I hope to live long enough to see catamounts come home to the Northeast. Not just one or two mountain lions, mind you, but viable breeding populations that haunt deer, ratcheting their attention, honing their alertness and mobility, keeping them perpetually on the lookout for silent, six-foot-long predators with explosive, spring-loaded hind legs; beasts with white, velvety muzzles and honey colored hides; hemispheric, border-crossing cats with a collection of names that matches their remarkable distribution. Until I read William Stolzenburg’s Heart of a Lion, I had assumed my wait might be rather long – if not forever. To reach us, mountain lions would have to venture out of south Florida or southwestern South Dakota, our two closest resident populations. But the main point of the book is that the journey can be done – has been done – and will continue to be attempted.
Heart of a Lion is the story of hope, both retracing the deep history of our complicated attitudes toward predators and recounting the adventures of one particular mountain lion – a transient three-year-old male that left the Black Hills and wandered east for two years and two thousand miles until it was stopped by an SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Connecticut. How does Stolzenburg know this? The lion’s trek may be the most-documented cross-country trip since the Corps of Discovery (although in reverse), the farthest terrestrial journey ever recorded for a wild American mammal. Along the way, the cat was detected eleven times – six on camera – and identified by tufts of hair, footprints, DNA samples collected from urine and scat, and deer kills. There were also eyewitness accounts, including one from two befuddled policemen who watched the lion cross a suburban neighborhood in Minneapolis. The cat, Stolzenburg tells us, was looking for love – looking to establish a permanent territory while avoiding confrontations with resident adult males, the leading source of lion mortality. At the time (2011), the Black Hills were saturated with adult male lions; because of that lethal territorial imperative, young males became transient – or stayed at their own peril.
Although mountain lions had only recently returned to the Black Hills – sometime in the nineties, having colonized from Wyoming – this was not the first cat to leave. South Dakota lions already have reestablished a small breeding population in the Nebraska panhandle, and more than a dozen have been killed in Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. In 2008, a lion reached Chicago, where police lay in wait, predators themselves. “The chase escalated into live theater of high tension melodrama spiced with slapstick humor,” writes Stolzenburg. “A precious clip of amateur video caught an officer of the law on the hunt, eyes keenly probing ahead while his quarry tiptoed across the path behind him. The Great Escape meets the Keystone Kops.” Sadly and predictably, the Chicago cat was eventually cornered and shot.
Recently, The New Yorker ran a story about Los Angeles mountain lions and how one particular male crossed in and out of Griffith Park and adjacent suburban neighborhoods, occasionally dining on domestic animals. Unlike in Chicago, the cat’s human neighbors loved him and wished him well, a contrast that doesn’t escape Stolzenburg. The reemergence of catamounts in the Northeast depends on our attitude: we have to want them.
Heart of a Lion is more than an ode to a single Magellan-like cat – it’s a glimpse into the ecological nature of an alpha predator and its effect on tame, almost fearless deer and the landscapes they share. It is a primer on the “ecology of fear,” the way a residual fear, deep within the bowels of ungulates, once reawakened, translates into healthier, sustainable ecosystems – the wolves, elk, and ecosystem of Yellowstone are a classic example. Heart of a Lion also casts light on the nature of catamount advocates, who, like believers in fairies and antediluvian reptiles, cling to hope rather than evidence. At the moment, the deck is stacked against eastbound catamounts and the people who imagine them. In Florida, with a confirmed population of more than a hundred, nobody sees them; here in Vermont, with a confirmed population of none, everybody sees them.
Stolzenburg, less inclined to judge, reminds us that catamounts want to come home. We just have to let them get here and then...let them stay.