IF THERE WAS A COUGAR IN MY TREE

December 2018

 I woke up early a couple mornings ago and, with a cup of coffee within reach and with Sadie the  Cat curled up on my lap, I sat in my old recliner and watched the world come awake. Dawn didn't arrive as any great epiphany; the sky just gradually went from dark to lighter. I could see birds moving around the feeders on the deck while it was still dark - almost certainly juncos, chickadees, and purple finches, but just moving shapes for quite awhile. From little sleeping sounds, it became obvious that Sadie had quickly resorted to watching the backs of her eyelids; most of my attention was focused on the big ash tree that dominates our backyard. Because of extreme dryness and lots of wind, its leaves fell early this year, and that morning it was just a huge skeletal structure forming out of the darkness.

   It's a great tree all year long, with its dense summer foliage replaced in fall by a yellow and bronze leaf-spectacular. But now, with all the leaves gone, it gets special in a different way. Now, you can see every bird that lands in it, and every squirrel that runs through it. Several times over the years, we've had surprise visitors, too, like occasional families of raccoons who hang out in the tree for a few hours before moving on. That morning, however, I was conjuring up something extra special - I wanted to see a mountain lion.

   Impossible, you say; fantasy run amok. Not so, I reply. Unlikely, maybe, but hardly a month goes by that somebody doesn't report a cougar wandering somewhere in the Portland Metro area. Sightings seem to be getting more numerous, perhaps due to "the city" continuing to expand out into "the country." Or maybe it's a result of our long-term, serious drought that may be causing animals to move over wider areas in search of food. For whatever reasons, cougars are far from mythical in my neighborhood.

   What would I do if I saw one in my tree? Certainly, I'd wake up Sally, and hope that she got to see it before it moved along. If there was any light at all, I'd probably try to take some pictures. But, what then? Would I let others know about my visitor?

   I've worked and played in Cougar Country much of my life, have seen thousands of cougar tracks and other signs of cougars having been in an area, but I think I've seen the actual animals only twice. They're not easy to see, even where they're common. You would think that just about anybody would be thrilled to get a glimpse of one of the big cats. Well, around here, they do get excited - not to see a lion, but to see it gone as quickly as possible. What usually happens is: (1) somebody reports a cougar sighting; (2) the police, fish and game, and others scour the neighborhood; and (3) if they find it, they kill it.

   In part, I get it: most of us have been taught since early childhood to be afraid of big predatory animals, and big predatory animals in our backyards obviously can seem especially scary. It doesn't matter to our psyche that, since 1890, there have been only 27 reported human deaths caused by mountain lions in North America. That's in all of North America:  27 deaths in nearly 140 years, and in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, combined. (Undoubtedly, there have been a few more than that, but Death by Big Cat is a story that is likely to be told.)  There have been other incidents in which people suffered injuries in confrontations with cougars but, again, the numbers are pretty small. In fact, if you rule out California and British Columbia (where over half the fatalities occurred), there has been an average of only one death every ten years.

   Another way of looking at the "danger:" In California, where confrontations with mountain lions have been far, far above the continental average, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 739 "incidents" in a recent 5-year period. An "incident," in those cases, was the occurrence of a cougar in a location considered unusual and therefore a worry to humans. In only 20 of those cases was the threat deemed to be real enough for the cat to be killed. Although there are occasional pressures to kill more mountain lions in California (usually by hunters looking for more "sport," or wanting to save the deer so that they can kill them, themselves), the citizens of the State - this Mountain Lion Mecca - as a whole don't seem too worried. Go figure.

   As I said, I do get it, and I get that the presentation of facts won't change many minds. Still, I'm really struck by the curiousness of human perception of danger. Here in the Portland Metro area, I doubt that a day goes by when there isn't at least one homicide committed. Pedestrians die almost as regularly, after being hit by speeding and/or intoxicated drivers. Although Portland is still considered a relatively "safe" big city, there are many robberies, rapes, car thefts, and other bad human behavior. I suspect most of my neighbors have guns; I suspect that few of them really know how to handle them; and I suspect that their overall fear level - from Man and Wild Beast - is high enough to make some of them far more dangerous than big cats. I'm not (yet) afraid to leave my house but, believe me, I think about what's out there a lot more than I did twenty or thirty years ago. Those around me seem almost unaware of the clear and present danger that threatens them every day. They seem to be saving all their fear for the next cougar.

*   *   *

   Morning eventually came, Sadie and Sally woke up, I finished my coffee and got going on the day's activities. I didn't see my cougar, but my morning musing clarified one thing for me. If one does show up one day, I'm not telling anyone. I'll enjoy it while it's here, then I'll watch it go, and hope it doesn't eat any of my neighbors on its way out.

Not a Cougar, This Time


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© Sanford Wilbur 2018