CATRUNNERS, Chapter 4
(A Make-Believe Adventure for Youth of All Ages, Human and Feline)
By Ken Swift
She watched him from a granite ledge half-concealed by dark Lodgepole Pines as he hiked nimbly across a tallgrass meadow in the heart of South Dakota’s Black Hills. Mother Puma had seen people before, and knew to fear them. She’d suffered the horror of seeing her mother and brother treed by dogs and gunned down two years ago, in Custer State Park, and had barely escaped the dogs and bullets herself. She sensed this person, however, was harmless, respectful. The fit hiker was moving surprisingly quickly and quietly, for a two-legged walker, and carried no gun. He passed just fifty feet from her shady ledge, but was looking away from her, watching a small herd of grazing Bison on the far size of the meadow. She waited till he was a hundred yards past, then followed from a distance for a half-mile to make sure he was safely away, before returning to her den and gathering her cubs to go eat more meat from the deer she’d killed and cached yesterday.
Wesley Wood was five hundred miles into his few thousand miles of summer explorations of rivers draining east from the Rockies and west from the Appalachians. Along waterways and in nearby wildlands, he was looking for sign of large carnivores, especially of Pumas, and indeed several times he’d followed big cat tracks, in Missouri River Breaks National Monument in eastern Montana, again in Badlands National Park in North Dakota (with his biologist friends Sally and Ron), and just a day before in Black Hills National Forest. East of those recolonized Puma populations, though, he would find no further sign of the great cats.
Mama Puma quickly forgot him then, as he slipped eastward roughly along the route taken by a male ancestor of hers nine years prior, and returned to caring for her young. Now, five months later, she is an even better hunter, a more mature mother.
Lucky to be alive and entering her seventh autumn, Mama Puma is as perfect in form and grace, beauty and strength, as anyone you’ll never see. She is 110 pounds of muscle, sinew, bone and blood. She can out-jump Michael Jordan three times over. She can outrun Eusane Bolt. She can match the grace of Simone Biles, the strength of Serena Williams, and the beauty of Halle Berry. She can out-stalk Sherlock Holmes. She can disappear more surely than Harry Houdini. She leaves men trailing in her wake. She could shred the top mixed martial arts fighters – but she never would, for she is a shy, reclusive cat, who strives mightily to avoid conflict with people, but must hunt prey in some of the same places they do, to feed her cubs.
Mama Puma roams across eighty square miles of South Dakota’s rock-studded and pine-clad Black Hills, ambushing Mule Deer and smaller prey, killing them quickly with powerful crushing bites to the where the neck joins the head or to the throat. She is a consummately effective predator, but kills just often enough to feed herself and the two or three kittens she births every two or three years. Hunting beyond need would only put her and her family in peril, for unless caught unawares, a deer can hold its own, with powerful legs and sharp hooves, and the bucks with formidable racks.
Because we meddlesome humans like to name things, we’ll call her by the name that came to Vivian Green in a dream, a month before Viv first saw this comely beast: Carver. This name her dreaming mind took from a prophetic poem by Robinson Jeffers, who anticipated the finds of conservation biologists by decades when he asked, Who but the Wolf whittled so fine the fleet feet of antelope? Jeffers’s poetic insight was that the extraordinary speed and agility of herbivores was an evolutionary response to being hunted by fast and stealthy predators. Carver and her mates and cubs were dancing that evolutionary tango between predator and prey, helping keep deer fleet of feet and alert of eye and ear.
Carver was already an accomplished mother. By one territorial male, she’d had two litters, of two then three cubs, in March 2017 and February 2019. Having achieved six years of age, she was both fortunate and wily, for people kill many Pumas before they reach such middle-age years.
In fall 2019, Carver was still teaching hunting and other survival skills to her three yearling cubs, two strapping males and a lithesome female. At this point, the cubs were, on bold days, helping her take deer (challenging scientists’ assumption that Pumas are solitary hunters); and more often taking smaller prey, especially squirrels and turkeys, on their own.
Of course, we humans cannot know what goes through the minds of other animals. In the case of top predators, we’ve no reason to believe they think in words like we do; nor probably do they agonize over decisions the way many of us people do. Their lives are simpler, in some ways; more complex in others.
So, as Carver eyed a mother Mule Deer and her two half-grown fawns one fine autumn day, just months before her life would forever change, we can only guess what she may have thought and felt. Likely she weighed her odds of success in taking one of the animals, and compared their respective strengths, with perceptions much sharper than ours. She may have noticed that one of the fawns was a little smaller and the other a little less sure-footed. She likely noticed that the bigger one tended to lag behind as they browsed their way across the shrub-studded meadow. Carver probably also noticed wind direction, and quietly moved to stay down-wind of the deer. She likely listened extra carefully to be sure no other large predator was targeting these deer at the same time. She listened and watched also to be sure her three pupils, her cubs, were right behind her, learning as they all crept closer to the deer, under cover of trees and rocks.
Carver angled down the slope to a granite outcrop on the edge of the meadow toward which the deer were slowly foraging their way. She stopped behind every tree, bush, and boulder, and told her cubs with her eyes to do the same. She decided the mother was too strong and the smaller deer too agile to be worth the high cost of a chase and fight. She’d wait and hope the larger but less deft fawn would walk within reach after his mother was well past.
The cool autumn breeze was fickle enough, it nearly betrayed her. Mama Deer caught a brief whiff of Mama Puma at one point and suddenly looked nervous. Apparently, though, when the wind shifted and that scary scent vanished, the doe decided the hunting cat was a safe distance away. So on she browsed and grazed, passing beneath the mother Puma and her cubs. The stronger though smaller fawn passed next, even nearer. Then came the big but ungainly fawn, just twelve feet out and eight feet down.
If you’ve ever read Mary Oliver’s poem about the perfection of a hunting kingfisher, or Gary Snyder’s poem about the ecstasy of a jumping monkey, you’ve come as close as words can convey to the feeling of an attacking Puma. The precision jump onto the deer’s back followed by the killing bite are powerful beyond description. In this decisive moment of taking another’s life to feed her cubs, Mama Puma affirms that her kind is near the pinnacle of evolution (if natural selection may fairly be seen as at all teleological).
We also cannot know what goes through the mind of a prey animal as he or she is taken. Again, almost certainly not words, probably not even such simple interjections as Oh pshaw!, or I’m toast!. Likely, too, the animal does not suffer much in the way we fear it would, especially when the hunter is a big cat, who severs a spinal cord or crushes a wind-pipe so fast the browser may keel over while still chewing.
So Carver took the larger fawn. The doe looked back once, saw her big fawn down and three cubs joining the mother, and realized she and her surviving fawn would do best to bolt. Ungulate mothers seem to be spared the agonies that some longer-serving mothers go through when they lose offspring. Within an hour, a safe distance away from the kill, the doe and her smaller fawn were browsing again, a bit closer together and more nervously; but filling their stomachs nonetheless. Both had been made a little sharper, a little fleeter, by this Puma family’s taking of their weakest family member.
For their parts, the Puma mama and cubs were happy (maybe even consciously grateful?) to enjoy a feast of fresh venison. Mama Puma reminded her cubs how to shear the hair from the hide and remove the guts, to get the tasty flesh, starting with the calorie-rich organs. Next they devoured the haunches and the shoulders, nibbled at the chest, then were full. Carver dragged the remains of the deer, with her cubs playfully pretending to help, ten yards back into the woods, where she found a mostly-down pine with enough space under the trunk for her to stash the carcass. She and the cubs (let’s name them by their personalities: Ravenous, Alacrity, and the female Triumph!) scraped pine needles and branches over the remaining meat, committed the site to memory, and walked back to their den, slowly but confidently, with satiated bellies.
Quite likely, Carver understood that within a year, her two male cubs would roam far away for good, while her female cub would go far enough to have her own space but stay within Mama’s orbit. For all three cubs, of course, providing plenty of fresh meat – a deer a week would be sufficient – was her utmost motherly responsibility these days. Her mate, their father, might help some, but (typical of his gender) he was more of a loner than a provider; so she had to do most of the parenting.
When the Young Fly
Again, we’ll probably never know what goes through a young male Puma’s mind when he is lighting out for the territory, or a young female Puma’s when she is settling somewhere near her mother. Surely they are looking for healthy habitats with plenty of prey and cover and prospective mates. Beyond that, and even after decades of research by zoologists, we are largely guessing about their motives and goals.
Vivian’s research was tentatively suggesting young males look in a promising direction – maybe eastward, if they are in a range where almost all the other male Pumas are to their west – and then generally keep going roughly in that direction, though meandering widely along the way. To be random about dispersal would likely be maladaptive, for a young cat might then just go in circles. In dispersal, Vivian hypothesized, opportunistic linearity makes sense for animals that essentially have internal compasses.
That heroic cat who left the Black Hills in 2010 and made it safely to the Adirondacks in 2011 seems to confirm this assumption. He apparently wandered where habitat and prey beckoned, but generally eastward, until finally nearing the Atlantic Coast. Perhaps when he was killed by a car in Connecticut, he was turning south – still looking in vain for a mate — as he could not go farther east. Like others before him, he was looking for love in all the wild places, and looking for love where now are too many faces, yet perhaps none of the faces his kind.
Subsequently, in 2014, a young male Puma who made it all the way east to Kentucky, before being wantonly dispatched by wildlife officials, affirmed this pattern. About a year later, though, another young Puma reminded biologists that even their well-worn hypotheses about wildlife ecology can’t keep up with animal individuality: DNA tests showed that a Puma shot but not killed by a bow-hunter in Tennessee (hunter retrieved arrow with blood but no cat) likely came from the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska (same metapopulation as Black Hills), but this time was a female!
A Human Hunt
Bear’s Black Hills hunting buddy, Steve Howe, found Carver and her cubs’ favorite den quite by accident, one autumn day while hunting deer (about two months after Wood had rapidly hiked by, unknowingly watched by the ever alert Carver, and seeing tracks that he later realized could have been hers). Steve was a conscientious hunter, who generally shot a deer or two each fall to feed his family for much of the year, and supplemented the venison by occasional takes of squirrels or rabbits, which he added to stews. He generally tried to shoot relatively weak individuals, so as to work like natural selection, instead of going for big trophy animals. Steve also traveled to Florida once a year to hunt feral hogs with his brother, who likewise fed his family largely what animals he could humanely and ethically shoot.
Steve actually glimpsed the mother Puma as she looked down on him from above to make sure he was not following them, after inadvertently scaring them out of their rock alcove shelter. He looked around the piney, ledge-layered hill just long enough to realize he’d found her den and she had cubs, then humbly went the opposite direction she’d taken – knowing both that she could kill him in seconds if she wanted but that she almost certainly would not. Steve was tracking and scouting at the time, so not carrying his old hand-made rifle, and assured himself he’d not have shot her no matter what.
Bear happened to call Steve soon after his friend’s dramatic encounter. As soon as Bear started to drop hints about his intentions, Steve stopped him and said: Didn’t you promise to hunt for a full week this year with me …? When can Kate and I expect you?
Once at Steve and his wife’s cabin west of Rapid City, South Dakota, in late autumn 2019, Bear carefully disclosed his friends’ interest in studying a live Puma, without revealing any details. Steve knew enough about Bear’s and his older brother’s quiet conservation work that he did not pry, and agreed to apply for a tag to kill a “mountain lion”, as they are often called in the Dakotas (even though their natural range extends coast to coast; mountains are where they’ve tended to survive, by virtue of remoteness and because mountains tend to be forested). Steve assured Bear: Yes, if I get a lion, maybe one other gunner won’t get one; and unlike most others around here, I’d be willing to keep the cat alive for you, no questions asked.
Bear almost apologized: Ken and I are working with some friends back East to learn how we might restore Pumas. We need to understand the animals first. I’d tell you more – and Ken and I both, as you know, would trust you with our lives, no matter what the situation – but the other friends involved (whom you’ll like, one and all, I’m sure) don’t yet know you. I must honor their request for secrecy.
Steve hastened to assure his slightly younger and less secure friend: Bear, you and Ken both know I’d reciprocally trust you both of you with my life in any circumstances, and I am happy to help you in your quest however much or little you can tell me about it. Just say where and when I am to deliver the great cat unharmed…. I admit, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to stalk a stalker, and you’re giving me a chance. So much the better all I need do is dart the animal with a tranquilizer (though you’ll need to provide that for me, as I’d have no idea where to shop for such). The cats I found are in a dangerous place anyway, as they are too near a road used in winter by hunters. I’ll aim to take one and hope the others flee to safer ground.
Feasting for Winter
Meanwhile, as the autumn’s first hard frost hinted at winter, Carver and her three cubs were devouring and enjoying the big fawn they’d been lucky enough to take, and supplementing it with a few squirrels, to add bulk for the coming cold. Carver’s mate, the cubs’ father, stopped by as they were feasting the second afternoon, and Carver let him have a few bites before reminding him with a snarl that the cubs were her chief concern and he’d played no part in the hunt. Carver’s mate did not really need any of this venison, for he’d been taking enough of his own; but he couldn’t resist a few moments of mutual admiration with his bride and two sons and daughter. He may have assumed, though he’d have been incorrect in this case, that he’d be cavorting with Carver again once their cubs were more or less independent.
Bear had planned to stay through his friends’ Winter Solstice forage feast, but had not planned to join the hunt for a Puma, fearing he could not stand to see the shooting of a great cat, even if the projectile was merely a tranquilizer dart. When Steve returned from his computer on day six of applying for a permit, though, to tell Bear he’d secured a “lion tag”, and could start the stalk after Christmas, Bear nervously (and with encouragement from big brother Ken) decided to extend his stay in South Dakota and join the brothers’ trusted hunting friend on the quest. Ken was glad Steve had persuaded Bear to stay (and had subtly urged Steve thus in an email or two). This way, if Steve got lucky on the hunt, as he usually seemed to do, one of the Catrunners would know first-hand how the cat was taken and be able to assure the others it was done as compassionately as possible.
Plus, this could make even stronger a friendship that Ken felt he had initially almost imposed on Steve. After the Vietnam War, when Ken and Steve were respectively healing their war wounds (mostly emotional; a few shrapnel scars each) in Canada’s great Precambrian Shield Boreal Forest and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, occasionally meeting for long canoe voyages, Ken had asked Steve to accept Bear, too, as a family friend, even though Bear had dodged the war that nearly killed them both. At first a bit resentful, Steve mustered the will to adopt this draft-dodging hulk of a pacifist only because he owed his life to the dodger’s older brother, and could not deny his request. Their friendship grew strong, despite the forced beginning, when the three together paddled Saskatchewan’s storied and dangerous Dubawnt River successfully. The three were now close buddies for life; yet still, Ken worried about the lingering volatility of Bear, and was happy for his little brother to have reason for more time with stolid Steve.
So there Steve and his wife Katy were with Bear, next to the cook-stove in their Black Hills cabin, circumspectly talking about how to find great cats. Steve also told Bear, in assurance but also with grim honesty: This mother Puma at least – but I hope not her cubs – is nearly doomed now by the site she has chosen for one of her regular resting places. She’s in great hunting habitat, with plenty of deer, rabbits, and other prey; but she’s less than half a mile from the nearest road. She does not realize her danger. If I don’t take her, another hunter probably will – with bullets. South Dakota Fish & Game is knowingly – nefariously, in my view – allowing an unsustainably high “harvest” level of lions, apparently to reduce the Black Hills population to 175 +/- adults and subadults. We’re selecting a great cat who is unlikely to survive long or breed again, if she stays in this area. Hopefully, the cubs will leave the den site after their mom is taken, but stick together till they are full grown (the male will probably disperse by the time he’s 2 years old), though they already look big and strong enough to make it on their own.
After a Yule celebration of hand-made gifts and hand-picked and hunted food, Steve and Bear tracked Carver and her three cubs for a week: never seeing them in the flesh, but finding many tracks and scats and several kills of White-tail Jackrabbits and Porcupines and an old doe. After a New Year hike with family and friends, Steve and Bear took up the hunt in earnest. Both of them would have preferred to track longer and stalk less, but Bear was inwardly hearing Vivian’s and Heather’s scientific voices saying, yes, we absolutely must worry about her yearling cubs, but if we are to get her on the ground this winter, so she might soon birth a new generation of cubs in the Adirondacks, we need to move quickly. Steve and Bear tracked the cats from a respectful distance until they were confident that all the cubs were successfully hunting on their own, not just relying on their mother’s expert hunting skills. So far, the cubs were only taking jackrabbits and rodents when hunting alone, but were participating in the bigger kills. Steve and Bear reasoned the mostly-grown cubs could if necessary subsist awhile on smaller prey and by now had the skills to take deer when opportunity arose. Steve believed from his extensive tracking of Pumas, as did Bear’s friend Vivian from her studies in the West, that Puma families do sometimes travel or even hunt together, though not to the highly choreographed degree Wolves do.
Time to commence the real hunt, Bear. Next week we return with the dart guns. Steve knew they must dart the mother forthwith, or she might instead be shot by bullets.