by Heather Durham
I slammed on the brakes and sat motionless in my idling station wagon. The animal must have been at least nine feet long from nose to tail since it spanned almost the width of the mountain road. I held my breath, gripped the wheel, and gave thanks for the steel and glass barriers between me and that enormous feline.
Steady, unhurried, confident, it lifted one meaty paw after the other, long thick tail trailing behind. It was crossing the road less than fifteen feet in front of my car, yet it didn’t acknowledge me.
In the waning sun spilling over the Rocky Mountain foothills, tawny fur shone like gold. Glinting amber eyes and black-tipped ears adorned a head that seemed too small for such a massive body. The whole effect was less like a lion, tiger, or any of the other big cats I’d seen in zoos, but more like a supersized housecat. The most elegant, magnificent, and righteously haughty cat I could imagine. The cattiest of cats. Cougar.
As it stepped off the side of the road toward the aspen grove beyond, it turned and gave the briefest of glances in my general direction—though not at me—and leaped into my past. My fingers relaxed on the steering wheel but my heart continued to race. Foot steady on the brake, I pressed my forehead to the window and strained to see what was no longer there.
What was it I was feeling? I’d seen weasels, coyotes, foxes, even bobcats and black bears, but cougar felt … different. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I ached with it.
Cougar. Mountain Lion. Puma. Panther. Catamount. Deer Tiger. Mountain Screamer? Puma concolor, the Guinness World Record holder for the animal with the most names, is North America’s second largest feline. The largest- the jaguar- tends to stick to the lands from Mexico south. The more wide-ranging cougar can be found from northern British Columbia to the tip of South America; in the States it is most populous in the mountainous West where there are estimated to be more than 30,000.
Like all cats, cougar belongs to the Felidae family. Yet unlike the other big cats, the true lions and tigers, cougars do not belong to the subfamily Pantherinae. They are instead the largest members of Felinae. Which means that even the heftiest, 200-pound males cannot roar. Instead, like your housecat, they growl, hiss, yowl, and purr.
Spotted cougar kittens stick with their mothers for a year, but adult life is solitary. Males and females maintain separate, only slightly overlapping territories where they meet for just one to six days a year to mate. Each individual prefers large areas of undisturbed wilderness, but in the western United States where humans are spreading like kudzu, our ranges increasingly overlap. Though still relatively rare, cougar encounters are becoming more common.
In the foothills of Washington’s central Cascade Range, a two-story garage-turned-apartment on a large estate backs up to a National Forest. In one direction houses, roads, and people sprawl for thirty miles to Seattle. In the other direction trees, rivers, and ridges span for thirty miles to the crest of the Cascades. When I lived there, my bedroom window faced the wilds.
The landlords had a motion sensor light at the peak of the barn outside, trained on their horse corral below. At first I found the light annoying, as it was so near to my window that the click of it switching on and the sudden brightness were enough to wake me out of my typically light sleep. Until I realized it meant something was down there, something I would get to see if I was quick enough.
So. Each time I heard the click I would spring up, put on my glasses, and peer down into the spotlight. I got to spy on raccoons, opossums, blacktail deer, a coyote, the neighbor’s housecat, and once a freakish stuffed clown my friends left as an April fool’s joke (as well as my retreating friends, who underestimated my speed of alertness).
Click. Light. Glasses. Window. At 2 a.m. one spring morning, under the pendulous green blooms of a bigleaf maple, there it was. As long as a length of the split-rail fence and almost as tall. Tense in the sudden brightness, one tan paw frozen in mid-air in front, tail horizontal behind, as if floating on water.
Time paused, snapping a picture. I stared unseen from my window, waiting. It twitched one ear, listening.
“Cougar!” I whispered. The sensor light clicked off.
If a cougar walks through a forest and no one is around to see it, does it exist? If I see a cougar but the cougar doesn’t see me, do I exist?
Wide-eyed in the darkness, I couldn’t fall back to sleep.
Among the high peaks of North Cascades National Park thirty miles east of civilization nestles a tiny village of environmental educators. It is one of the increasingly few places in the country more wild than human inhabited. The year I lived there, deer wandered among us and a resident bobcat and multiple black bears made regular appearances. Still, we only knew of local cougars through their tracks in the snow and the occasional pile of scat. Their scat told us that in those mountains they stuck mainly to their preferred diet of deer. One prominent scat pile- in the middle of a well-used human trail- featured an intact deer hoof. For visiting fifth graders, the food chain lesson didn’t get more experiential than that.
Though deer make up the bulk of their diet, cougars will catch and eat most any animal they can. They are pure carnivores, and meat is meat. They will take rabbits, porcupines, grouse, rats, and yes, sometimes, house cats, dogs, and chickens. Hunters are opportunists. Choosing an easy kill is more than convenience; it can mean life or death. Should we blame them?
On a day off one summer morning, I prepared to go for a hike. The sky wore a cobalt blue only the mountains and arid east side of the Cascades can offer, with the kind of dry heat that drinks your sweat faster than you can produce it.
As I walked over to the desk by my second-story window to grab my sunglasses, movement outside caught my eye. Looking down I immediately recognized that round head, beefy body, and impossibly long tail of the mountain lion. This time, in full daylight. It had just come up the bank from the river and, muscled shoulder-blades and hipbones moving rhythmically, was strutting toward a rocky ridge.
I sucked in my breath but forgot that my window was open, so it heard me. Its head whipped toward the house. Wanting to hold on to the moment longer, forever, I made the decision to turn and grab my camera. When I turned back to the window, the cougar was gone.
I ran outside with the idea of following, then feeling vulnerable, ran back inside, grabbed a broom and went back out again. I searched the ridge above the cabin where it was headed, then the cottonwood grove by the river from whence it had come, and found nothing. No sign, not one track. The cougar had vanished.
How often do they move among us, like ghosts, unseen?
Not all sightings are benign. Humans do get attacked, particularly when wandering alone at dawn or dusk, or while running or biking which can trigger a chase response. What surprises me is how seldom this occurs, typically less than five times a year in all of North America. Yet we are perfectly deer-sized, and far less agile or aware of our surroundings. And increasingly more populous than deer. Endless expansive colonies teeming with meaty morsels. Easy meals.
It would be so simple. A cougar is a master of patience, stealth, and surprise. Its preferred hunting method is to wait in a tree or on a rocky ledge until the moment prey is below and then leap onto its shoulders and bite the back of its neck. Sharp canines are perfectly spaced to span cervical vertebrae and slice into the spinal cords of deer, paralyzing them instantly. Compare your neck to a deer’s neck. Exactly.
Though anywhere between 70-200 pounds, even a smaller cougar can take an adult elk or small moose this way. But cougars can also sprint 35 miles per hour and with muscled back legs like giant jackrabbits’ can leap thirty feet in one bound. Super-predators.
At 8,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountain foothills, a one-room studio apartment sits back from the main house on the road. This log shed-like lean-to was built into the side of a rocky ridge at the edge of a grove of ponderosa pines. I lived there, too, in the heart of cougar country. I had already seen two crossing the road, and knew from my job at Colorado Fish & Wildlife that there were frequent sightings in the area.
In the midnight darkness one October I parked my car by the road and began the walk to my cabin. With the penlight on my keychain, I projected a tiny beam into the darkness and swept it to either side of the stone walkway. Night was quiet there, always so quiet compared to the cricket and frog serenades of the wetter environments I’d inhabited. I’d heard occasional coyotes or if I was lucky, a great-horned owl, but usually, silence.
I passed the landlord’s dark house and continued toward my home. When I was just a few steps from the door, my little pen-light caught something shining above me. Eye-shine. Above me. I froze, then pointed my light up at a cougar, fifteen feet away on my roof.
She looked right at me.
It would have been so easy, barely a step down off the low roof onto me, teeth sunk into my neck and the end of me. But I didn’t think about that, not then. I looked back at her. She was the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen. Lying with both paws in front of her, alert and regal as a sphinx. Calm. Fearless. Her eyes burned into me.
As far as humans have come in world domination and how strongly we believe we are apex predators, we are nothing of the sort. We may be hunters but we are no predators, not like that. Mostly we are smart, sneaky scavengers. We are wily coyotes and crows and rats and dogs but we are no mountain lions. Locked in her gaze I was put in my place like never before. Suddenly, I understood what it was I had been struggling to grasp.
I knew without a doubt that I am prey.
There was no fight or flight. There was only submission.
Then a tiny voice deep inside reminded me, move. I yanked my eyes away and took the final few steps underneath her and into my front door.
Did she coil up on her haunches to pounce, or did she remain there, watching me go? I will never know.
Only when the door shut behind me did I recognize the thing called fear. Or maybe it is called exhilaration. Right then that thing was in my body from tingling scalp to thumping heart to clenched fists and I don’t care what you call it.
I didn’t turn on the light but flew to the back window. After a few seconds, I heard heavy steps above me and then the thud of her landing in the darkness. I saw only the dark tip of her tail swish in the shadows as she trotted into the pines.
The frequency of my cougar encounters some would say is dumb luck. Just living in high-density cougar areas and getting out in the wilds away from the crowds doesn’t explain it. Few in the same situation will ever see one.
Some would say it is meaningful, symbolic. Something about coming into my power, asserting my strength. Neither feels quite right to me.
I like to joke with my friends that cougars are stalking me. Me, personally. Rather self-important of me, I know. But I do feel like a chosen one. I would like to be a chosen one. I feel no shame in being prey, not for so worthy a predator.
One snowy afternoon two months later I sprawled on my bed with a book. It was one of those Rocky Mountain midwinter days where the air is so cold and still that the snow doesn’t really fall but sort of floats around.
Then, familiar heavy footsteps on my roof.
I jumped up and peered out the back window. Thump, down it came. A slightly smaller body with faint spots, but even bigger feet and a longer tail. A juvenile. The kin of my first visitor? Her offspring?
Did she lead him to me?
He took a few steps toward the pines, each foot replacing the one before as a cat does to avoid stepping deeper into snow. Then he stopped, sniffing the air.
Forehead against the window, I burned my gaze into the back of his neck.
Cougar. Listen. I will not go without a fight. But. If you do sink your teeth into me and tear me apart, consume all that I am, then will I see through your eyes?
About Heather Durham
Heather Durham is an essayist, nature writer, and naturalist with roots in New England and a home in the Pacific Northwest. She holds a Master of Science in Environmental Biology from Antioch New England University and a Master of Fine Arts from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. “Prey” is part of an essay collection forthcoming from Trail to Table Press in 2019. Learn more at heatherdurhamauthor.com.