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Book Review: The Cougar

By (July 27, 2014) No Comment

The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and DangerousThe Cougar

By Paula Wild

Douglas & McIntyre, 2014


British Columbia savant Paula Wild has written an instant classic in her 2013 work The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous; the book, solidly produced by Douglas & McIntyre and lavishly illustrated, and Wild’s genial narration everywhere informs what ends up being as fine a work of popular natural history as the American mountain lion has ever received.

Here in one book is everything a curious reader might want to know about this remarkable animal: its history (and, more depressingly, the history of its near-relentless persecution and near-extirpation by American settlers, ranchers, and farmers for the last three hundred years), its nature, its conservation, and, of course, its terrifying physical capabilities:

The cougar is an exquisitely built killing machine. Disproportionally long rear legs provide power for spectacular leaps while overdeveloped front legs ending in huge paws possess superb strength for gripping and slashing prey.

If anything, such a description does scant justice to the raw physical reality of these animals – a reality far better served by all the first-person accounts throughout the book of people who’ve survived encounters with mountain lions in the wild (and, sometimes, in their own homes). Those accounts are universally scary, and Wild very cannily uses them to inform her discussion of “cougar safety” – the right and wrong things to do if you cross paths with one of these animals. And as conservation efforts extend into the 21st century, Wild points out, those encounters will become more common:

No bounty means that in some areas the cougar population is lager than it was fifty years ago. Deep snow can bring cougars into areas where it’s easier to hunt. And if there’s a shortage of their preferred food, deer, cougars may go into or near communities to hunt raccoons, squirrels and other small animals. A dog or cat can become an easy meal and one a cougar will look for again. Deer are an attractant too, of course. So if Bambi and cohorts are chowing down on the courthouse lawn, it’s entirely possible a cougar will drop by for dinner.

Wild’s book comes with many helpful hints for hikers and campers who encounter mountain lions – never turn your back on one, never run from one, never break eye contact, never leave your smallest companions (human or otherwise) in vulnerable positions, never stop fighting if you’re actually attacked (no playing dead, as in a bear attack), and never assume that an animal who retreats is actually gone – concentrate on getting yourself to safety the minute you know a mountain lion is in the area.

One of the main reasons for that last piece of advice is that mountain lions are extremely patient, extremely deliberative stalking-hunters. They don’t roll out bone-vibrating booms like African lions do, designed to flush savannah prey into bolting from safety; instead, they watch and wait, invisible in the bush, preferring some degree of elevation from which to spring (and good Lord, can they spring – twenty, thirty feet or more from a standing start, more akin to flying than pouncing). And they’re not easily deterred; once they’ve decided to stop stalking you and attack you, they no longer care about being seen.

Wild stresses that if you encounter a mountain lion in such a frame of mind, you should make yourself as big and loud as possible. Like most apex predators, mountain lions will sometimes shy away from the risk of fighting their food, so hikes are advised to make themselves seem like more trouble than the meal is worth.

To be fair, it doesn’t usually work. The copious pictures in Wild’s book can’t really convey the sheer size of an adult male mountain lion, and that size always surprises hikers who encounter them in the wild. An animal thigh-high and almost 250 pounds with four-inch fangs and paddle-wide grasping paws isn’t going to be much discouraged by a sweating human waving his hat over his head, which is underscores how often readers are advised, if attacked, to fight back as hard as they can.

Wild’s book is at heart a success story: thanks to environmental protection legislation (and the significant reforestation of large parts of the West and Midwest), mountain lions are flourishing in the United States, and they easily adapt themselves to any human environment that isn’t strictly urban. In other words, encounters between animal and man will increase as mountain lion numbers increase – and that’s where Wild’s readable, comprehensive book comes in. It should be required reading for every hiker, rancher, and suburb-dweller, especially the ones who don’t imagine they could meet a lion just after lunch on Trailhead 2.