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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living With Big Cats

Air Date: Week of

A mysterious cat, the eastern cougar, is making a comeback in the United States one hundred years after being hunted to near extinction. Its return means some soul-searching for residents who must learn to live with the truly wild animal.


CURWOOD: Most people who live in the eastern United States spend their entire lives without ever seeing an eastern cougar in the wild. But as the forests have come back in the east, so have more and more of these magnificent and big cats. Commentator Chris Bolgiano says the recent resurgence of the elusive animal means a lot of soul searching for rural residents.

BOLGIANO: Sometimes it seems like I'm the only person in the Virginia mountains, where I live, who hasn't seen an eastern cougar. My neighbor Willie tells about the big, long-tailed cat that streaked across the road in front of him one night. My friend Lori saw one around dusk at the foot of Little North Mountain. Dave, the woodsman, heard yowling and saw eye shine around his campfire near Seneca Rocks. Stories like these have accumulated by the thousands at the end of the 20th century. Now that a few of them have been proven true, there's a question looming ahead for us easterners, especially rural mountain residents like Willie, Lori, Dave, and me. Having once nearly exterminated them, have we as a society matured into the greatness of heart needed to actually live with cougars?

Also known as mountain lions, pumas, or eastern panthers, cougars became legendary even among woods-wise Native Americans for their magical elusiveness, their ability to utterly vanish into the landscape. Unlike bears, which have been teddyfied for a century, and wolves, whose admirable family life is now well-known, cougars are stealthy and solitary, and offer little on which to hang a notion of kinship. They must be accepted on their own wild terms. Cougars are still the rarest of all wild animals in the Appalachian Mountains. Nonetheless, as I walk through my woods, I stop to peer at whiskery arrangements of twigs and brush. Even though I haven't seen one, there is an image of cougar that haunts me. It comes from the true story of Patty Mountain, not far from my house, in 1850. In that snowy winter, local farmers tracked 2 of the last cougars in Virginia along the mountain crest. Boulders there stand tall and flat-faced as houses. The sibling pair of cougars took refuge in a deep den. The male was shot, but his sister escaped. She is my hope that the spirit of cougar has survived to give us a second chance. I see her, crouched in a rock den on Patty Mountain high above the valley, her muscles taut. I see her yellow eyes gleaming in the dimness of the cave. She is looking not at me, but beyond, maybe into the future.

CURWOOD: Chris Bolgiano is author of The Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Removal. She comes to us from member station WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia.



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