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Listening to Cougar
By Marc Bekoff, Cara Blessley Lowe
University Press of Colorado Copyright © 2007 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
Wyoming — A lone ski into Wyoming's backcountry yields evidence that a cougar plies the wild, in the author's midst.
Heading across the lake this morning — Jackson Lake — breaking trail through a foot of new snow. Out here on the ice, a mile from either shore, the world seems polar: an empty white plain under a great blue sky. Without trees or any other reference point, I feel diminished and exposed. I give my ski pole a tap on the ice. Yep, solid. It should be. It's been cold for days. Still, I pan my eyes ahead, looking for telltale dark spots that will indicate upwelling water. Carefully, but full of excitement, I go on, angling toward Ranger Peak, its 3,000-foot-long northeast ridge sweeping elegantly from summit to lakeshore. It's a line that I've coveted for quite a while, not only for its beauty but also because it's doubtful that there'll be another track on it. The long approach, the dangers of the ice, and the remoteness of the northern Tetons in winter turn most skiers back.
On the far shore, I ski up the bank and cross what would be boggy meadows in the summer. Now, it's a field of undulating snow hummocks. Down into Colter Creek I slide, its water buried deep beneath drifts, and skin up the other side, onto a slope of adolescent lodgepole growing back after the fire of a few years ago. Up I continue, connecting shallow benches through the steep slopes so as to reduce the avalanche danger. Finally, I emerge onto the northeast ridge itself. There's a big meadow up here, and then a run of spruce and fir that merges into an ascending grove of aspen trees, their white trunks honey-colored in the low sun.
Around my boots, the feathery hoarfrost makes a whispering sound, and, knowing that the skiing will be quite good on the descent, I take a route along the edge of the trees, leaving the center of the glades untracked. Where the aspen turn back to conifers and, at last the open slopes of the upper mountain, the snow also changes. It's wind-hammered and hard, and I put on ski crampons to climb it. Shortly, the runnelled snow turns into sastrugi — gnarled fingers of bony snow that point like dead hands downwind. On the summit ridge itself, the snow has been transformed into alpine ice that wends its way around rocky towers and scree.
Then there's no place left to go. I take off my skis, sit on my pack, and drink some tea while looking at the big view &mddash the Wind Rivers, the Absarokas, and the Tetons curving away to the horizon. There's also the sweet sound of nothing — just sky and rock and ice. After a few more minutes of listening to the emptiness, I put on my pack and reverse the route, weaving through the sastrugi with care and being just as careful on the bowl of bulletproof snow. It's not a place to fall. The aspen glades are better than I had hoped — perfect reconstituted powder and hoarfrost rushing dryly around my shins. I drop off the north side of the ridge and after a dozen turns stop abruptly above a line of cliffs. There's a clear shot through them, but the open slopes below are very steep and have avalanche written all over them. I climb back up and descend through the conifers — much safer. Back I swoop through the young lodgepole and into Colter Creek itself.
And there, crossing my tracks of just two hours before is the track of a mountain lion. There has been hardly any sign of life in this winter fastness — no grouse tracks, no weasel prints, only the faint tracery of tiny mouse feet. And here's this lion — its track bold and unmistakable, each round print a couple of inches wider than my palm and a little bit higher. A big male cougar.
Looking right, I can see his line of tracks stretching all the way down to the lakeshore, along which he has walked, giving anyone skiing across the lake a long and vivid sighting. But, of course, there's not a soul on the lake, and I wonder if he waited until after I ascended the ridge to expose himself. I have a feeling that this is exactly what he did, for cougars are cautious beings. In fact, during the nearly four decades that I've roamed the Rockies and Andes, I've seen just five of them, four at the same time on the National Wildlife Refuge — the famous mother and her three kittens who, denning close to the road one winter, thrilled thousands of viewers. The fifth cougar whom I've managed to spy was in Yellowstone National Park, and the sighting took place in the last light of a June dusk. Even through my spotting scope, I wasn't sure if the animal lying under a faraway spruce tree was a cat or a chimera. Yet, despite my never having had what I call a "wild sighting" of a cougar, I never fail to keep a lookout for them — searching the hillsides, sitting in likely locations, and waiting ... waiting. And what I've gotten for my efforts is this — the cougar in absentia, its tracks appearing from nowhere and vanishing into nothing, with only a haunting vibrancy in the air indicating that I am being watched. It's been frustrating, and not for me alone.
For a moment, I recall my dog Merle's similar frustration with cougars. A half-wild pup whom I met in the Utah desert, Merle was mostly Lab, with some Redbone Coonhound thrown in, and knew all the wild animals of our region well. In fact, his body language when he encountered their spoor was a clear indication of how he felt about them. Of coyotes he remained forever disdainful. He'd prod their turds apart with his front paw — always the right one — then give it a quick shot of pee, a scrape, a grin, a rapid "ha-ha-ha" pant, and move on.
With wolves he wasn't so casual. Encountering their scat, he'd take it apart with the same poking motion of his paw that he used with coyote sign, but after a single sniff, his face would fill with deep consideration. No grin, no pant, no pee, no condescension. He'd give me a sidelong glance from under his brows: "Yes, the big dog has stood here."
If he'd come across the ropy pies of grizzly bear, he'd take a deep, shuddering breath, finishing with a tremor at the bottom of the intake. A very slow and steady look around the forest would follow — almost always we found grizzly scat in the forest — his eyes calm but watchful. He'd give a small, respectful wag of his tail. "The great shambling one. Let's watch our step." With black bear, he'd give no more than several quick snorts, a little poke with his claws to reveal half digested fruit, followed by an offhanded grin. "The little bear. Maybe we'll see him. Not to worry. No trouble here."
The round prints of cougar, however, sent him into cascades of baffled inhalations: "What is this? What is this? What is this?" It was the only creature of our homeplace whose spoor he smelled frequently without seeing the animal itself. Of course, he recognized that cougar odor resembled the odor of domestic cats, one of whom we lived with. Yet there must have been orders of magnitude difference between the two. Merle's concentration over lion spoor reminded me of a scholar poring over a fragile manuscript, written in a language barely discernible to him, the ancient roots of the words familiar, the grammar almost parsable, but the meaning — a physical shape for the animal — just beyond his grasp. Merle would go down the trail with his brow furrowed, his nose returning again and again to the track.
Now — following Merle's lead — I put my nose into one of the lion's prints, but not being a dog (a creature whose nose is about forty times more acute than that of a human) I can only catch the scent of fresh clean snow. Glancing up, I see the lion's tracks tracing the smooth undulations of the drifts. It appears that he was playing on this winter roller coaster and even appreciating the up-and-down design of the drifts, for there are places where he went deliberately uphill to follow their crest instead of taking the more economical line of travel beside the creek.
For a moment, I try to place myself in his mind. I doubt he was hunting. No deer or elk live up here at this time of year — the snow is too deep for them and there's nothing to eat. Nor is there any sign of moose. In fact, all the willow stands that they might browse are completely covered by snow. I wonder if he has simply been taking a walkabout: out for an afternoon's cruise, just exploring and having fun, as am I. I hope he is. Of all the fellow travelers with whom I would care to share this winter silence, he is at the head of my list. I'd love to see him, but I know, hermit that he is, he wouldn't care to be followed.
Turning my skis downhill, I descend along his tracks, making turns along the crest of the drifts and stopping here and there to search the cliffs above. Who knows — I might catch a glimpse of him. But, as usual, he's nowhere to be seen. Down, down I continue, pausing occasionally to glance over my shoulder, still hoping to see him, but also being cautious. After all, even though he's a lion who appears to have an aesthetic appreciation of winter, he's still a lion. And I'm just about the right size for dinner.CHAPTER 2
Oregon — An unexpected feline visitor creates a stir among a cabin's owners. Pondering what to do, the couple considers calling the officials.
The growling I heard from under the cabin was something new; something deep and, well, scary, like deep animal growls are supposed to be. It was dark, New Year's Day, and we'd just gotten back from a week-long holiday absence.
One of our dogs was sticking his snout under the cabin, an eight-by-ten-foot outbuilding I use as an office, and barking intently. I knew right away that something was under there — the dog was acting unusual. I hadn't even gone in the house yet, which is of course all one wants to do after traveling cross-country for the day, but I had to investigate, see what was there, and at least get the dog to simmer down.
Just thirty feet from the house, the cabin's a log timbered structure with open alcoves under the flooring, the early-winter snow already piling up around it and the nearby pines.
As I crunched through the snow I casually assumed that I'd encounter the neighbor's cat hunkered under the structure, being unnecessarily intimidated by the dog, or maybe a raccoon, which the dogs hate for some reason and can't resist a good barking session over.
"OK, buddy," I said, exhausted. "That's enough. Let's see whatcha got under there ..." I tapped the dog and he quickly trotted behind me, and I took another step, approaching the opening under the shack. That's when the growls struck my ears and I came to a complete stop. I remember hovering there for a moment, half bent over, one hand on the side of the cabin, about to fully bend down and peer under the structure, when I was forced to pause. I've thought over this moment time and time again.
How does one describe this sound? "Deep and guttural," although a cliché, seems fitting. "Sepulchral" is even appropriate, although may be too much of a negative connotation. The intensity and volume of the growl, a booming, disturbed purr, told me that I had to immediately upgrade my idea that it was just my neighbor's cat under the cabin.
As a naturalist I've frequently lectured kids about animal interactions in the natural world, about how the size of a particular species is often irrelevant when it comes to intimidation. "Aggressiveness is the key to intimidation — often independent of size." Many a small songbird chases a much larger hawk out of its territory simply through displaying aggression. Often, it's not worth it for the hawk to expend the energy to fight back. Animals have countless forms of bodily display: bold markings, postures, ear flares, squints, hisses, honks, and growls — that's their vocabulary when it comes to intraspecies communication. These are not necessarily predator-prey interactions; these are more likely territorial emotions conducted to simply express "Back off."
As I hesitated outside the cabin on that frosty night, half- hunched over, ready to peer into the unknown, I was confronted by an auditory "Back off!" I don't remember feeling fear, I really don't recall being disturbed, only I knew that I had disturbed something else.
I needed a flashlight. I was elated as I high-stepped back to the house. The dogs were waiting a few dozen feet behind me and it wasn't until much later that I realized how unnerved they were. The barking directed under the cabin was, I believe, much for show and ceremonial territoriality, perhaps mostly to let us humans know what was in their yard (i.e., their "territory"). But when I was trotting back toward the house, the dogs seemed pleased to be heading back toward sanctuary.
At this point I was considering which animal I might possibly be dealing with. I was thinking bear, with an outside chance of cougar and the possibility of a big, stray dog. Hmm. Just a dog would be disappointing.
I quickly crashed through the door, all three dogs bursting in with me, and momentarily made eye contact with my wife as I snatched the flashlight off the wall. She looked up from the stack of mail: "What's going on out there?" With a wry smile and arched eyebrow I stated, "There's something under the cabin," and bolted back out the door. She came right behind me, descending the stairs in the frozen snow. "Whaddya think it is?"
"Don't know. But it's big."
I thumped toward the cabin, perhaps too quickly, almost afraid that what I knew would be an epic natural-history sighting might have left, and was pleased to hear the growl return as I approached.
Darkness was deepening as I clicked on the light. I squatted and spun my arm toward the opening. Face-to-face with a brown animal. A big, brown cat. It bared its teeth and hissed to greet me. I didn't feel fear. It was nestled too deeply in a tight place, unable to lunge. It was apparent that the cat was terrified and it didn't move.
I knew it was a cougar. But still my scientific mind had taught me that I needed to prove that it wasn't not a cougar. So I just stared, squatting, holding the flashlight before me, flipping through mammal field guides in the margins of my mind.
Uniform brown face with dark cheeks. Ear tufts? No. Tail? Can't see. White chin? Roger that. Paws? Can only see one and it's pretty damn big. Cat size? Well ... it's kind of small, like a medium-sized dog, a small Lab, for example. So I kept flipping back and forth between cougar and bobcat possibilities, but I knew it was a cougar. It struck me as a young cat — immature. So I wondered if a young bobcat would have ear tufts. But, if this was a bobcat, it was really big.
That white chin — that was the clincher. When it comes to big cats, I was lucky enough to have seen one years before.
On a wet spring evening I was heading uphill into the pines and foothills of the Cascades where I live. The trees were sparsely scattered with lots of manzanita, bitterbrush, and other shrubs hugging the sides of the road. Suddenly, about two hundred feet in front of me, a large mule deer doe popped into view, bouncing across the road. She was trotting rapidly in a diagonal direction away from me. Deer are common in the area and one comes to expect seeing them in winter and spring, but something felt different about this sighting.
I had frequently commented how the local deer population was very car-savvy. They'd see or hear vehicles coming and calmly step away from the pavement a few feet, then return to the roadside grasses before your taillights faded. But the deer on this particular night was bouncing recklessly in front of me. My foot was already coming down on the brake, slowing steadily. Where you see one deer, there are usually more. That's when I saw the next one coming hard in the corner of my eye. Much closer than the first, it was bounding through the underbrush right at me. I was decelerating rapidly but I was sure that it and my van were on a collision course.
At that moment my memories are chilled into slow motion. My gaze shifted off the road to the right where the animal was just bursting into view. The van brakes groaned and the engine whined, slowing. The brown shape cleared the brush, landing less than ten feet in front of me. I was going to hit it. Its head turned, shocked by my vehicle's appearance, and I met its disturbed, angry glare over the corner of the hood. My vision defied reality. For one instant, burned into my mind as my headlights lit up the cat, I made eye contact with the ultimate ghost of the mountains. Its eyes shone like fire, ears flattened, giant whiskers flared outward, white chin clenched, and muscles rippling down from its shoulders to its massive feet.
Excerpted from Listening to Cougar by Marc Bekoff, Cara Blessley Lowe. Copyright © 2007 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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