Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mountain lions, hunting, and, finally, those cougar book reviews

It’s snowing. You can't see it in the photo I just shot in the back yard, but it is. 

I've finished the shelf of mountain lion books at my local library, and a few other volumes on the subject as well. After a couple of slender glossies that were mostly photography, some of it quite marvelous, I moved on to those that contained no images. Interestingly, all of them were more about humans than lions--and all of them announced this in their titles or subtitles. Over the past few years I have read everything I could get my hands on about deer, and the deer books were in general more about deer than people--facts about feeding and rutting habits, growth, migration, etc. All did, however, make a pitch in favor of herd management, a euphemism for sport hunting. This has its roots in the Old Testament injunction that humans were created to lord over all of the beasts and are not beasts ourselves. I'm betraying my biases, but, in truth, I am ambivalent about hunting. I grew up with it, in rural upstate New York, just two hours from New York City, but it could just as well have been rural Alabama.

The KKK was active in every little town—they ran the volunteer fire departments, an historical connection that goes back to the Civil War. Poverty was endemic, and recession was a way of life. As far as I know, it still is. There was no interstate then connecting our county to the nearby cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, which were referred to collectively by locals as “The City,” and visited as little as possible. Hunting was as much a way of life as distrusting outsiders, Catholics, Jews, leftists, and dark- skinned people, few of whom ever ventured into the county.

Nearly every male hunted. Those who didn’t were suspect. The primary prey was deer, but folks shot anything that moved at every opportunity, whether it was edible or not, whether it was in season or not. Since humans wiped out all of the large predators in the Northeastern United States before I was born, and, hence,  deer do overpopulate and starve to death, I can see what leads people who study deer to conclude that hunting by humans is more humane than starvation.

It is the reality and culture of hunting that I find repugnant. The deer books I read made hunting sound noble, compassionate, legal, and sober. Where I grew up, it was none of those. I doubt that this is any different anywhere else in the U.S. I have not seen it to be, in my travels and changes of residence. Hunting is about getting drunk and cruising the back roads at night with a spotlight. It is about getting drunk, sitting in a blind by the side of the road, putting out bait, and waiting for deer. When they come, you take the heads, if they are bucks, maybe a steak or two, and leave the rest. It is about shooting animals, wounding them, and going back to the truck for another bottle of whiskey and a bag of pork rinds, because who wants to follow the damn things; that would entail walking. It is about wounding and torturing animals because it is fun; because it displays one’s masculinity and superiority. These practices were not the exception, they were the norm. I am aware that there are a few hunters who engage in the activity legally and are perhaps sober, who subscribe to some sort of ethics. Even fish and game department statistics bear out this gruesome picture, and they are the nation’s primary proponents of hunting; it pays their salaries.

End diatribe.

I was supposed to be reviewing mountain lion books. I was pondering why mountain lion books are primarily about people and deer books are more concerned with deer. There is a simple answer: we are fascinated with pumas in a way that we are not with deer, because pumas have been known to kill and eat us. The fact that we are much more likely to be killed by dogs (dogs kill approximately 24 people a year in the U.S., as opposed to 50 human deaths in the past hundred years in the U.S and Canada attributed to mountain lions), lightning, automobiles, and each other is irrelevant.

We are hard-wired to respond to large predators, we have exterminated nearly all of them on the continent, and the few that remain are potent symbols that light up our reptilian brains and collective unconscious with a thousand-watt jolt. We love to tell and to hear stories that confirm their existence. They confirm that maybe there is something left of nature, something we have as yet been unable to destroy. A kernel of our own nature, our own wildness.

In The Beast in the Garden, David Baron tells a story of cougars and humans in Boulder, Colorado in the 1980s and early ‘90s. It reads like a thriller, with mountain lions prowling on the edges of the city and growing in numbers, a menacing tabula rasa onto which human fear, anxiety, vulnerability, and superiority is inscribed.

Baron takes the perspective of indignant residents of Boulder’s mountain canyons, transplants from faraway cities, without acknowledging his biases. He cites, as evidence of the increasing mountain lion population, a log kept by two Boulder residents, of cougar sightings solicited from Boulder citizens, a notoriously unreliable tool of estimating wildlife populations. The main offense committed by the decidedly evil pumas is the killing of pet dogs kept in outdoor pens at night by canyon residents. That the trauma of pet death could have been avoided by educating newcomers to the benefits of keeping their dogs inside in mountain lion country is lost on him.

In my own city, Santa Fe, some humans built a house a couple of years ago in a scenic canyon with a year-round running stream, a wildlife oasis. A canyon where I enjoyed the sighting of my 5th mountain lion. These  humans left their old, infirm dog outside at night, a backlit MacDonald’s sign for hungry cougars, and they called Fish and Game when a cougar killed the dog. Fish and Game spent our tax dollars on a professional cougar killer and his pack of hounds, who dispatched an old male cougar within hours. This is the sort of response that Baron is lobbying for throughout The Beast in the Garden.  I would much rather have seen the Animal Control folks cite the humans for pet neglect.

With shaky science, much gothic scene-setting, like “the city had entered a cougar plague,” and cougars doing a lot of “lurking in the shadows,” Baron appeals to the pathos of human fear. The funny thing is that the cougar plague that he spends most of the book setting the stage for never happened. One human was, regretably, killed by a cougar, in 1991, a sad story that was apparently the raison d’etre for the book, but after that, the lions faded “inexplicably” back into Boulder’s canyons, forests, and network of abandoned gold mines.  Perhaps some people started keeping their pets indoors. 

If you want to learn something about pumas and cultural anthropology, read Chris Bolgiano’s Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. With none of the exaggerations, appeals to pathos, and anthropocentrism that Baron employs, Bolgiano traces the cultural history of cougars and humans in North America. It is a good read; at times tragic, at times entertaining, insightful throughout. Cougars have not fared well against human guns, traps, and cruelty.  The first few chapters are hard to read, if one has any compassion for animals.  Bolgiano’s studied observations on the puma as evolving repository of human anxiety, fear, myth, and romanticism make this book a fascinating and worthwhile read.

By far the best cougar encounter story I’ve read is a chapter in Craig Child’s most recent book The Animal Dialogues. Childs lays bare his own biases, emotions, and mythologizing, while drawing the reader inexorably in to his impeccably drawn backcountry universe and inside his head. Childs’s cougar story could only be his. It is the logical extension of his persona, his awareness, and his unsentimental and total absorption in the natural world. The man describes dancing with a cougar that is likely intent on eating him. Whether it is true or not—and I believe that it is--I don’t care. Like all of the narratives in this book, it’s one you can’t put down. I read the whole volume in a night.

It’s still snowing, it’s sticking, and my skis are calling my name.

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