Those Crazy Cougars!

Back from the wrong coast, I was excited to sit down and listen to everyone’s favorite WNPR host talk about the woods–because I love forests of all kinds and after our adventure through Yosemite, I love them even more. But then they said the words I fear most: mountain lion.

Yes, they talked about the rumored existence of mountain lions in Connecticut. I once saw a porcupine out near Salisbury and was absolutely thrilled by the experience. I get excited about bear, and fisher cats. Lord knows I lose my mind at a good Montauk Monster sighting. Thanks to my beloved Barbara Kingsolver  and Prodigal Summer I’m convinced I am related to a lynx (or its Connecticut cousin, the bobcat):

“What are they like, lynx?” She tried not to sound like a jealous child.
“Oh, baby, there’s a cat you’d love. They’re just like you.”
“How’s that?”
He grinned, thinking about it. “About three parts pissed off to four parts dignified. They’re gorgeous. If you find one caught in a trap line and let it go, it won’t scramble around and run, nothing like that. It’ll just stand there glaring at you for a minute, and then turn around real slow and just strut away.”

And while the treehugger and adventurer in me would love to see mountain lions back in the state, the rest of me is terrified.

Here’s the thing: big cats scare the shit out of me, mostly because I live with two of their smaller relativess and I know what cunning, spiteful creatures they can be. I’ve lived with felines since the day I came home from the hospital as a baby, and I can say with conviction that I do not want to come across their much larger, more muscular cousins while walking alone in the woods. (If I had a friend I could at least sprinkle him or her with catnip, toss them at the cat, and find a  vacuum to scare it off with.)

So, after I heard Colin’s show today, I immediately Googled “mountain lions in CT” and found some articles that kind of makes me want to move back to NYC. A story from Connecticut Magazine by Brigitte Ruthman was chief among them:

I saw one not long ago in the stillness of dusk in Salisbury, a honey-brown feline poised just inside a tree line at 80 yards. On its haunches, it had the look of a small deer, perhaps one of the three I had seen earlier advancing on a curl of mist. It held me in its gaze as intently as a house cat watches a bird feeder from the other side of a windowpane.

I would pee myself.

I don’t worry about bear much, though I know it’s very likely one is lurking in the woods behind my house. Black bear are like big dogs, for the most part. I’m not gonna rush out and try to wrestle one or a pet a cub any time soon, but if I met one in the woods I think I’d survive it. I’m not so sure about an encounter with a mountain lion.

Bears are kind of labradors: big, bumbling idiots just ambling along in the woods. If you run across one in the woods it’s probably just an accident. But you could be a few feet from a mountain lion and never know it’s there. Cougars are stealthy, cunning creatures with the kind of speed and agility a bear could only dream of. You could be dead before you even see the cat.

I drove home this evening through the back roads of Fairfield County, which are not exactly hotbeds of wildlife activity. I do see a lot of deer, though. After reading the Connecticut Magazine article and learning about drivers who’d seen mountain lions chasing deer across the road, I could not help but wonder if I would be lucky enough to have such a sighting. That was before I read this comment on the story:

spottied in killingworth/haddam area
i was having dinner at a friends house in killingworth, right on the haddam line between rt 148 and rt 82 when he told me that his neighbors german shepard had dissappeared a few days prior, they found the german shepard(120 lbs), dragged into the crook of a tree (dead of course), the next day. two days later my friends wife saw a mountain lion in her back yard while she was looking out the window doing dishes. bobcats and fishers are not strong enough to drag a large dog into a tree , they r here, so be careful.
I’ve got a soft-spot for German Shepherds, since they were the other pets I had while growing up. My last dog died in 2003, and I still can’t help but cry when I watch some Animal Planet show about police dogs. (Oddly, I like German Shepherds for the same reason I like cats–they’re picky. My dog, Duke, had a few other people he liked besides me–my mother, my brother, a family friend, and my grandmother who always gave him table scraps–but wasn’t interested in other people. My cats are the same way, only they like fewer people.) So, when I read about the dog who was, no doubt, seen as a protector of the family getting dragged off by some giant, vengeful feline, I was downright terrified.
I remember back when Duke was still alive, and I was taking him on a lot of walks in the woods, and along the bike paths in Manchester, there seemed to be stories about marauding coyotes all over the news. A family friend’s Husky had even run away only to be found dead with a coyote on the side of the road, hit by a car (damn dog had joined a pack). My brother was very scared that coyotes were going to come and eat our dog–or us–while on a walk but I assured him that the dog was twice the size of any coyote and that they aren’t known to attack people. Had we been talking about a mountain lion, the discussion would have gone a different way.
My brother would come to the bike paths with the dog and I, and he’d ride his bike ahead of us (something that drove poor, protective Duke nuts). And if there is one thing I know about cats of all sizes, it’s that fast moving objects–like bouncy balls or little kids on bikes–trigger their predatory instincts. In fact, mountain bikers are quite often attacked by mountain lions because their speed sets something off in a cat’s brain that a slow moving hiker just doesn’t. If you see your cat torturing a bird outside by pinning it, letting it go, and then pinning it again, this is an example of that beahvior–they grow bored of the stunned, pinned bird but then chase it down again when it flies away and triggers that predatory instinct again.
You may not share my healthy fear of large, vengeful cats, but you’d be wise to keep this post in mind next time you head into a forest. Here’s a bit of advice, though: If you come across the kill of a cougar, leave it, even if the carcass happens to be that of your family pet. I say this because one of the other reasons I believe big cats to be the most terrifying of all predators is a show I once saw about some guy in Siberia who was out in the woods hunting and dragged home a fresh kill he found in the woods. It belonged to a seriously pissed off tiger that proceeded to stalk him for days, and destroy just about everything outside of his cabin before finally killing and eating him. (Here’s a similar story.) On a slightly smaller scale, my own cat got pissed off at me for leaving her without food for a few hours and proceeded to push my glass teapot off the stove. It might sound like I’m anthropomorphizing here, except that she also knocks stuff of my bedside table when I won’t get up to feed her on Saturday mornings. You can see how it’s a short leap from my cat breaking stuff, to me fearing death at the jaws of a mountain lion out by Kent Falls.
So, next time your kitty turns on you and you end up with a cat scratch on your arm, think about what would happen if that cat weighed more than you…and then think twice about mountain biking in Connecticut’s woods.