Two hundred feet above the lush Ardèche River in the south of France lies the barely visible entrance to a cave slotted between massive limestone cliffs. Narrow passageways connect multiple chambers that, once illuminated, reveal the unmistakable walls of Chauvet Cave, used 32,000 years ago by early humans who adorned this cave in paintings. The most famous panel: sixteen lions pursuing a herd of bison.
While the culture that painted these walls is long gone, and the species of lion depicted extinct, Chauvet Cave displays Paleolithic evidence of fascination with large feline predators. Did these people revere the formidable cave lion, fear it, or consider it sacred? Why did they feel compelled to illustrate these creatures in such lifelike detail when simply staying alive required most of their effort?
As we contend with the possible re-colonization by cougars, Puma concolor, of the eastern half of the United States, these ageless questions rise again. Why is our relationship with big cats so fraught, and why do we find them so captivating?
Native American tribes had specific and varied perceptions of cougars, ranging from fear to worship. Hopi tribes, dwelling in high Arizona desert, considered cougars fierce guardians of their people. Cheyenne tribal mythology tells the story of women suckling cougar cubs like children so that they would grow up and kill deer for the tribe to consume. Pueblo tribes historically boasted a band of hunters called “cougar men,” who used a cry that mimicked the cougars’ caterwaul. Tribes living in the Great Lakes region feared the underwater panther, a mythical monster with the body of a panther, the scales of a snake, deer antlers, and feathers of birds of prey. The underwater panther was a harbinger of death in some cultures; in others, its tail had healing powers. The skill and beauty of this animal inspired vivid stories and traditions in native cultures, casting the cougar as a fierce hunter, a strong guardian, and a worthy opponent.
While many Native American cultures respected cougars, European settlers took a more singular opinion of the animals, steeped in religious mistrust and a fear of large predators. When exploring Florida in 1565, M. John Hawkins wrote that, “there are lions and tygres as well as unicorns; lions especially.” In 1634, William Woods recounted to the New England Prospect that “some likewise being lost in the woods have heard such terrible rarings, as have made them much agast; which must eyther be Devills or Lyons.”
Elusive as unicorns and howling like devils, cougars did not stand much of a chance in the face of settlers imaginations. The Damned Thing, a short story written by Ambrose Pierce in 1893, casts the cougar as an invisible killer, unseen to the human eye, detectable only as it passes through grass. Aggressive hunting of cougars and their prey, along with deforestation of cougar habitat, decimated cougar populations in the eastern United States, extirpating them by 1881. Like exorcising an evil spirit from the body, European settlers eliminated what they could not comprehend.
Referenced as a “glamorous killer” by The New York Times in 2013, we now know much more about how these true carnivores live. Contributing to its near-mythical status, a single cougar once took 15 sheep overnight from one ranchers’ flock in Wyoming, seizing an opportunity for easy picking. When hunting, they use ultrasonic hearing, stalking prey and pouncing from close range. They aim to break the neck of their target from behind. If unsuccessful, cougars will literally go for the jugular. Cougars do not eat all of their prey at once—rather, they cache it, cover it in leaves and duff, and come back to feed intermittently. Family or pack cooperation while hunting is rarely observed, with the exception of mothers hunting for their young. That telltale grimace captured in photographs on many a cougar indicates the use of their “vomeronasal” organ on the roof of their mouths, an olfactory adaptation that helps them track prey. Surprisingly, there have only been around 100 attacks on humans, and 20 fatalities in the U.S. and Canada since 1890.
After a long absence, some evidence points to a resurgence of cougars in the Northeast. Sue Morse, a naturalist who studies predators in Vermont, proposes that the cats making the push eastward are transient tomcats and younger males, looking for a home territory as populations increase in the west. Reforestation and the reestablishment of a prey base in the Northeast over the last 400 years has enabled cougars to return. Since the late 1990s, cougar sightings, scat, and paw prints have been recorded in multiple eastern states and provinces, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick, West Virginia, Vermont, and Quebec.
Many conservationists remain thrilled about the return of this fabled predator, once the most widely dispersed animal in the Western hemisphere. General understanding of cougars in the east remains limited and dominated by curiosity, but Clary Nielsen of Cougar Net, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying cougars, thinks that with an influx of cougars, attitudes are probably going to change. It is difficult not to worry for them, foolish as it may be to worry for an animal perfectly adapted to kill. What if what happened in the 19th century happens again, and the tides turn from fascination to vengeance?
Cougars, at a glance, are everything that humans are not. Silent, graceful, and agile, they pass through the world largely unnoticed until it is far too late for their quarry. Does our fascination with big cats stem from a desire to understand something truly wild, both frightening and beautiful? Or does our imagination, lacking in details, turn the cougar into something mythical, and ourselves into its prey? Human beings, so culturally different today from our ancestors 32,000 years ago, display an easy dominance over the animal kingdom. And yet, predators unseen still possess a certain unpredictable allure.
Chris Bolgiano, a nature writer who has written and contributed to multiple books on cougars, suggests that we anticipate their arrival because it would exonerate us from the guilt humans feel from abusing the natural world and extirpating animals like the cougar. But perhaps it is our own primal desire, carried through millennia, that longs to see cougars and their inimitable power. Both magnetic and frightening, the presence of the cougar might be the closest that we come to redemption.
Information gathered from: Keeping Track, Vermont Public Radio, Cougar Net, The New York Times, Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, by Chris Bolgiano, and The Eastern Cougar, edited by Chris Bolgiano and Jerry Roberts.
Lyra Brennan is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning Program