Cougar Tales, Part 1



 Deadly Animals makes its debut in the United Kingdom tomorrow! This is the paperback version of The Book of Deadly Animals. As with earlier editions, I'm celebrating by showing off expanded versions of tales from the book--specifically, a couple of stories about cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas. Here's the first; I'll post another one tomorrow. 

(This story originally appeared in a different form in Discover; it was reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.)

*

When he kicked it, the cow’s head flipped completely over.  It lay flat, the desiccated and cracked pink nose pointing opposite to the way it had lain before.  The spine was broken.

The man--I’ll call him Harris because, although he feels he’s done nothing wrong, he’s not anxious for authorities to know his real name--had found the cow by following drag marks.  The trail was speckled with droplets of frozen blood.  Twenty-five yards from a trampled spot in the snow where the cow must have died, the trail crossed a frozen puddle and ended beneath the shaggy limbs of a red cedar.  Alive, the cow had weighed 900 pounds; now it was probably lighter by fifty pounds or so, all of which had been wrenched and torn from its shoulder.  The carnivore had taken great mouthfuls of hair, hide, and muscle indiscriminately, burrowing straight into the carcass as an earthworm engulfs the dirt in its path.  The cow’s bones were broken and pulled out of joint.  The ragged hide around the wound had already hardened like tanned leather and curled out like the petals of a rose.

When wild animals took livestock on this little ranch just north of the Colorado-New Mexico border, coyotes were the usual culprits.  The damage to this cow’s carcass showed that nothing as small as a coyote was to blame.  Crows hopping around in the snow to scavenge the carcass had obliterated any tracks the carnivore might have left.

Harris had heard his neighbors speak of deer carcasses they’d found in the ditches, half-eaten and thinly covered with scratched-up grass.  He guessed mountain lions had come back to the county.  He was half right.

*


When I visited one late November, everyone was buzzing about the ranch’s best saddle horse.  A few mornings after the discovery of the cow’s carcass, the horse came in wounded.  Parallel claw marks ran horizontally along its flank, like a musical staff drawn in blood.

Harris searched the spot where the horse had pastured the night before.  He found a few stray pugmarks, each showing four toes and the M-shaped ball of the foot.  Since the tracks showed no evidence of claws, he felt safe in ruling out dogs and coyotes.  An animal capable of retracting its claws had made these tracks.  A cat.

A few days later a gravid cow went missing.  When he found her in a narrow canyon, she had already given birth.  The calf was nowhere to be found.  Two more weeks passed.  This time an older Hereford calf was missing.  He never found it either, but he watched the crows until their gathering showed him the killing place.  When he rode up he found plenty of crows on the ground.  They were pecking at small objects in the grass.  When he dismounted they turned their heads to watch him with their indifferent blue-black eyes.  They looked as if they might hold their ground, but when Harris was a few steps away they all simultaneously stretched their dark feathered hands and leaned forward into flight.  He examined the ground.  Tufts of the calf’s red and white fur lay everywhere.  A cat’s tongue is studded with spikes that can flense cartilage from bone more efficiently than any sort of teeth could.  Or perhaps the predator had simply vomited the hair up, the way domestic cats regurgitate hairballs.  A few slivers and chips of bloody bone lay scattered among the fur.  Nothing else remained of the calf.

*

In the ensuing weeks Harris consulted his neighbors, guarded his livestock as best he could, watched for signs.  An easily forded stretch of creek taught him much about the mountain lion on his spread.  Fresh tracks appeared there every five or six weeks, as if the cat were patrolling a large area.  The territory of a male mountain lion can cover 100 square miles.

Harris and his neighbors compared notes and found two patterns among the carcasses of livestock and deer on their ranches.  Some animals, such as the first cow Harris had lost, were killed by sledgehammer blows to the head.  Flesh and bones were devoured, without preference, from a single massive wound.  The carcass, even a partly-eaten one, lay in the open, never buried.  A few such kill sites not yet spoiled by crows and coyotes revealed tracks that might have been left by a stunted man with blunt, bent feet.  These kills were the work of a black bear, not a mountain lion.  One day Harris came upon a canyon his horse refused to enter, and the old men of the county told him that meant the horse smelled bear.  One night the owner of a bed and breakfast in town heard a ruckus in the front yard of her establishment.  She looked out into the darkness, expecting to find drunken men.  Instead she saw what appeared to be one burly man standing silent at the metal gate a few yards away.  The man suddenly dropped to all fours and walked away.

The other type of kill was far more numerous, and tracks soon taught them to associate it with mountain lions.  The carcass, which might weigh hundreds of pounds, would turn up several yards from the kill site, sometimes with no drag marks between the two places.  The old men said the lions knew how to sling their burdens onto their backs, though the county agent claimed a cat weighing one hundred forty pounds could simply lift and carry three times its own weight in its mouth.  The cats ate more selectively than the bear.  They began by opening the belly to remove the stomachs and set them aside--they seemed to find the vegetable matter in a herbivore’s stomach unpalatable.  Then they ate the rest, beginning with the heart and lungs.  Often they left the carcass covered with dirt and vegetation, saving it for later--though this tactic didn’t always fool the crows and foxes and badgers that came to scavenge the carcass.  The coyotes typically left tracks circling a lion kill at a distance, but never approaching it.  Mountains lions sometimes track down and eat coyotes that scavenge their kills, a tactic some people think of as revenge.

When a mountain lion did finish a carcass, it ate everything but the fur.  That’s what happened to Harris’s Hereford calf.

*


One rancher who had lost cattle obtained a permit to shoot the offending cats.  He sat in a blind that evening and was astonished at his luck when a mountain lion stepped into clear view at dusk.  She placed her broad feet with careful grace.  Twice she stopped and looked into the distance, her black-tipped ears creeping forward slightly.  He was even more astonished when a cub followed, and then three more.  He fired on the mother lion, flipping her neatly with one shot.  She screamed, once, like a grieving woman.  The mountain lion doesn’t roar--it lacks the specially adapted bone African lions and their cousins use to issue guttural warnings.  But the mountain lion’s scream has the power to turn human blood cold.

The cubs milled in confusion.  The rancher shot again, dropping the first cub in convulsions.  After missing his third shot, the man managed to kill two more cubs before the lone survivor slipped into tall grass and escaped.

*


The following January I called Harris’s ranch to check on his predator problems.  Things were much the same: the bear remained at large, coyotes were taking more than their usual share of the livestock, and mountain lions were numerous.  A tourist had struck a lion on the highway that bisects the town, dragging the animal one hundred yards.  A teenager had struck a lion on a country road one morning.  The boy got out of his pickup to see what he had hit; the lion got up, shook itself, growled, and walked away.

Everyone agreed the area’s deer population was low.  Some said this fact explained why the carnivores were troubling livestock more than usual; others said the carnivores were more numerous than usual and had killed off the deer.  According to one persistent rumor, which continued to be retailed by people who professed not to believe in it, the government was shipping the lions in from California, where environmentalists protest whenever a lion is killed.  In rural Colorado, everyone has a gun and no one has to know.

Harris did have news for me.  He had gone out to track a lion that took a neighbor’s goat.  Harris had two pups he had bought for their pedigree as trackers, but both had proved useless so far.  In this case, however, the trail from the slain goat was fresh, and the dogs brought Harris to the top of a rocky hill.  He saw nothing, not even a pugmark.

“I knelt down and asked the Lord to show me where the mountain lion was,” Harris said.  “Then I walked over the top of the hill and there he was.  He had to make a thirty foot drop off a cliff or come right over me.  I shot him while he was making up his mind.”

It’s legal in Colorado to shoot mountain lions out of season if they are destroying livestock or pets or endangering people.  Among other provisions, the law requires that anyone shooting a stock-killing lion leave the predator’s carcass where it falls.  The point is to prevent people from trophy-hunting under false pretenses.  In a further conversation with the Lord, Harris determined that such a policy is wasteful.  He phoned a taxidermist.

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