In the late summer of 2009, a young male cougar set off from the Black Hills of South Dakota to look for a mate. And kept going—east across the Great Plains to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and on to New England, through backyards and parking lots, across highways and railroad tracks, driven by the most powerful force on earth. Wherever he appeared, he caused a mixture of awe and panic. Along the way, like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, he left a genetic trail—tufts of fur, scat, leftover kills—that would eventually confirm what no one believed possible.
William Stolzenburg chronicles the mountain lion’s epic journey in Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America. Speaking from his home in Reno, Nevada, he explains why cougars have a bad rap; how anyone in South Dakota with a $28 hunting license can shoot one; and how, with more tolerance and some adjustments to our lifestyles, we can happily coexist with these magnificent animals.
COURTESY OF BLOOMSBURY
One of my favorite children’s books was The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford. This cougar’s odyssey across America was even more incredible, wasn’t it?
As far as we know, he started out from the Black Hills of South Dakota sometime in the late summer of 2009. At that time he was probably about one and a half years old, a young male just coming into adulthood. As most young males do, he set off in search of a mate. But instead of going west, as most lions in that part of the country do, he headed east into the Great Plains. Over time he showed up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and in Wisconsin. He disappeared for a couple months, then shows up almost two years later, 30 miles from Manhattan, in Greenwich, Connecticut. In all he probably traveled 2,000 to 5,000 miles, enough to cross the country twice. He forded all the major rivers of the East, navigated highways and an international boundary. It was one of the most spectacular journeys by an animal ever recorded.
Cougar expert Chris Spatz called the lion’s journey “an epic of tragic love.” Do we know why he set off—and what made him go on?
Young male cougars come from a society in which they are portioned out by territories. Big males control big territories encompassing several females. So the young males have a choice: try to fight the reigning males, in which case they’re likely to get killed; or head out and look for another place that has females. This guy was looking for love. He went all that way searching, but not finding it. And that’s the tragedy of this epic.
You write that his journey began in the “the most idyllic and dangerous piece of lion habitat for 2,000 miles.” Put us on the ground in South Dakota.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the people in charge of the cougar in South Dakota are not sympathetic to the cause. They have a constituency of ranchers who haven’t had cougars in their midst for a century and don’t want them back. In the eastern plains in South Dakota, there is a hunting season 24-7, 365 days a year. A cougar that wants to leave the Black Hills has to run one of the most dangerous gauntlets imaginable. Anyone with a $28 hunting license can shoot a cougar. Even if they don’t have a license, they can shoot one, then claim they were threatened by that animal and no one will prosecute. Others are simply killed under the motto of “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
Give us a brief history of the American cougar—and the hysteria it has generated among the public.
Cougars are one of the most successful big cat species. They occur all the way from the northern territories of Canada to Patagonia. But they’ve gone through some pretty tough times. When early European settlers arrived in this country, they rapidly started eradicating cougars, pushing them westward with the settlement of the country.
Cougars were given a lot of colorful names: painter, ghost cat, Indian devil cat.
Some western states paid bounties for dead cougars as late as the 1960s. These mountain lions were killed to protect livestock. [PHOTOGRAPH BY E. W. NELSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC]
The common misconception was that these animals were out to kill people. So the cougar became a creature of legend—jumping out of trees onto horseback, chasing people, and even breaking down doors. All this has been disproven by science. But that’s the way the animal was perceived. It was almost regarded as a duty by America’s early white settlers to kill any cougar they saw.
There was a significant uptick in lion attacks in the 1970s, which fueled public fears about cougars. Describe a few of these incidents—and why you think this increase occurred.
We don’t really know. It first came on the radar in the '70s and '80s. But it was in the '90s and early 2000s that we had some of the most graphic and publicized attacks. Two occurred in one day in Southern California, both on mountain bikers. One was a woman named Annie Hjelle, who was thrown from her bike by an attacking cougar, then gripped like prey. Her friends came running and started pelting the animal with rocks. The cougar had a hold of her face but she finally managed to free herself and, after many plastic surgeries, she’s healthy again and speaks nothing bad of the cat. That same day, they found another mountain biker who, it is believed, was killed by the same cougar.
It’s not completely clear why this happened. One reason is that we are moving into their habitat so there are more opportunities for these bad encounters. We are also killing thousands of cougars every year, and this is creating chaos in their societies and promoting some of these aberrant individuals. As a result of these graphic incidents, states that have cougars started to rethink the way they manage them. They make the cougar appear as a looming threat, something that has gotten out of hand and needs to be severely dealt with. But attacks have actually gone down since then. We haven’t had a human death since 2008.
These radio collars were removed from cougars killed during South Dakota's hunting season. [PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE WINTER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
Writing in Harper’s Magazine, author Jay Kirk called the cougar “the most metaphysical mystery in American natural history.” Is there really a “cougar cult”?
[Laughs] There is a kind of cult out there. Many people believe not only have they seen cougars but that cougars are living among us in the East, in places where science has not yet documented them, like supernatural beasts! Not only do they believe in them, they are out looking for them and supposedly gathering thousands of sightings. [Laughs] But when experts go out and look at these sightings, they find the tracks of a golden retriever or flush a house cat out from under a barn. There are also a lot of pranksters, who love to use Photoshop to spread this idea that cougars are all over the place. In fact, most of these pictures come from the West. It’s a bit like UFOs. [Laughs]