm. This man had never seen any cats himself, but two nights earlier heard a strange noise in the night—not a howl, not a roar, but something eerie and inhuman.
The evening I saw the dead sloth in Peru, Sergio and I scrounged in the researchers’ quarters for a disc of animal sounds; any out of the ordinary wildlife sighting often sent us on a crusade for information, seeking context for our experiences. Puma concolor had quite a range—low growls, deep purring, and the most tell-tale sound, a repeated screaming, like a wailing baby, or short bursts of vicious wind, maybe the soundtrack for the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, or like standing near Lake Michigan in Chicago and covering your ears, then uncovering them, covering them again. Mountain lions have a specifically structured hyoid bone in their throats, rendering them incapable of roaring. Instead, they scream, or caterwaul. Audubon called it the call of a lost traveler, or the cry of a child. Edward Hoagland wrote that, “they coo like pigeons, sob like women, emit a flat slight shriek, a popping bubbling growl, or mew, or yowl. They growl and suddenly caterwaul into falsetto—the famous scarifying, metallic scream functioning as a kind of hunting cry close up, to terrorize and start the game.”
After, we listened to the sound bite for the jaguar. The deep throaty roar and the repeated ape like mating call of the jaguar, grunts speeding up to a lewd frequency, made something shift at the bottom of my stomach, made the glands below my arms open—emitting my fear like a colorless, odorless gas into the air. An expectant predator with her nose to the wind might pick up my fumes, miles away. I backtracked to the mountain lion. Hearing the screams again, Sergio and I looked at each other and smiled. “Where a tiger would roar, a mountain lion screams like a castrato,” Hoagland wrote. As I listened to the rhythmic wails, it started to sound more like a housecat. It didn’t seem so scary all of the sudden.
Reported Connecticut mountain lion sightings interactive
View CT Mountain Lion Sightings in a larger map.
Jay’s friend had seen one on Route 23, close to where both Rick and Mick had seen theirs. And a different friend had seen one eating a rabbit in his backyard, and someone else, previously a “nonbeliever,” recently watched two mountain lion cubs frolicking in a field. John up the road’s sister had seen one on her chicken farm. Larry who ran the children’s art camp, had a friend, Diane, who’d seen one, and his neighbor had spotted one up in a tree. A friend of Mick’s tracked them, supposedly—saw one curled up on top of a hay bale out in a field. My sister has seen two—one bounding across the road in front of her car at night; the other she spotted trotting through a hayfield, and she thought it small enough to be a cub. An editor of a local paper had family in Connecticut who’d seen several. They’d found a partially eaten deer carcass up in a tree—a signature cougar move. Someone told a secondhand story of someone else’s uncle who had shot a cougar wearing a radio-collar on his farm and buried it. Days later, Connecticut wildlife officials tracked down the signal; when still for days the radio-collar’s beeping goes into distress mode. The farmer admitted to shooting and burying it. “I was worried about my livestock,” he said. All of this within a 50-mile radius; none of it “official.”
One of the most detailed sightings I came across was published in Connecticut Magazine in April 2005. Brigitte Ruthman spotted hers “in the stillness of dusk in Salisbury, a honey-brown feline poised just inside a tree line at 80 yards. On its haunches, it had the look of a small deer. . . . It held me in its gaze as intently as a house cat watches a bird feeder from the other side of a windowpane. . . . It left no mark of where it had been, no telltale print, no backward glance or eyewitness but me.”In the article she also mentioned an 1887 account where a farmer had spotted one on a road now called Wildcat Hollow. But when I called the Salisbury Historical Society in northwest Connecticut inquiring after the story, the woman I spoke with said there was no such account in the town archives; in fact, there were no cougar accounts at all. But she knew a hunter who “had some stories.” I called the hunter.
“The only thing I can tell you,” he said, “is that there have been sightings.”
I emailed Ruthman, curious to know more about her account. “You are correct about mountain lions drawing strong emotions on both sides,” she wrote. “Not much has changed but for the occasional determined witness who swears by the distinctive long tail. Over the years I have come to believe that about 90 percent of those sightings are false. . . . As a hunter, I know how dramatic a very large bobcat can seem, and a coyote in the mist can seem to gain wings.”
Her cat had “seemed to vanish like a ghost very unlike a coyote.” But I’ve never seen a ghost, I wanted to say. How would I know how one vanishes?
I never came any closer to that mountain lion in Peru, but I did see a jaguar. Part of my work there meant early mornings alone on an island in the Tambopata River. I’d wake up before sunrise, meet one of the boatmen at the river. He’d take me to a sandy beach on the far side of the island, and I’d take a short hike through low trees to a small grassy clearing where there was a tarp set up for shade. Macaws and parrots would fly in just as the sun was rising and feed on a steep cliff wall over the river. I’d use a spotting scope and binoculars to count the birds every five minutes, making rough estimates along the various portions of cliff.
One of my first mornings on the island alone, I caught sight of an animal swimming across the river, a few hundred feet away. I assumed it was a capybara—a pig-sized rodent that lives along the riverbanks in the Amazon—and reached for my binoculars. As I looked, I made out a cat’s head, the round ears, the whiskers just barely skimming the murky water. I tried to calculate the river’s depth, the pull of the current, and therefore the size of the animal. It swam steadily across and reaching the far bank it pulled itself out of the water—a process that seemed to take minutes, like a magician pulling knotted scarves from his sleeve. First the muscled front legs struggling in the mud, the thick body with its evenly spaced rosettes, the long back legs, and that tail, coming, coming, coming out of the water. I watched the animal slink up the bank behind a copse of trees. I watched it disappear into sun and shadow, understanding perfectly for the first time the reasoning behind the ostentatious arrangement of markings. I watched it become dappled sunlight through the trees, and I watched it emerge again. The animal knew I was watching—but it didn’t run; it stalked slowly behind the vegetation, making its way to where it wouldn’t be so exposed, where it could conveniently atomize into the jungle. I thought it was gone when suddenly several feet up river it leapt out from the vegetation onto a sandy patch along the river. That was when I noticed the small group of capybaras sunning in the sand. The jaguar’s leap was pathetic, half-assed, surely because I was standing just across the river. (I, even more pathetically, had carried the spotting scope with me—the only thing I had to make me “look big,” which was the only cat-attack defense I knew.) It was more of a fake-out, a meager pounce with its front paws, sending a spray of sand into the air, and then an equally quick retreat into the vegetation where it disappeared for good. The capybaras launched into the river, barking and honking, and swam over to my side.
Three-year-old Belizian jaguar.
Photograph by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.
And that was when I panicked.
I first radioed the boatmen, “Hola, hola! Hay un jaguar…” and after reaching nobody I radioed Sergio back at the lodge, who responded with a sleepy “What?!” I told him what I’d seen, and he started shouting excitedly, then his voice cackled into static. I stood on the island and waited. Alone.
In the sunlight, the rush subsided. Time sped back up to normal speed. I took my eyes from the last spot where I’d seen the jaguar retreat into the jungle, and refocused—trees, water, rock, grass. Colorful birds still garbled in the tree tops, impervious to the hunting attempt that had happened below, and gaggles of tiny yellow butterflies kept landing on the same patch of wet sand, opening and closing their wings, dutifully nonchalant, fluttering up into the air and then lighting again as delicate as snow. The day continued on starkly silent, rudely almost, ignorant of my disorientation, my be-wilderment. Later, when Rick told me about sitting dazed at the side of the road in the early morning, I would remember this feeling, the shakiness as the adrenaline retreats and the brain begins to make sense of what the body has already reacted to.
As reality returned, hot on the heels of the sense of wonderment was a subsequent fear: Nobody is going to believe me; the angst of proof immediately plagued the experience. It wasn’t enough to simply know that I had seen, to remember the experience.
When Sergio arrived about 20 minutes later he and the boatman, Sixto, found me down by the river pacing back and forth. “Where was it?” Sergio asked excitedly. “Did you get a picture?”
“I didn’t have my camera.”
“Are you sure it was a jaguar?”
I led Sergio and Sixto to the place where I had seen the jaguar swimming. We found the tracks, sunken deep into the mud. Sixto, who was raised on the banks of the Tambopata, who had never left the Madre de Dios region of Peru, bent down and examined the tracks. He stood up a moment later and grinned, his gold-capped tooth glinting in the sun. “Sí. Jaguar.”
Why did Sixto’s words ring so sweetly in my ears? It had to do with trust, or maybe more appropriately, corroboration. I needed him to verify those tracks. He was, in essence, my scientific proof. Yet I see now that I should have been able to trust my own eyes. The science is important, but so is simple trust in anybody’s observation.
Who am I to say that the farmer in Tyringham did not see a cougar hauling a deer carcass uphill? There are the obvious reasons—there’s no question of jaguars’ population in the Amazon rainforest, for example. But as I define my skepticism regarding the cougar stories, I start to see their importance. It seems almost as though New Englanders cling to their sightings out of something besides proof; there’s a reclamation of place within those stories, a sort of ownership of land within the folklore. These people don’t have their own Sixtos to come and back them up; they are the Sixtos.
What’s most convincing to me about Jay’s story is that he turned around and walked away. There’s no glorification—just a glimpse. It’s such an honest account that I really want to believe him. And I almost do.
In Peru—as if puma and jaguar, tapir and tamandua, coatimundi and jaguarundi are not enough—there is also Chullachaqui. Chullachaqui is small, maybe the size of a leprechaun. He has a human face, albeit an ugly one, and wears red pants and a blue shirt. Yet there’s something peculiar about his feet. They’re jaguar feet. Or sometimes he has one human foot and one goat foot. A limp gives him away. He appears through thick foliage when you’re alone in the jungle, and if you’re not careful, he’ll lead you into the thicket and disappear. Chullachaqui shapeshifts—he can take on the likeness of any human, and sometimes when you’re in a room alone with a person you begin to question if it’s really Chullachaqui in there talking to you. Later, your friend might say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” or, “I didn’t say that. I don’t remember.” You start to feel insane. You start to carry a machete and life starts to feel like a malarial-drug dream—a Larium-induced hallucination, except there is no malaria along the banks of the Tambopata, and you quit taking those pills months ago. You see jaguar tracks and you start to follow them—you have it in mind that you’d like to confront Chullachaqui. But you lose sight of the trail; you stumble into unfamiliar territory; a small child emerges from the jungle and takes you by the hand; he will show you the way back to the lodge. But you are only led deeper and deeper into the growth, and the child’s hand slips from yours; he is gone. You are lost.
“Chullachaqui!” you yell into a tangle of liana vines, into the branches of a kapok tree. “What do you want with me?” But Chullachaqui is not rational, cannot be talked to. He appears, or he doesn’t. You are lucky, or you’re not. In your frenzy you elbow your way deeper into the vegetation. Vines wrap around your ankles. Foliage withers at your touch. Monkeys leer and birds fall dead from their perches. Swampy ground sucks at your shoes and threatens to pull you below the murk.
For the unexplained along the banks of the Tambopata, there’s Chullachaqui. In my rational, skeptical way, I can accept Chullachaqui not so much as a being, but as a presence, a state of mind, a reason for why other things happen. In this way, I begin to understand the existence of Puma concolor couguar—people catch a glimpse, but then it becomes a Great Dane sitting in someone’s backyard, a large house cat slipping through the grass, a late night trick of the eye with headlights and shadows. To declare it extinct is to chop away that part of the imagination that is healthy, that part which resides in possibility, perhaps the part that makes us fantasize about the unlikely—but it also resides in respect, with a nod to there being something greater, fiercer, more mysterious than we are. This isn’t about people believing deeply in their hearts that mountain lions exist; it’s not spiritual or in any way religious. I’m still a skeptic about most things: UFOs, Chullachaqui, God—but mountain lions? A living, breathing species being seen by other living, breathing species? Might it be appropriate to dwell in the murk here?
Chullachaqui, a mischievous guardian of the
Painting by David Hewson, courtesy www.amaruspirit.org.
When considering the conclusion that Puma concolor couguar is extinct, and therefore removed from the endangered species list, the implications of what that really means gets jumbled in the stubborn attempts to untangle fact from folklore. It’s like giving up a search for a fallen mountaineer—to find him seems so improbable; people must send their blessings off the cliff where he was last seen and simply get on with their lives. But there’s always that niggling—how do you know he didn’t crawl down into that crevasse he fell into and emerge out the other side, attempting to stumble his way back to civilization?
And then in July, months after the extinction claim had settled into the dust, a mountain lion was struck by a car and killed in Connecticut. DNA testing linked it to a small group of mountain lions that exist in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is believed to be the same cat caught on a trail camera in Michigan a few years ago and that the 1,500-mile journey was one of the longest completed by a mammal in the US. It wasn’t thought to be an escaped captive, but a real wild mountain lion. Of course, it isn’t of the original Eastern population, but it migrated. It was here. It was a migration scientists had previously found all but impossible.
To confirm Eastern pumas extinct and to delist them is to slowly squeeze the life out of any drifters actually out there. It’s pulling up the ship’s gangplank as the last refugees run to flee their war-torn country. It’s like when you stop believing in unicorns, or a perfect kind of love—the world suddenly becomes a more limited place, defined by what’s not possible. It’s our ability to imagine something that could potentially keep it alive. Perhaps Mick was right—wildlife is all around us, it’s just a matter of whether or not we choose to see it.
And the secondhand accounts keep rolling in. Just the other day my boyfriend’s coworker said he’d seen cougar tracks on a job a few years ago. He and another guy followed the tracks to a dumpster. They could see where the animal had gone up on its hind legs to peer into the trash. They made a cast of a paw print, a relic I hope to see soon. I keep trying to imagine a cougar gauche enough to pull such a move. It is, I must admit, possible.
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