CATRUNNERS, Chapter 1
Chapters: Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3
To the Rescue
(A Make-Believe Adventure for Youth of All Ages, Human and Feline)
By Ken Swift
Chapter 1: A Scout’s Campfire Report
They’re not going to make it back on their own. They keep trying, but they get shot or hit by cars. They need our help.
It was late summer of 2019 and Wesley Wood had just returned from a long ramble eastward from the Great Plains. Wood had been inspired by a young male Puma who, nearly a decade ago, had miraculously wandered thousands of miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills to New York’s Adirondacks before being killed by a car on a busy highway near the Atlantic Coast, and also by several other Pumas who were at least rumored to have made similarly long and treacherous traverses eastward since then in search of mates and territories. This summer, Wood had paddled and walked along rivers draining east from Puma strongholds in the Rocky Mountains. He’d found many places with ample cover and prey – especially the big cat’s favorite, White-tailed Deer — but also too many roads and other human developments for any but the bravest and luckiest Pumas to make the immense journey safely.
We’ve already sadly concluded Panthers moving north from South Florida anytime soon is unlikely, given all the development in the way. Even if we get a reasonable presidential administration next round, the likelihood they’ll show the leadership to reintroduce missing carnivores is vanishingly small. And can we ever realistically hope state wildlife agencies will have the courage to reintroduce the cats?
Vivian Green, her comely visage and blonde hair aglow in the firelight, knew the answer to his rhetorical question was No! She also knew Wood well enough to see where he was leading the guests gathered around his campfire, setting aglow the big old pines and hemlocks of his rugged western Adirondack home. She suspected, though, these guests, all close friends and all equally devoted to wild forests and their residents, did not need to be led:
Right, Wood, so what do you want us to do? Rescue pet Pumas from their foolish “owners” and let them loose in the wilds?
Before continuing, Wood and Vivian, their grizzled, revered friend Ken Rivers interjected, just remember that conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is a felony. Let’s keep everything vague and hypothetical, even here in the safety of your wildlife stronghold. You can count me in, Wily Ones, but we should not name people or places till we have consensus and are certain of no eavesdroppers.
I want to add to your argument, too, Wood, before you continue: If any of us are willing to consider illicit activity to restore missing animals, now could be a good time to do it. The sort of activity our rambling friend is hinting at could be considered anti-governmental. What better time to appear anti-government than during the administration of the worst president in US history?
Mountain Lion, public domain
Ken Rivers, nearing retirement age but still a boulder of a man, was always quick to see the dangers and opportunities in a situation, having survived many battles as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, and since then having waged many successful campaigns for wild places. His younger brother, Cedric, generally known as “Bear”, even stouter as a former wrestling champion, nodded in agreement.
I’ll be vague, then, but you are leading us on the path I think we need to tread, Captain Ken, Wood resumed. Some good folks need to rescue the big cats being killed far to the west and bring them to the wildest parts of the East. Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve seen and heard, our forests are starving for their top predators, the wildlife corridors leading here are too tenuous, the game agencies – even when under “Democratic” rule — oppose rewilding, and the unethical pet trade in wild animals is producing in-bred, unhealthy (and unhappy) individuals, who’d not likely survive long in the wild. So, who here might join a rescue and rewilding action?
All hands went up. All heads nodded, though one tentatively, in the musing moon-light.
Wood left the campfire and circled around, looking past the stately conifer trunks, into the denser shrub-layer of the adjacent hardwoods, around the glacial erratics, and into the shadows of the firelight, making sure no neighbors (the nearest being only a quarter mile away) had dropped by unnoticed. He looked in his little cabin, as if an intruder could slip in there unnoticed past his affectionate and voluble cats. He then returned and asked everyone to turn off their cell phones.
Let the Catrunners conspiracy begin!
Mugs of Ken’s home-made mead and the Green family’s wine were hoisted and toasts made to the great cats and other once-and-future community members.
Not to be too sobering on a night when we’re celebrating our friend’s return from another great trek, but let me quickly suggest a few guidelines, to keep our discussions safe for now: Do not name specific people or places or actions with enough specificity to be actionable. Do not promise to do any particular thing, other than help with this just cause. Do not later share our conversation with anyone, not even a family member, unless we’ve collectively agreed to let that person join the team.
Maya Gavin, slight of build but strong of voice, was the one lawyer in the group, and especially close friends with Ken and his brother and their older friend Greer Davids, all of whom she’d gotten to know years ago while defending them from charges of sabotaging heavy equipment that was being used to clearcut ancient redwood forests. The trees were still standing; and Maya and her partner, Heather Kendrew, a wildlife rehabilitator and veterinarian, were now best friends with Ken and his wife, Betty, and brother. Maya, second-generation Mexican-American, had left the civil rights law firm she’d co-founded to work for the toughest legal-action wildlife group in the country, Biodiversity Defense, which had subsequently shut down logging in that part of northern California with a series of successful lawsuits.
Let me, then, suggest a general approach; and you stop me, Maya or Ken, if I get too specific, Wood started. His friends knew from his animation that he was determined, for he was usually much more of a walker than a talker.
Wild-eyed, long-haired artist Archie Spring interrupted with his usual question:
OK if I sketch this little campfire scene? This may prove an auspicious gathering. I love the firelight dancing over your faces and the pine branches waving gently above and the Barred Owls hooting nearby and the Coyotes answering time to time from a farther distance. I’ll keep everyone vague and symbolic, except maybe the big mother owl.
That’s fine, Arch. Later, if you do action scenes, disguise the actual places; and of course don’t portray Ledgewoods, this place, with any realism.
One more thing before you start, Wesley, Vivian urged: Shouldn’t we have Greer here before we get into strategy? Greer has been teacher and guide to most of us through the years, he knows both eastern and western wildways as well as anyone, and his perspective would help.
Vivian was speaking of Greer Davids, elder in their little conservation community, who lived in an even more remote cabin in the Adirondack forest during warm parts of the year, and in the Sky Islands of southern Arizona during the cool half of the year. From both of these homelands, Greer masterminded wilderness campaigns, wrote novels, and protected local wildlife.
Ever respectful anyway, Wood unconsciously answered Vivian with special reverence, for he had fallen irretrievably, unilaterally in love with her years ago (and she was, along with his mother, his closest aunt, and Vivian’s aunt Ann, the only confidant to casually call Wood by his first name):
Good question, Viva. I’ve talked with Greer about all this in even vaguer terms, of course, but I deliberately did not invite him, or our favorite wildlands philanthropist, your Aunt Ann, tonight. I don’t want to put them at any risk. They’d be early suspects. So would Ken and Bear, but I knew they’d get into our troubles even if I did not invite them! I think Greer, though, really wants to enjoy peace and quiet with his cats and Rosy, so I suggest we call on him only in case of urgent need and only in ways that will not draw suspicion his way.
Anyway, back to a broad approach, Wood continued: You biologists, Vivian and Heather, stop me if I stray, but I suspect cats from the pine-clad Black Hills could do well in the Adirondacks; cats from the rugged Colorado Rockies might adapt to the complex topography of the Southern Appalachians; and cats from west Texas might do fine in the similarly warm though wetter Southeast Coastal Plain. Catrunners should only take cats that otherwise would be killed, for obvious ethical reasons, but also because we do not want to deplete predator numbers in other ecosystems, which are already too low most places. I think Catrunners should quietly contact a few sports friends in those areas and ask which cat-hunters might cooperate with us.
Vivian stopped Wood in his tracks, as she was wont to do. Right in broad outline, Wes, but we need success on the ground, which will depend on getting enough cats in one area that they find each other and breed and multiply. We can’t afford to worry much about the Southern Appalachians or Southeast Coastal Plain, until we have restored a functioning population here in the North Country.
Mountain Lion, Public Domain
OK, Viv, Wood agreed, so we focus here for now, and expand southward later, if we are fortunate enough to have opportunities. You and Heather and your fellow conservation biologists can tell us how many cats we need to adopt, right?
Ken knew scientists could debate these mathematical and genetic questions endlessly, so he intervened: I have a few buddies now out West, from my SEAL days, who can help with those Puma procurements. They are ethical hunters. Me, I won’t ever again shoot anyone who can’t shoot me back, but these guys have come to peace with using their guns to get their food. I think we could pay three or four of them to get Mountain Lion tags, maybe a few per state, then they’d shoot the cats with tranquilizers rather than bullets. Obviously, we’d need to be extremely careful about this, and keep names quiet. If I say we want the cats for research – no questions asked – these buddies would understand.
Wood resumed, more garrulous than usual, after two mugs of mead: That’s another reason I think you should captain this voyage, Ken. I’m just a scout, who can tell you what I found along the Pacific, Appalachian, Spine of the Continent Wildways and more recently the west-east running river corridors. I think I see what we must do, but you and other friends know better how to actually accomplish it.
To recap my reports to Ann Randall, Pumas, Cougars, or Panthers, as our friends in the South call them, or Mountain Lions as our friends out West label them, are doing fairly well in southern Florida (though still suffering much road-kill), but are blocked from recolonizing habitats to the north by the heavily developed Caloosahatchee Channel. There’s good habitat and plenty of prey in much of the Southeast Coastal Plain and Appalachian Mountains, but roads block easy dispersal to wildlands northward; and wildlife agencies refuse to consider reintroducing big scary predators.
Out West, Pumas were never completely exterminated, and they’re holding steady along most of the Rocky Mountains. State agencies continue to allow hunting and trapping of the great cats, though, so their spread back east is slow and tenuous. Their eastern-most outposts in the US appear to be the Texas Hill Country, maybe the Missouri Ozarks, Pine Ridge of Nebraska, Black Hills of South Dakota, and Badlands of North Dakota.
That heroic young male Puma who made it as far as Connecticut in 2011, after spending awhile in the Adirondacks but not finding a mate, began life in the Black Hills. His is a common tragedy among young Pumas: He lights out for the territory, looking for another wild range with plenty of deer to eat and female Cougars to mate, probably following wooded river corridors (as I just did), so he keeps looking for love in all the wild places, with no luck, and eventually gets killed by a car or gun.
I’ve not explored the wilds of Canada as much, but it sounds like Pumas are still playing their important role of deer predator as far north as deer go but maybe in viable numbers only as far east as Saskatchewan. As you all know, deer are not a boreal species, so the real game for big cats in North America is in the US and Mexico (which also has Jaguars and smaller wild cats, blocked from recolonizing the US by the border wall, but Vivian and Heather can tell us those sad stories at another campfire). Since we want cats brought back here to be from somewhat similar habitats, and not too far away, and we only want to take cats who would otherwise likely be killed, I’d suggest we look first to the Black Hills, where South Dakota game officials allow dozens of the cats to be “harvested” every year.
What is the ABV of this mead, Captain?!, Maya mockingly asked of her dear older friend: I bet Wood didn’t say this many words his whole River Ramble Eastward! Maya was getting impatient with Wood’s repetitious summaries, so she added her own: Again, too, though most members of the public support protecting and restoring endangered species, and growing numbers support bringing back Pumas, Wolves, and other eradicated species, the wildlife agencies are dominated by old-fashioned game interests, and so will not cooperate. In fact, they often play into the grossly overblown fears surrounding these animals. We all know that native carnivores make places safer for people, not more dangerous, but deep-seeded fears of big fanged creatures persist. Lyme disease is a much greater threat to human safety than all the native carnivores in North America combined. Domestic dogs kill many more people than do wild cats and dogs and bears all added up; even throw in sharks, and domestic dogs still kill more. So the fears are unfounded, though perhaps part of human nature (after all, before we domesticated half the world, we did sometimes get hunted by bigger animals). Whatever the root problems, the agencies will not lead, and probably won’t even follow in good directions till we broaden their sources of funding (which are now mostly from hunting and fishing licenses). The US Fish & Wildlife Service won’t help either, as they sneaked in a declaration that the “Eastern cougar” is extinct, so we’d have no Endangered Species Act handle to wield in defense of the Puma, outside Florida, where the “Florida panther” is listed as Endangered.
Ken interrupted the tipsy scout and the feisty lawyer: So we are a team, and if you want me to be captain, I’m going to stop the lectures and start assigning positions.
Yes, please! Both Wood and Maya blurted out, a little embarrassed by their tirades at friends who already knew most of this.
Adding to the affirmative chorus were the meows of Tundra and Serac, and the woofs of Hemlock and Juniper, Wood’s cats and Vivian’s dogs respectively (if not respectfully). Wood ordinarily kept his cats inside, where they could not catch songbirds and where they were safe from Coyotes and Fishers; but now that they were old (15 years since he’d adopted them from local animal shelter), affectionate, and not so quick, he let them out when he could watch over them, donned in colorful Bird-safe collars festooned in bells. They’d been playing musical laps with the gathered friends and occasionally taunting Vivian’s highly trained dogs. Hemlock and Juniper, the cats somehow amusedly knew, were expected to work for their living and be on best behavior, whereas all Wood expected in the way of work from Tundra and Serac was that they keep rodents out of the cabin. Vivian had trained her young dogs, both also shelter rescues but suspiciously proper ones, to sniff out and find scats of carnivore species she was studying, and to use particular barks for particular species.
Cougar, public domain
Affectionately stroking each of the four-legged friends in turn, Ken began building the team: Wood, you remain a scout, but not just of physical terrain, also of key allies. Figure out whom we can trust absolutely, once I tell you what sorts we need on or near the team. You know not just the wildlands of North America but also their leading defenders. We want to keep the team small and tight and secret, but we will need a few trusty partners not presently being warmed by this crackling fire.
Maya, we need you to explore all legal and regulatory angles. Obviously, if there’s a lawful way to bring the cats back, we should go that way. It sounds unlikely, but let’s look still deeper first. We need to know what are the various state endangered species laws, laws on transporting wildlife, where Pumas may be traded as pets (bastard wildlife traffickers!), and many other legal angles that you’ll be the first to think of.
Vivian, you’ll be chief scientist for this rescue operation. With field insights from Wood, you need to figure out just what cats we should bring here, how many females, how many males, where we should release them, whether cold release or gradual release while being fed, and all the other scientific aspects that you’ll know are critical.
Heather, as a veterinarian, you’ll be needed during the actual capturing and movement of at least the first few animals. I know you’ve already been thinking along these paths, but consider again carefully whether you want to take these risks. You’re likely to be exposed to danger great enough to ruin your career, if anything goes awry. You also face lengthy research, as you’ll need to figure out all the needed safety measures, particularly how we can keep big carnivores sedated for at least a full day – without putting them at undue risk – while moving them across state lines. You may already know a benign cocktail of drugs that can do so, but in my own chemical forays (admittedly, mostly for personal illumination in my younger years!), I’ve never found such. We can’t risk any big cats awakening while in transit, lest they or one of us get hurt or heard by nosy ears.
Arch, you are artist in pilgrimage, as usual. More than usual, though, you must be careful what you depict. We’ll need you to inspire viewers of your website and shows without giving away any potentially incriminating information.
Gordy, now that you finished fixing Wood’s solar panel and are belatedly listening to our Catrunners conspiracy, I want to ask if you’d be willing to play another risky role: as anonymous technical director of the rescue and web-master of any associated education efforts.
As a Big Brown Bat whirred past his face, Gordan Bond, youngest and tallest member of assembled friends, spoke for the first time: Nice to see a bat finally; tragic how white-nose syndrome has wiped out so many. I miss seeing them flying around here by the dozens, and I don’t like these extra mosquitoes multiplying in their absence.
Anyway, yes, sorry I was puttering around earlier, fixing that primitive panel; but I was listening, and you can count on me for technical support. I suspect you’ll tell me, Captain, and I agree: first order of business is to set up a safe communications system for all of us. It will necessarily be electronic in part, since we live in far-flung places, but will also depend on our meeting occasionally in safe spaces like this. I need to think more about security, with your help, Ken and Maya, but my initial thought is we create an entirely above-board and uninteresting story into which we can subtly fit our real characters. For instance, our communications may be about surprising our cat-loving friend Greer for his 70th birthday with a few rescued shelter cats!
Serac, the unpredictable gray tabby female, and Tundra, the relentlessly affectionate big fluffy orange male, both meowed approvingly, from Bear’s and Vivian’s laps. Mother owl eyed the cats warily from a stout Beech branch just inside the firelight’s penumbra. A Beaver slapped its tail on the pond below.
Bear, you’ll be my deputy, and personal bodyguard for any of us in risky situations. Mind your temper, though. No matter what scuffles we may get into, do not throw around our adversaries like rag dolls. That always brings unwanted attention from authorities. And as I’ve warned you already, Little Brother, I won’t bail you out any more unless you have not only factual truth but also ecological justice on your side.
With Wood muttering some names at Ken, his soft voice just audible above the cool evening breeze, Ken reiterated, in his stentorian voice, that several key friends were absent, but would support rescue efforts indirectly: Let’s please not directly involve Greer, as his position is too risky; but we can count on him for wise strategic advice, especially once we have cats on the ground. Rosy can help direct communications efforts so long as it does not imperil Greer or herself. Sarah Morris is our best tracker and a trusted friend, but she works for wildlife agencies sometimes. We can ask her to help track animals once here, but not ask her to help us get them here. Our favorite wildlands philanthropist likely will offer her lands as reintroduction sites, and may quietly help pay for rescue operations. Viva, as a family member, do you want to quietly talk with her?
Vivian nodded yes, as a lone Gray Tree-frog chirped from mid-way up a nearby maple: Aunt Ann will almost certainly help, but we really must keep any conspiratorial discussions safely away from her. Her land acquisition plan for restoring a wildlife corridor from the Adirondacks to Algonquin Park is part of our grander rewilding vision, obviously, and it could be undone if she were implicated in any illegal work for wildlife. Still, she and I can communicate plenty without many words … Also, as Wes can attest, her park warden Kwanzi, “Bob”, is as trustworthy and skilled in the field as any friend could be, though he, too, must be kept out of public eye, due to his past role in breaking up poaching rings.
Maya stepped away from the wafting campfire smoke and added another important element: We may need campaign expertise once cats are back and being seen. Biodiversity Defense has top-notch campaigners, including Rosy, whom I’d trust even with a sensitive effort like this, but to keep things small and tight for now, I’ll not talk with any of them except Rosy till they are needed. Of course, I’ll be ready also to mobilize our best lawyers.
Ken nodded appreciatively, and offered to outline first steps, before beverages below and stars above made them all too dreamy: To start, Viv, would you please work with Wood to figure out what cats to seek and where to take them, and all other relevant biological matters (which I know are many and complex). Also, please go to your aunt and see if she can provide vehicles and other logistic support, invisibly of course. Wood, send me a list of potential allies in the various wildlands from which we may rescue imperiled cats. Maya, figure out all the legal angles. Heather, please find and produce the cocktails we’ll need to safely drug the cats, and figure out all other safety concerns. Gordy, I want you to work with Rosy to start getting out news about reported “Panther” sightings – well before we bring cats here. Arch, offer some inspiring carnivore sketches and paintings to conservation groups making pleas for carnivore recovery. Bear, you and I will work on security, including helping Gordy with a safe communications system; and will draft an execution plan, with quiet help from the rest of you.
Sighing happily as he glanced up into the waving fire-lit pine boughs and took another sip of the Green family house red, Ken continued: We’ll all be in touch safely and occasionally through the research phase, with the communications system Gordy will put in place. Let’s also plan to meet in person as a team at least once more before commencing operations, perhaps after Ann’s annual harvest party. As a rule, let’s talk only with each other about our Catrunning plan, and only outside and away from other people and with cell phones turned off. Our friends Greer & Rosy and Ann and Sarah can be allowed to know we aim to restore missing species, but nothing more specific for now, lest we put them in dangerous positions.
As thick mead and fine wine circulated, amid owl hoots and frog thrums, the deeper campfire questions were finally raised by Bear, who was often gloomy about the sad state of the natural world and was still internally-conflicted about his dodging military duty decades ago while his brother risked life and limb in a war without winners: I’m with you all on this, because you are my family, but do we really think we can restore a missing species? Do we really think we can make a difference in the face of the industrial juggernaut that is killing the world? Aren’t we too few and too late? Also, is there a danger we’ll only make the wildlife agencies less likely to consider active reintroductions of missing predators, if we try a renegade operation and it fails? And even if we do get big cats here safely, will they stay, or will they wander out of the Park and get shot or hit by cars?
Cougar (c) MasterImages
So frustrated was everyone in the little group of friends at the agencies’ failure to restore wild species that no one was ready to answer those last two, awkward questions. Later, Bear knew in his bones, they would be forced to confront those dilemmas.
For now, Heather answered Bear’s leading question with a counter-question: What choice have we, Bear? We’re not going to sit by idly while Nature is ransacked. We’re all active in the usual legal ways – writing letters to elected officials and newspapers, campaigning for National Parks and Wilderness Areas, supporting local land trusts, healing animals hit by cars, pulling invasive species … — but obviously this is not adding up to nearly enough. The extinction and climate crises are dooming millions of our fellow planetary denizens. Maybe even if we cannot succeed in physically restoring Pumas to the East ourselves, we can at least inspire a new generation of bolder advocates for the natural world. Plus, I actually think this plot has a reasonable chance of success. If we can just get a few female Pumas safely established, the wide-wandering males may find them, and start a renewed population; and I think many of them will stay in the Park, since we have plenty of cover and prey; and if they wander out of the Park, they’ll help forests in other areas. IF Pumas appear to come here not in government trucks but on their own feet, people will accept them. The cats just need an assist, so males and females are both here in enough numbers they actually find each other and establish territories. And remember, we’ll be rescuing animals that otherwise would have been fatally shot, and giving them a chance in a land that badly needs them.
The baleful tremolo of a loon on a lake upstream underscored Bear’s response: I always believe you, Heather, and all you friends here, so I’ll do my best to help. But deep-down, I’m really scared this could backfire. Some of us, as well as some innocent cats, could get hurt. I think we all suspected your scouting trips were leading to this, Wood, and I’ll guard you – all of you — with my life, but I hope everyone here realizes we are making life and death decisions, for cats and people.
Coyote howls answered the loon wails, as Heather sought to reassure her burliest friend: We’ll be exceedingly careful, Bear; and again, we’ll only move cats who otherwise would probably get killed.
As others nodded in nervous agreement, Heather emphasized: We’ll use every medical precaution, while moving as many cats as we safely can, so the restored population has a chance to “take”, here in the Adirondacks.
Wood, not hearing Bear’s concerns as clearly as he should have, after many dry months in the wilds, was on his third mug of mead, and beginning to feel festive, despite the dark turn in the conversation. He broke the solemnity of the dialog with one of his sillier notions, congealed over hundreds of lonely river miles: Maybe the gluten-free movement will save the world in a nick of time. Maybe gluten is the glue that binds this improbable civilization together; and wild Nature will be miraculously spared as so many upper-crust Euro-Americans eliminate gluten from their diets that industrial civilization collapses and Nature quickly rebounds!
Fast as his friends could groan, Wood turned his bucket-seat into a bucket-drum, and started the beat. Everyone else grabbed their instruments – coffee cans, sticks, old harmonicas, and a thrift-store guitar — and the wild revelry began. The Catrunners sang and danced away the night, cats wending through the voices, owls hooting with the harmonies occasionally and frogs frequently, and an endless Whippoorwill song floating in from the nearby Beaver meadow when the breeze turned westerly. Between jams, the friends debated which should be their theme songs (with skewed covers of Bruce Springsteen’s Because the Night Was Made for Mammals, Tina Turner’s Simply the Beast!, and Jimmy Buffett’s Looking for Love in All the Wild Places leading for now). Last thing Wood remembered, before falling asleep in his hammock just outside the firelight, was Wild Thing, interweaving Heather’s lovely soprano with Ken’s strong baritone and Bear’s bold bass, and the neighborhood Coyotes howling approval from atop the rocky knoll of his beloved Ledgewoods home.
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