Cross-Country Cougar

Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America
By William Stolzenburg
Bloomsbury, 2016, 256 pages

The last decade has brought some thrilling news for North America’s large carnivores. Grizzly bears are venturing from their Northern Rockies refugia and reclaiming prairies; wolfpacks are howling across the Northwest; coyotes have squeezed into niches from Cape Cod to Chicago. Yet dispersal remains perilous. In March 2016, OR-4, a lupine patriarch whose progeny have spread throughout Oregon, was gunned down from a helicopter after killing livestock. A month later, North Dakota’s first wolverine in nearly 150 years was shot for the petty crime of worrying cows. It’s a dangerous world out there – and as William Stolzenburg’s new book, Heart of a Lion, demonstrates, few recovering predators are as persecuted as the cover thumbnail

Heart of a Lion focuses on the two-year journey of the Greenwich mountain lion, one of the most famous animal migrants in history. You may recall the episode: In June 2011, an eight-foot-long cougar materialized in the tony Connecticut suburbs, confounding biologists and terrifying residents. “Hired guards were patrolling [school] grounds, standing watch at lacrosse games,” Stolzenburg writes. No sooner had the story begun, however, than the panic ended in a grisly automobile collision. Police arrived to find the cougar “lying on the shoulder of the parkway, its blunt head leaking blood onto the asphalt.” Stolzenburg sets to unraveling the events that preceded the felicide – and there’s a lot to unravel.

The most pressing question: Where did the cat come from? Crackpot theories abounded: He was a drug kingpin’s pet, a zoo fugitive, a “smoking gun” proving that authorities had been covertly reintroducing lions to control exploding deer populations. To true believers, the lion represented incontrovertible evidence that the Eastern cougar, declared extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, survived in forested redoubts.

When scientists analyzed the Greenwich cat’s DNA, they found that the truth was nearly as strange as the theories. The tom’s genetic code matched with a heavily hunted population of cougars sheltering in “the rock-and-pine island” of South Dakota’s Black Hills. This cougar, biologists realized, “had walked from the edge of the Rockies to the Atlantic Ocean, two-thirds the width of North America.”

That epic journey makes a convenient narrative thread for Stolzenburg, who skillfully retraces the cougar’s trek through South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ontario, New York, and, finally, Connecticut. While this is nominally a book about a cat, it’s densely populated with the farmers, hunters, cops, and scientists who cross the lion’s meandering path. Each encounter presents its own eerie mystery: In a pocket-sized nature preserve in the Twin Cities suburbs, a local naturalist, stumbling upon a mangled deer carcass, felt a chill, “her hindsight now vividly colored by the image of a hidden lion watching” as she’d passed by the previous evening. We’ve forgotten what it feels like to share the landscape with top predators; Stolzenburg’s book is a visceral reminder.

It’s also a reminder that the Greenwich lion isn’t the only wanderer. Stolzenburg cites a 2012 study documenting 178 sightings of lions migrating from the Black Hills and other breeding grounds into heartland states. To paranoid ranchers and hyperbolic reporters, the study was proof of a comeback. Stolzenburg, however, points out the devil in the details: Nearly all the “recolonizing” cougars were males dispersing in futile search of females, and nearly all were killed during their peregrinations.

Through that lens, the Midwestern colonists are less harbingers of rewilding than doomed mariners sailing deathward through a hostile sea of civilization. “Only one mountain lion had, to anyone’s knowledge, made it eastward beyond Chicago,” Stolzenburg writes. “And his skull was now sitting in a display case in Connecticut.”

How, then, to foster genuine reestablishment in the East and Midwest? First, Stolzenburg argues, stop slaughtering lions in the Black Hills, where rampant hunting has devastated the seed population that supplies cats to the breadbasket. We might also learn from California, where tolerance has replaced persecution, and cougars are now “accommodating ambassador[s]” whose presence demonstrates that predators can enrich human lives, not endanger them.

Stolzenburg’s book makes a powerful case that eastern forests, too, need their cougars again, and that human societies are capable of coexisting with big cats. Here’s hoping that wildlife managers are listening.

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