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Cougar Existentialism

From the Interspecies Newsletter

cougarI was feeling sick, left the wilderness camp to spend the afternoon sleeping in our whale research boat. Awaking refreshed, I was rowing back to shore when I heard the first scream.My first thought was that one of the three little girls in camp had been stung by a wasp.

Then a second scream. This one much louder, more urgent, announcing more pain than any single wasp could cause. I still believed it was a child, perhaps my five year old daughter Sasha who had lately started screaming like a banshee to express even minimal discontentment. Maybe someone stepped on a hive. That would be worth screaming about. A third scream arose with such wrenching substance that it caused all other sounds in my world to vanish; a veritable monster of a shriek, materializing out of the woods with so much gut-wrenching prowess that I turned pale from the very sound of it. Now I understood the scream’s location, and message. A women was crying for her life at the edge of the forest that faced the little saltwater cove.

My wife Katy ran to the shore, motioning me to row harder, faster towards the little cove. "It’s Jill", she shouted across a hundred yards of water. "She’s hurt...she’s bleeding...there’s a mountain lion...it’s just standing there on the trail watching her. We can’t get past it...see if you can pick her up by boat." I rowed with all my might around the point and into the little cove.

Jill emerged from the forest, bleeding from her shoulder, her leg, her head. A moment later, Linda ran out of the woods, put an arm around Jill’s waist. The two of them stepped into the frigid British Columbia seawater up to their waists. As I approached, Linda blurted out that she had it under control, then added, "you’ve got to get that mountain lion out of camp before it attacks someone else!" Linda guided Jill around the point towards the camp kitchen.

I brought the dinghy to shore in front of the place the two women had emerged from the forest. Gene stood at the tide line with a driftwood club held up like a baseball bat. "Do you see it crouching there?" he asked, pointing at an indistinct light spot amidst the salal and fern undergrowth. "Look, right there, where the trail touches the beach...that’s where the cougar got Jill." Gene sighed, a sign that he felt unsure of the next step. He thrust the caveman’s club into my hands which unwittingly propelled me forward. I looked at the trail, looked backwards into Gene’s tense face, then back to the trail again. Took a few more steps forward. Still didn’t see anything I could identify as a cougar. "Be careful," Gene beckoned, "It’s crouching right there in front of you!" I wondered how Linda had gotten past the cat to assist Jill. I backed off, silently motioned Gene into the dinghy. The two of us quickly rowed around the rocky point to the camp kitchen.

Katy and Linda stood over Jill, washing the deep puncture wounds on her shoulder, back, and thigh. "That’s where he grabbed me with his teeth," remarked Jill in a surprisingly analytical voice as she stared at her left upper arm. It was then I noticed her bloody, torn, t-shirt. Silkscreened onto the back of it was a huge cat’s face representing her own bike shop business, Wildlife Cycles of Orcas Island. I noticed the bleeding was already diminishing, and concluded she was not in any grave danger. But her scalp needed suturing. She certainly needed a tetanus shot, probably something to keep her from getting rabies. Our first aid kit was chock full of things like bee-sting remedies and ace bandages. No one had stocked it to provide for anything of this magnitude. There was simply no precedent. I’d camped on this island every summer for the past ten years studying the wild orcas that reside off this east coast of Vancouver Island. No one, either in our party or, in any other of the many research groups along the coast had ever mentioned sighting a cougar.

The three little girls huddled together watching their mothers tend to Jill. I walked over to them, hugged all three of them to me at once. "Someone needs to call the Coast Guard," Katy announced, staring at me. My initial thought was that Joseph was the skipper of the boat we were using to conduct our research. It was his radio; he had the most experience at dealing with the Coast Guard, knew the lingo of roger and 10-4. "Where’s Joseph?" I asked. "He should do that."

"Here I am," a voice whispered directly behind me. I turned to face him. Joseph was holding a rifle in his hands. His first mate, Keith, stood beside him cradling a shotgun. I have never been comfortable around guns. They seem the icon of a culture I do not wish to live in, the accessory of nature "lovers" who feel a need to kill animals to bond with them. I had not known Joseph kept guns on the boat.

"Did you call the Coast Guard yet?" I asked.

"No I didn’t. Do we need to?"

"Yes, of course we do. Please, go back to the boat and call them. Tell them there’s an emergency. We need to get Jill to a hospital."

"I’m probably the best shot here." He answered flatly. "I need to deal with that cougar."

My face tensed. For some reason, the image of Gene carrying his big caveman stick came flashing back to me. "Listen, Joseph. I’m pleading with you not to shoot that cat. If you see it, fire over its head. That should scare it away. But please, do not shoot the cougar."

Jill piped up. "Don’t shoot it. This is the cougar’s land. You’re asking it to pay a pretty big price for some human being’s two week summer vacation."

I stood for a brief second searching from Jill’s wounds to Joseph’s rifle to the dark woods where an invisible cougar still prowled. My point had been made. I rowed the dinghy back to the boat, feeling apprehensive over taking myself out of the loop of potential events. No more than ten minutes had passed since I’d left the boat the first time.

I was on the radio to the Coast Guard emergency officer, discussing the quickest way to transport Jill across fifty miles of water and forest land to the nearest hospital, when I heard the boom of a gunshot. My face drained. I somehow knew instinctively that Joseph hadn’t fired over the cat’s head. He’d shot it. Katy would later tell me that at that moment Jill, Linda, herself, and the three girls all started weeping.


To Scare or to Shoot?

Sandra, is the only member of our party not yet mentioned in this account. She walked into the camp kitchen just as I left for the boat to call the coast guard. In her own words:

"Katy and Linda expressed worry that Joseph and Keith would shoot the mountain lion. I immediately walked into the woods asking the two men to show me the cat. They pointed to a log. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees making it hard to see clearly for any length of time. Then I saw the cougar crouched low not far from us. Joseph and Keith couldn’t decide to fire their guns to scare the cat or to shoot it. I asked them to let me have a few minutes to ‘communicate’ with the lion. I have been involved with mountain lions in different circumstances throughout my life. I sensed the animal was young, one and half to two and a half years, a full grown male. I didn’t sense any fear from him, only confusion and caution. I asked the lion if he was willing to lose his life. The answer I heard in my mind was a clear ‘yes’."

Sandra turned to Joseph to say it was all right to shoot the cougar. Joseph raised his rifle, squeezed off a single shot. The cougar leapt high into the air and flipped once before landing, then quickly disappeared up the mountain side. Joseph believed his shot hit the lion in the jaw. The two men followed the cat up the slope but couldn’t locate him although they searched until dark.

The Canadian Coast Guard arrived with a doctor just a half hour later. They motored Jill across twelve miles of water to the nearest road end where an ambulance drove her another sixty miles to the nearest hospital in Port Hardy located on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We received word by radio the next morning that Jill was recuperating well. Her wounds had taken several stitches. She flew home to the States the next afternoon rather than return to our camp.
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The Listening Presence

Our party lingered three more days in the little cove. We slept on the boat, spent our days onshore. No one ventured very far into the forest without armed accompaniment. Why did we stay? Actually, no clear decision was ever made to do so. John Muir wrote a hundred years ago that "the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness". In fact, our own yearning to stay never felt as contemplative as Muir implies it is. The cougar attack was like a jolt of unfettered clarity one receives while hallucinating on psychedelics. Feelings arose from deep inside us that linked our wounded tribe to Australopithecus migrating out of the leopard-inhabited forest onto the open grasslands of East Africa.

These primeval emotions emerged anew each morning when we took the dinghy back to shore and were forced to stare once again into the forest that rose directly behind the camp kitchen. The first day after the attack, venturing into the forest to visit the Head, or gather firewood, or wash ourselves, we now took an armed guard. And that afternoon at dusk, these primordial feelings did battle with the civilized emotions we felt relinquishing the solid ground to spend another night bottled up safely inside the boat.

After three days of it, existing willfully as characters in our own dark fairy tale, nature itself emerged as something new in our experience. Now, the forest was neither friendly nor unfriendly, yet conscious, aware of itself and us in a manner none of us had experienced before although we were all old hands at living in wilderness. We were in it, not merely camping on it. By the morning of the third day, several of us took long solo hikes up on the mountain, hoping to run across some sign of the vanished mountain lion. Without ever talking about it, we all worried that if the animal was found dead, our sublime emotions would be proven unreal.

Linda wrote that "the day after the shooting I felt a great need to maintain a listening presence here on the cougar’s land. I wished the cat would stagger into camp and die in my arms, though I don’t know why in wildest hell it would come back to give me the gift of its death–except that I would take it tenderly and sing its song and ask forgiveness and in some very small way balance this tragedy, bridge the conflict with some act of compassion. We are all overwhelmed with the enormity of the injustice to the cougar, that our being here has unwittingly led to its greater suffering and ultimate demise."

Most of us were left deeply disturbed by Joseph’s act of shooting the cat. Despite protection under law, the cougars of the Pacific Northwest are routinely shot on sight at the first inkling of danger to human beings. Linda tells the story of a mountain lion taking a goat from a friend’s farm on Vancouver Island. Her friend reported the incident to the authorities, who arrived and immediately dispatched the cat.

In the short story, "May’s Lion", by Ursula LeGuin, a cougar comes out of the hills to a woman’s farm and lays in the yard, not leaving. The woman gets nervous, calls a neighbor; the police soon arrive. The cougar is shot. She feels sad, betrayed by the police’s unwavering decision to kill. LeGuin then retells the same story a second time. The cougar arrives, lays in the yard not leaving. This time the woman reaches beyond her fear and recognizes that the cat is dying. She sings to it as her people have been taught to sing to anyone who is dying. The result is the same: the cougar dies. But the quality of its passing is ineffably more satisfying.


Mining Irony

The morning after Joseph shot "our" lion, Canadian wildlife officials arrived in camp at dawn with rifles and bloodhounds. Their decision to seek a kill was automatic. When I spoke to the man in charge about other options, he politely answered that people were camped just a mile from us and a wounded cat was extremely dangerous. Nor did have any interest in tranquilizing the cat and then freeing it somewhere else. I asked him if he would be so quick to shoot the cougar if it wasn’t wounded. He answered that any cat who tasted human blood was dangerous. When I asked how he arrived at that conclusion, he assured me it was a well-known fact. I asked one last question: would he consider relinquishing the carcass to our group for a proper burial. "No," he answered, starting at me with a strange expression on his face, "we need the body for tests".

Certainly, much irony can be mined from this brief conversation. I was left feeling that a contractual agreement between society and nature had been breached by the lion. Death without appeal was the sentence. Perhaps less obvious, the conversation reveals the self-denial of an animal lover who wishes to exonerate a dangerous predator because it is a wild animal inhabitant of wilderness. In truth, our research camp has not been wilderness for many years. It is a "forest reserve" by title, a park by usage, and the site of much seasonal human occupancy. Wilderness is different than a park. It is a place where large animals live and people travel at their own risk. But if this forest is no longer considered a gateway to wilderness–or even a gateway to wilderness–where do the fast-declining populations of wolves, grizzlies, and cougars who clearly inhabit this so-called "forest reserve" get to live now that a new title has been given to their traditional habitat?

In her dual role of victim and ferocious defender of wildness, Jill would later write that "Humans have a hard time being threatened. We believe in health and life insurance. Then we visit a place for its wildness, to commune with nature which includes a genuine risk. But in reality, nature is at risk from our visit. The shooting of the cougar is best understood as an insurance killing."

Despite this conclusion, none of us meant to obscure the gravity of the cougar attack. Gene would reveal to us the long-hidden story of waking up in a foxhole at Khe Sanh during his second tour in Viet Nam, to realize that a man who slept next to him had been carried off in the night by a tiger. We all agreed with Gene that Jill had been very lucky. She spotted the cat at the edge of the beach as she returned from washing her hair. She backed away from it, but tripped over a log. The cat pounced and started biting and clawing. She had the extraordinary presence of mind not to resist but screamed instead. In hindsight, she believed that the screams caused the cat to back off, then watched her from atop a log like any cat watching a mouse, ready to pounce at any moment.

We all wondered what, if any effect the huge cat’s face silkscreened on Jill’s t-shirt had on the situation. I relate the ironic story of the Bengali woodcutters who wear masks on the back of their heads to prevent tiger attacks. In an area where tigers killed 60 loggers a year, no man wearing a mask had ever been attacked.

The screams brought Linda to the scene. She encountered the cat crouching on the log. She stopped a moment to appraise her options. How does one walk past a cougar? The next thing she remembered she was standing beside Jill, leading her into the water. Jill would later point out to me that the three little girls had been playing on that same spot just an hour beforehand. She speculated that the cat was waiting there for the next opportunity to get close to the children, when she unexpectedly stumbled upon it. She referred to herself as the sacrificial adult, remarking, "better me than one of the kids". Gene underscored this point by calling the girls "small game." A few days later, Keith found several mats of loose fur in a cleft directly above the camp, indicating that the cat had been watching us ever since we arrived.

Where the cougar was shot, amidst scattered bits of bone, teeth, and a bullet slug, the government hunters found fragments of porcupine quills. If it’s mouth was full of quills, the cougar was almost certainly in a great deal of pain and would not have been able to kill its normal prey. This may also explain why it suddenly let go of Jill.

Following Your Bliss

John Muir trumpeted wilderness as the premier territory for the human soul seeking serenity. Proceeding Muir, there was Thoreau who wrote: "if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide on the swamp." If the cougar attack made Muir’s writing seem a bit naive, it made Thoreau sound like a damn showoff. His blessed swamp was make-believe, a Utopian invention void of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, disease, and even inclement weather.

A confrontation with a mountain lion made me recognize that humanity’s longing for serene wilderness is a cultural novelty first popularized two hundred and fifty years ago by a coterie of European intellectuals led by Rousseau. Before Rousseau, the dark forest was regarded not only as a place to be avoided, but as a being to be appeased. Thirty thousand years ago, caves scattered high in the Swiss Alps served as Neanderthal ceremonial sites where a priesthood attempted to placate the spirit of the cave bear, and thus of the entire dark forest. Cabinets full of bear skulls offer us the relics of the earliest known religion. Significantly, the exuberance of this Neanderthal cult may have resulted in the eventual extinction of the cave bear. Joseph Campbell concluded that the demise of the bears not only destroyed the cult of appeasement but, by a leap of imagination, may also be understood as the source of the destruction of the Neanderthal race as well.

How does this same circular pattern relate to our own civilization? We drive predators out of the deep forest by relentless clear cutting and then shoot them in so-called unrelated incidents when, seeking food, they migrate into populated areas. Tragically, the place where lions lie down with lambs exists nowhere else but the minds of idealists like Thoreau. Every instinct and muscle of a cougar is honed for killing. Even the environmentalists who work so hard to save predators do not actually want one living nearby. The truth of the matter is that predators who co-inhabit areas where human beings wish to visit or live must alter their behavior (which is impossible), or risk extermination (which is occurring everywhere).

In her own need to understand, Linda concluded that "our" was killed for "following its bliss". It simply means that cougars get shot for being cougars and not for any act they do out of character. Those cougars exhibiting any measure of curiosity or outgoing behavior towards humans have always been the first ones shot. Likewise, only the stealthiest and those most fearful of the human species survived. The predators thus become what we make of them: co-evolved into creatures of the shadow world admired for their strength and cunning, but justifiably feared and eventually annihilated for the crime of inhibiting human recreational opportunities. If there had ever been even a few token, friendly, (possibly even ambassador) cougars who sought out human contact as dolphins do today; then no one will ever know about it unless they read between the lines of native mythology. One need only look at a housecat to know that, of course, this had to have occurred. As the biblical story of Daniel implies, at least a few lion’s were once seen lying down with lambs.

Might we similarly conclude that human beings shoot cougars only because we are human? Is it our character?

Research into the local native relationship between cougars and humans turned up something unexpected. Although Kwakuitl myths and carving designs utilize a nearly bottomless supply of ravens, bears, orcas, salmon, beavers, frogs, insects, as well as a host of other local species, there are almost no cougars represented in Northwest coast carving. This seems especially curious given the fact that Vancouver Island has the largest cougar population in North America.


Therapy for Historians

Richard Nixon declared that the judgment of history is made by those who write it. Bob Dylan sang: "I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours." This retelling of the cougar incident is meant to emphasize a lesser known aspect of this same basic theme: that history provides therapy for historians.

I spent several months feeling discouraged over "our" decision to shoot the cougar, especially because two friends of mine, Joseph and Sandra, were most responsible. Although they brought completely different logics to bear, neither rationale could ease my sense of outrage and loss. Only this retelling has been able to achieve that. On the boat ride home, Joseph quoted Jean-Paul Sartre to argue that a person can not judge another’s ethical decision in terms of abstract ethics, but only in terms of context. I answered that compassion is the context we all need to nurture when dealing with wild animals in these days of mass extinction. Gene attempted to dispel the growing rancor between Joseph and I by remarking that in a crisis people react from their gut, not from their mind. It made me wonder why Joseph’s cried out for violence, and that it superceded the nonviolence expressed by the majority.

Hindsight fostered much speculation about what might have been. If Joseph hadn’t shot the cat, Jill’s attendance by the Coast Guard still would have brought the professional hunters and their trained bloodhounds to our camp the next morning. The unharmed cat would have almost certainly remained in the vicinity, and gotten itself treed then shot. Or what might have been if we somehow avoided reporting the cat’s deed–obfuscating Jill’s wounds as a nasty fall off a cliff into some sharp tree branches? But how would we have felt about our clever cover-up a week, a month later, when the desperate cat stalked a nearby research camp and killed somebody?

We do well to quote Sartre one last time to conclude that, indeed, there was no exit. The cougar was doomed the moment it pounced on Jill. Seeking closure within the confines of that harsh truth, Sandra would later compose an epitaph to ease her own feelings of complicity: "I am grateful in retrospect that we took the responsibility. Although the cougar was wounded in a way which would eventually prove fatal, it could now choose its place of dying, unnoticed by hunters and dogs." Maybe so, although how much more charitable to have killed the cat outright?

And finally, this. Five months later, a friend visiting the area was informed that a cougar had been killed on Christmas day just a mile north of our camp, shot by a man as it stalked his two daughters. The cat was a large female with a mangled jaw.
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