CATRUNNERS, Chapter 5
(A Make-Believe Adventure for Youth of All Ages, Human and Feline)
by Ken Swift
After much scouting and tracking, punctuated with Yule celebrations, Steve Howe and “Bear” Michael Rivers set out before dawn January 3, 2020 on small light snowshoes with two borrowed rifles and four tranquilizer darts. Steve’s old hand-made rifles would not accommodate darts, but he had a trusted friend who collected firearms for decoration, not for hunting or sport, and who allowed Steve to take out two big-barrel big-game rifles that had been used for darting Leopards on a study in Africa years ago.
Now, Bear was not fit to shoot anything, and they both knew that. Brawny brute though Bear was (able to bench press Steve or Ken many times before showing strain, for instance), he’d never fired a gun or intentionally killed a wild animal, and he did not plan to change that qualified-pacifist pattern. (Nor did his big brother hunt anymore, repeating bluntly if pressed on why he did not, “I will no longer shoot anyone who cannot shoot me back.”) Bear was with Steve as another keen set of eyes and ears and to hand over the second rifle if the first failed.
It did not. Steve landed a tranquilizing dart squarely in Carver’s left shoulder as she returned to her rock-alcove den, silently walking atop the crusty snow, with a limp Snowshoe Hare in her mouth in dawn’s early light, trailed by her daughter, proudly holding in her smaller teeth a frozen Western Gray Squirrel. The den was vacant just then, the brothers somewhere off hunting on their own. All had become increasingly independent, though still strongly attached to their mom emotionally, especially the daughter, who had been watching and learning as her mom caught the big hare that morn, before proudly picking up again her own little quarry.
Both Steve and Ken felt torrential emotions as they watched Mama Puma sway, stagger, and lie down in a sleepy pile before her entrance. They both stifled tears, Bear less successfully, as the hare fell from the mother cat’s mouth and her daughter rushed over to see what had befallen her mother. Reaching her mom, the daughter dropped her squirrel quarry and gave a pained, plaintive meow that just ripped the two men’s hearts asunder. In a sudden desperate move, Bear handed the second rifle to Steve, pointed at the cub, and said DART HER, TOO! He had impulsively realized, as Steve also immediately sensed, that the female cub might prefer to stay with her mother, even if in a new land, and might be more likely to survive if she chose a home near her mom’s.
Steve landed the second dart in the cub’s haunches, whereas he’d expertly placed the first in the mother’s shoulder. He’d purposely put the cub’s dart in a hip, suspecting it would be less risky putting an adult’s amount of sedative in the two-thirds-grown female cub if farther from the heart. The cub nonetheless collapsed more quickly than had her mother.
Bear rushed to the cub and fell to his knees, while Steve moved more cautiously to the mother. Both men prayed in their own ways for the good of the cats. They begged forgiveness for taking these risks with feeling, bonded animals, for breaking up a family, for taking a mama away from two of her young and to a foreign land. They prayed that such heavy-handed tactics would never again be needed.
Then they returned to work. Gingerly handling the daughter first, they quickly took the cub’s vital signs, then the mother’s; found them all well within safe limits, though pulses relaxed; then put the darts back in a safety pouch and in a pack. With gloved hands, they reverentially placed the dead hare and dead squirrel right at the den entrance, in hopes the male cubs would return at least for this last free meal. They also pulled some frozen venison from their backpacks – part of a doe Steve had shot with one perfect arrow this past fall, and placed it in the den, to make sure the brothers would have plenty of food for their forced transition to independence. They did not at all disguise their scent, though, guessing that it would cause the brothers to quickly move away, after that last big meal at their adolescent home.
Bear carefully lifted the mother and spread her length-wise on the sled, then even more carefully draped the cub over his broad shoulders. Both grabbed a tow line on the sled and headed south through the foot-deep crusty snow. As soon as out of sight and earshot of den, they quietly called the fellow Catrunners, who had arrived the night before and were camped nearby. Bear spoke, shakily: We have her – and her daughter — and we bloody well better get them safely to their new home. I hope we’re doing the right thing. Her daughter cried when we shot her mom, and I suddenly realized if we must take her mother, we should take the daughter, too … Bear stalled, and his brother injected:
You and Fred (Steve’s code name for radio communications) did right, Little Brother. The daughter will be safer near her mom. The sons will soon disperse anyway. Where and when do we meet you?
Bear was strengthened by his brother’s approval: Meet us at 7:30 at trailhead 1, Captain. Have your gas-tank full, and your team with you and ready to head east right away. His big brother did not need to be reminded of details like filling the gas tank, but was relieved to hear his brother sounding sure of himself again. We’ll be there and ready.
Bear willed his tears to stop, so he could see clearly and walk safely, as he both sledded Carver’s muscular 120-pound frame (nearly half his weight) and hauled the 70-pound cub on his shoulders. Steve, though a very fit and strong 160 pounds, had to hustle to keep taught his line on the sled, lest his stouter friend have to carry all the weight.
Their growing fatigue as they scrambled cross-country with the drugged cats softened their emotional distress. They could not risk taking the nearby trail, lest other hunters come upon them and ask questions; and the half mile a crow might fly from den to road was thrice that scrambling up and down slopes and around down-trees, ever careful to keep the sled upright and the cub squarely on Bear’s shoulders.
Neither spoke, except to affirm directions, and except for Bear’s one proclamation during the exit walk: Vivian named the mother ‘Carver,’ from a dream she had. I’d like to name this cub ‘Chim’, in honor of the pen-name used by a wilderness writer we both know who loves wild cats.
Steve quickly agreed: Good name, Bear. Chim is the cub you carry.
They reached the pre-arranged dark corner of the trailhead parking lot at 7:28. The other Catrunners had arrived at 7:26. No one else was around, fortunately.
Preparing Live Contraband
Ken had told them beforehand exactly what each was to do: He and Heather and Maya, as hastily as caution and their thick winter garments allowed, helped Bear and Steve slide the sleeping cats part way into their padded compartment in the back of the truck, leaving enough of each exposed on the tailgate so Heather could check their vital signs again. After quickly thanking and hugging Bear and Steve, Heather carefully took measurements and blood samples, first of Carver then of Chim. Then she put on them collars that contained computer chips and drugs, which would allow her to monitor the cats, and if needed, administer additional doses of sedatives. She held her hands gently on each cat in turn, and checked the cats’ gums and eyes, looked for parasites in their fur, and otherwise did a preliminary check on their health. The Catrunners had already decided, if their captive did not look eminently ready for new physical challenges – like starting a new life in a new place, and mothering more kittens from new fathers – they’d immediately return her to her den. Now, if the mother did not pass the fitness test, this would mean returning two cats to their den.
She looks wonderfully healthy and strong, Heather said approvingly. Her cub is in fine shape, too. You chose well, Steve and Bear. We are all grateful. We’ll move them East quick as we can.
As Heather finished feline trans-location preparations, Captain Ken, who had been serving his brother and Steve thick coffee and thicker bagel sandwiches, spoke to all: Unless anyone objects, I’d like to welcome Steve to our Catrunners community, and invite him fully into our quiet mission. We’ll need consensus on all this, of course, and we’re not all here, but I’m confident our friends will agree, if we are unified. Ken waited to see if any objected, then he group-texted the others:
Consensus sought on adding Fred to team. Immediately came back a simple answer from Gordy, who’d been empowered to electronically speak for all when quick consensus was needed. YES from us!
As she shut the back of the truck, Heather spoke for them all: Ken and Bear, we know Steve has been a close trusted friend of yours for decades. That would be all the proof of his goodness we’d need, but he’s gone way above and beyond normal friendship with this morning’s difficult deed. Welcome to the Catrunners, Steve!
Starting to shiver from the cold, Ken hurriedly resumed: We’ll tell you all as soon as time allows, Steve. For now, know that you (Fred!) are part of a plot to restore Pumas to the East; the work disguised in electronic communications as a series of surprise gifts to friends in northern New York of treasured domestic cats; and we must keep all aspects of the story as secrets within our own group, sharing with spouses if necessary but not beyond that.
Steve nodded through his breath condensing in the winter air: I’m honored and humbled to be admitted to your team. I’ll help however I can henceforth, and keep everything secret, except with you folks and maybe my wife (from whom I can hide nothing, but who is entirely trustworthy herself).
Ken then repeated a difficult question: We all can guess how hard this must have been for you, Steve and Bear. Can we again ask you to secure the male, as we check in with our Badlands colleagues, or do you need a rest? As you know, we’ve two trucks on loan and would like to take back East this mother and cub and a male now in separate compartments of this truck, hope that our friends in North Dakota will be as lucky and will join us on the road; then return in one truck for two more females in a few weeks. I hate to put this pressure on you, but you understand the odds we face.
Ken was worried about his brother, and said this also to remind everyone of the plan. They all knew that Steve and Bear had carefully arranged for a second, nearly simultaneous capture, of a male on the other side of the Black Hills; even as Vivian, Wood, and Maya were arranging the captures of a male and a female in North Dakota’s Badlands.
As Heather carefully secured Carver and Chim in the left compartment of the back of Ann Randall’s field truck – making sure the whole thing was safe and a spill-proof container of water was available should either cat wake – Bear and Steve assured Ken and Heather and Maya that they’d be fine and were ready to go receive the male. Steve had just days before arranged with a trusted older friend, Joe, to tranquilize a male Puma who had been successfully hunting deer and siring cubs in the western Black Hills for years. Joe had been planning to run this big Tom down with his hounds, then shoot him for a trophy. Steve had offered Joe $500 for that cat brought down with a harmless dart and left for the biologists to retrieve. Joe had countered over the bar quietly that he’d do it for “a grand,” and Bear nodded to Steve to accept the counter-offer. The side-story of this other successful capture and transfer will await another campfire.
Vivian was crafting a different, perhaps even legally riskier approach, for North Dakota’s Badlands. Two of her fellow Cornell PhD students, whom she liked immensely and trusted entirely, after many days in the field and in classes with them, were studying population dynamics among the recently recolonized Puma population in North Dakota’s Badlands. This Puma population was centered and protected in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – a rugged rocky remote place where Shortgrass Prairie met the Badlands, and Pumas could hunt Elk and both Mule and White-tail Deer, and learn to steer clear of powerful Bison.
Sally and Ronald, engaged and engaging, had told her, over glasses of her family’s merlot, that most of the cats they were studying had home ranges that went beyond the park and some of them were essentially doomed, living too near back-roads used by hounders (men, usually, who tracked down Pumas with hounds trained to find and follow wild cat scents). Sally had said they wished they could somehow move those imperiled cats to safer places.
In late 2019, Vivian gave them a way, through a long hand-written letter (to be burned), followed by cautiously worded email exchanges. First, though, she told them involvement in her idea could cost them their careers, as it could hers. They said that would be a small price to pay for saving the cats they’d grown to admire.
So, Sally and Ronald simply noted over the course of some months that PF7 (seventh female Puma tagged in TRNP) and PM6 (sixth male) had gone missing, perhaps having been killed or, more luckily, having dispersed. Sally & Ron had spent months roaming the strangely beautiful, sere, greenish gray, serrated landscape of North Dakota’s Badlands and the lusher nearby Missouri River riparian zone, determining one male Puma’s expansive territory and one pregnant female Puma’s smaller territory, within the adjacent male’s extensive domain, and had figured out the travel patterns of each. Then, in a remarkably, fortuitously quick, cold, and efficient operation, Vivian, Wood, and Gordy joined Sally & Ron to find and shoot with tranquilizers both those chosen Pumas in one long day – cheating, as many lion-slayers do, with a little bait (frozen venison from a doe Sally had shot for food that autumn) to increase their odds in each territory. After each shot, Vivian took vital signs, while Gordy covered the cat in blankets against the minus twenty chill, and Wood put on a harness and attached himself to the sled, to ski each out to the truck. By day’s end, the five humans had skied twenty miles, often against a brutally cold north wind, the two cats had sledded half that, and the people had a pregnant female Puma and a distant male Puma – almost certainly not her mate — safely asleep in the gray truck.
I wish we could take you out to dinner to thank you, Sally & Ron, Vivian said, as they carefully, wearily loaded their second quarry, the 150-pound male, in the truck, and Wood and Gordy nodded approvingly but impatiently. We will do everything in our power to keep these cats safe and keep your involvement with their relocation unknown to anyone besides us. If anything goes wrong, my family stands ready to pay you for your troubles. (My Aunt Ann has a conservation foundation, and she could use another biologist or two on staff.)
Slender Vivian, shivering, hurriedly promised to host a celebration with her aunt once the work was done, then forced Sally to accept a wad of cash that would enable them to stay in the field longer. All nearly catatonic with cold and worry for the cats, the two newest Catrunners (slightly post-dating Steve, in the Black Hills) drove south to their wall-tent field camp; while the original Catrunners drove east with their quarry. These three Catrunners and their two charges were to meet their seven counterparts in Madison, Wisconsin, early next morn, for quick cups of coffee, field reports, and changes of drivers (the cats to sleep through all this, their drivers trusted).
After more tribulations than any of them wanted to recount, the Catrunners were headed east in two trucks with three lithesome females and two powerful males of one of the most athletic species ever to roam this fair green Earth. They were violating state and federal laws to abide by a higher, more natural law, they told themselves.
The trip east for the weary Catrunners was exhausting. The five Pumas were all drugged into days-long sleepiness (the pregnant female with the least sedative, though, to minimize risk to her unborn cubs). The seven road-bound Catrunners took turns driving, choosing tunes, and sleeping, with only occasional rest-stops to trade positions, fill tanks, and stretch cramped limbs. The people (especially claustrophobic Wood and naturally curious Vivian) all craved to stop and wander in the little state parks and refuges not far from I-90; but for the sake of their feline quarry, they dared not. Heather and Gordy had invented a system to boost the sedative as needed, but they all knew time under the influence of drugs could not be good for the cats.
Finally, though, in northeast Ohio, as they were all getting stir-crazy (most insufferably, fidgety Wood), Ken called for a stop and walk, and texted ahead to Heather to pull over at the next town park. As chance would have it, the stop proved far from restful.
The park was vacant of other people, so everyone quickly filed out of the two vehicles, and quietly looked in on the five big cats. Heather assured everyone she and Viv, with Ken and Gordy as back-ups, were continuing to monitor their vital signs every few minutes, and their numbers remained steady and safe, thankfully.
You always have been good at mixing cocktails, Maya kidded her mate. I could have predicted a quick collapse into sleep followed by a long relaxing slumber for any who imbibed the mixologist’s elixir!
Yeah, I’ll take one of Heather’s Deep Slumber Specials soon as we’re safely home, Bear agreed.
Heather and Vivian stayed at the vehicles to confer on cat-care, while the others trotted off for quick stretches and runs. Wood was alternating between short sprints and one-arm pull-ups on a stout oak branch, when suddenly another truck pulled up, nearer the brook and its mill pond. He watched in stunned horror as three stout young men grabbed a squirming, mewing bag from the back and hurled it into the pond.
Kittens, help! Wood yelled, as he sprinted for the pond and dove in. The three burly hurlers were about to screech away in their truck when one of them had qualms, and jumped back out of the truck. Meanwhile, Wood was struggling in deep cold water to find the bundle of drowning kittens. The current was carrying him toward a dam with a thirty-foot spill-over onto rocks. Gordy was the first of the other Catrunners to reach the bank; with Maya and Ken and Bear following behind.
Ken took charge: Form a chain; Bear you at the water there. Burly Boys, you anchor us, so Bear can lean way out. Maya, run for a rope.
Swimming was Wood’s weakest athletic skill, and he barely had enough breath in the bitter cold water to swim to the bottom, look around, then resurface. He did this once, glimpsed a blurry light object twenty feet out, surfaced, inhaled, and dove again. He guessed well, and swam hard down, then with bag in hand more slowly up. Breaking the surface, he held the bag aloft so the little ones could breathe, but this left him only three limbs with which to fight the current. As the current propelled him and the kittens toward the dam, he kicked with all this might, got to within five feet of the bank, and hurled the bag to Bear’s outstretched hands. Bear caught the sack of kittens, the human chain leaned in, and Bear gently tossed the sack back to Ken, who quickly set it down on flat ground and reformed the chain to reach for his struggling friend in the water.
The rope was too late. Only a desperate lunge on Wood’s part and Bear’s strong receiving hand spared Wood a potentially fatal dashing on the rocks below. Bear and Wood clasped hand-to-wrist/hand-to-wrist in the strongest bond desperation knows; and Bear and the line behind him all pulled Wood out, just before the last surge of water could take him.
By now, Heather and Vivian had rushed over with Maya and the rope. Heather and Maya gingerly untied the bag of kittens, while Vivian tended to Wood, who was asking to see the kittens, in between shivers and gasps for breath.
Two of the Burly Boys leaned sullenly against their truck, while the youngest apologized profusely and asked how he could help. Ken responded sternly: Tell us your names, Burly Boys, and promise you’ll find homes for these kittens and never kill needlessly like this again.
Heather blew life-reviving breaths into two of the three kittens who were in worst shape. The third was dead, sadly, having drowned too quickly to be saved. Two others were fine almost right away, and started purring at the attention being poured on them by the Catrunners, and now, too, one of the Burly Boys. The two Heather revived quickly came around as well. All four surviving kittens were coddled within Catrunners’ coats for warmth, as Gordy ran to get milk from the cooler in the truck to fortify them.
Vivian held shivering Wood and put her coat over him, while Gordy rushed back from the truck, with warm dry clothes for Wood and milk for the kittens, as the rescued swimmer sank further into hypothermia. Watching the cats’ rescuers, the Burly Boys opened up: I’m Mark, said the youngest and biggest and kindest of the three brothers, and these are my brothers Butch and Donald. Burly actually is our last name, and I reckon it fits. We shouldn’t a done that, but our daddy said we got too many cats in the barns already, and gotta start getting rid of ‘em. I guess we should take them to an animal shelter, but nearest one is thirty miles away, and I hear they’re overcrowded with cats already.
Heather had all the kittens but the one sadly lost looking fresh as new now, and spoke up: You can keep these kittens in your barns, if that’s the best home you can give them; and get them and all your other cats spayed and neutered. Then they can live decent lives without multiplying. Of course, it would be nicest if you’d let the cats come into your home, too; and put colored collars with bells on them so they don’t kill songbirds.
Vivian brokered the deal: We’d like to adopt these kittens, but we can’t. We’re devoted to protecting cats domestic and wild, and right now we’re on a trip serving wild cats, like Bobcats and Pumas. If you’ll promise to give these kittens good homes and get them and your other cats neutered by a veterinarian, we’ll pay for it.
Mark looked at his brothers for approval, got tentative nods yes, then answered:
Vivian handed the stunned young man three hundred-dollar bills and her card, saying, Send me a bill if it costs more. Treat these cats and your others like family, and you’ll all be happier for it. The older brothers were clearly moved by this demonstration of love for other animals, and murmured their assent for the new cat-care plan. Ken then handed his business card to Mark, and closed the social session with an affirmation: I think you learned something about compassion today, young man. If you want to help other cats, wild and domestic, call me sometime. And please give me your number so we can check on these cats.
Heather then carefully handed the kittens to the brothers, lovingly, one by one. The Catrunners watched optimistically as the three Burly Boys drove off, each with a kitten or two in his lap, and enough money to get the little ones started on good lives. Wood was warmed by the sight, as well as the thick clothes and thermos of hot coffee Viv and Maya had given him.
When the Catrunners finally got back on the road, an hour later than planned, all were upset by the near-death experiences for five and the one lost kitten, but also strangely refreshed to see a few lives so quickly bettered. Vivian was the most shaken, for as a scientist, she knew that with Wood’s low body fat, his temperature had dropped dangerously low in the cold water; and as a friend … she was awash in worries. She let Wood lean against her and snooze in the back of the truck as Ken drove and played Gordon Lightfoot music, to calm frayed nerves. As Wood slipped into a deep healing sleep on Vivian’s shoulder in the back seat, and Bear dozed to his right, Ken asked: You ok, Viva; want to talk?
Vivian responded: I’ll be all right once we’re home and all cats safely delivered. I just get shaken every time Wood risks his life for others. I worry one of these days he’ll succeed in sacrificing himself for the animals he loves so much.
While his brother nodded affirmatively but sleepily, Ken concurred: We may indeed see that, unless he has you to live for, Viv. This martyr’s syndrome he seems to bear is not only about you, but it seems to have become largely about you – to the extent it is not the true altruism he believes we must all muster. It goes back at least to his father’s death. His father was a deeply good man, whom I first got to know when we served together on a Saint Lawrence River clean-up project in the 1990s. As he taught his son to be, Jim Wood was committed to serving neighbors, including wild neighbors; but some would say he went too far, when he dove in front of a car to save a Bobcat kitten. He left his family in anguish from that fatal lunge. Neither Wood nor his mother has ever fully recovered. We all probably wonder sometimes if Wood feels he must match his father’s self-sacrifice.
His mother’s heritage probably added to his need to confront danger. As you know, Wood and Bear and I all share some Mohawk genes, and Wood has even more Native American blood than have Bear and I. You know his mother, too, but maybe not yet well enough to sense that she may have inadvertently given Wood a bit of a white man’s burden, for being only half Native (and that part mixed, too) and painfully aware that the other half of his heritage nearly exterminated the first half.
Let’s not get too heavy here, though, Viv. Wood saved those kittens, with help from all of us, and none of the rest of us were near enough to make the dive on time. Gordy and I are both stronger swimmers than Wood is, but we were farther away and even Gordy can’t run as fast. Speaking as a SEAL, that whole rescue operation was actually well done; and I doubt any Catrunner will tell any other that she or he should not risk his or her life to save some cats!
Seriously, Viv, it’s not your job to save Wood from himself; and I don’t say any of this to pressure you; just to remind you of a hard truth you two must both bear. Wesley would die for you, but he would also die without you, Vivian Green.
At the sound of her name, Wood stirred, on her shoulder, before Viv could answer fully. She quickly thanked Ken, and said Let’s talk more about this after we’re home, Ken … Please turn up the volume — I love this song …
Then she and Ken joined Gordon Lightfoot in singing Too Silent to Be Real.