Of Pumas and Panthers
An American cougar takes an epic journey, and a Parisian panther paces behind bars. When will we make room on earth for the big cats, Jen Scarlott wonders?
Dear Cub kids,
I love poetry! You too? Do any of you know this poem, written in 1907 by Rainer Maria Rilke?
The pacing past the bars, the steady stare,
A tiredness grown so nothing holds him here,
Of a thousand bars he seems aware
A thousand bars, no world beyond this sphere.
With supple strength, with soft and gentle mode
He turns in smallest circles about his flank
It’s like a dance of power around a node
His great volition standing stunned and blank.
Sometimes his eyelids rise so he can sense
A picture spread across the moment’s chart,
Descend through limbs of sinew, silent, tense
And thinning, fading, cease within his heart.
From 1906 to 1908, Rilke, a German poet, worked as a secretary to the renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin. After studying a small, bronze statue of a tiger by Rodin, Rilke decided to visit a panther at the zoo in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes. Feeling a deep sympathy for a fellow being’s pain, Rilke wrote a poem that conveys the despair and blighted life of every big cat in captivity.
Here in America, we have a single big cat species: the mountain lion, a beautiful, tawny, green-eyed creature with an enormous, long, thick tail like a snow leopard’s. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas, catamounts and by many other names, used to roam all over this country, observing no boundaries in Canada and Latin America as well. As with so many countless species, the fortunes of the mountain lion plummeted the moment that Europeans set foot on this continent.
Mountain Lion (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
There continue to be small populations of mountain lions in the western states and even as far east as Wisconsin and Minnesota, but for decades, reports of mountain lion sightings in the Northeast have been discounted as wild rumor.
All that changed this summer.
In early June, people in the town of Greenwich, in the state of Connecticut, just a 40-minute drive from where I live along the Hudson River in New York City, began to claim that they had seen a very big, very wild cat, prowling through their neighborhood, along the edges of fancy schools and golf courses and busy roads. Authorities responded that anyone thinking they had seen a mountain lion, free and on the move in upscale suburban Connecticut, needed to get some sleep and have their eyes checked.
But then something tragic happened, late at night on June 11 in a neighboring town, that put all of the arguments to rest: a young, male mountain lion was struck and killed on a highway. “Oh my goodness,” all the officials exclaimed, “there really was a mountain lion in our state, where the big cats haven’t been seen in well over a hundred years!” But, the officials declared, we are certain that this was just a once-captive cat that had been “set free” when someone no longer wanted to keep it as a pet.
But everyone was in for yet another, even bigger surprise. This mountain lion turned out never to have been, like Rilke’s panther, a caged beast turning in “smallest circles about his flank… his great volition stunned and blank.” No, said scientists and cougar experts who tested the dead animal’s DNA and compared it with test results in their files. This cougar had walked over 1,500 miles to meet its end at the front of a speeding vehicle not far from the Atlantic Ocean. The cat’s DNA matched the genetic structure of a population of mountain lions in the Black Hills of South Dakota, AND, matched the DNA of a particular young male known to have roamed through Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2009 and 2010.
Scientists and even mountain lion experts were stunned by what they learned. Like other big cats, young male cougars reach an age where they must “disperse” from their family of origin, in search of their own territory and mate. But this young traveler, estimated to be somewhere between the ages of two and five, had wandered a great deal farther than the usual 100 miles. Other tests performed on the dead cat proved that it was indeed a wild cougar – it had not been neutered or declawed and had no microchip implanted for identification. It did have porcupine quills under its skin, and DNA matching that of a known population of wild cats out west.
Yes, there are big cats here in the northeastern U.S., just as there are bears, moose, coyotes, beavers and many a wild creature. No “thousand bars” for them. But so many other perils, like the car that put an end to this beautiful creature’s search for home, and hostile humans everywhere who have lost all understanding of what it is to live with wild fellow beings. We will need Rilke’s awareness that we long for the same things, before we find ourselves at peace with the cougar in our midst.
p.s. For information about another fascinating North American animal, the wolverine, see:
First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, September 2011