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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2005


The Track of the Cat
by Damian Fagan

I am perhaps 10 minutes late, but some might say, in this case, that is a good thing.

I walk back to my vehicle through an open ponderosa pine forest. It has not rained for some time and the trail has a coat of dust that holds the imprint of my footsteps like a hungry predator holds its prey. I see the shoe’s trademark standing out like an ephemeral advertisement, a hiker’s billboard for the bootmaker. But it is not the images of my boots that I focus on. No, it is another recent traveler’s prints that catch my eye, especially since I thought I was the only one on this trail.

The morning light slants through the openings in the forest and casts shadows across the prints that enhance their features - large rounded toes topping off a heel pad the size of my fist. The heel pad bears the characteristic marks of its maker: a 2-lobed leading edge and a scalloped 3-lobed trailing edge. I stop and squat to better examine the tracks and their gait. Placement of the feet shows the hind paw overlapping the front one, similar to that of a housecat, except much bigger. Much, much bigger.

I look up half expecting to see a tawny figure with yellow eyes, watching me as I watch for it. I have a weak hope that I’ll see this creature, this lion from the mountains, this catamount from the wilds, from a distance far enough away to not be mistaken for prey. I remind myself not to run, not to bolt like some wild-eyed deer, not unless I want to send a signal that broadcasts “Eat Me!”

These mountain lions rely upon mule deer for a major portion of their diet. Elk, rabbits, rodents, bighorn sheep, grouse, and the unnerving category – other – which includes waterfowl, other lions, livestock, and on a very rare occasion, humans. Though the media tends to make sensational stories out of rare events, I can’t help but to feel my inclusion in that ‘other’ category, especially from the stories that I have read. Even though I am familiar with the numbers: over the past 100 years something like 20 human deaths have been at the hands, er jaws, of Felis concolor. I know that the annual fatality rate from rattlesnake bites, bee stings, lightning strikes, and neighborhood dogs, independent of each other, equals or exceeds 100 years worth of cat attacks. Still, I can’t seem to ignore those slight odds or the gambler’s adage of “always bet on the long shot.”

Though cougars enjoy a lofty spot on the food chain, they themselves are not immune from the retaliation of their prey. Perusing different research, I found one study where two different captured cougars had porcupine quills embedded in their throats. In another study conducted in Big Bend, Texas, a captured cat smelled strongly of skunk perfume. Sometimes underdogs win - a thought that bolsters my chances.

As I mull over the options – climb tree, run like a deer, yell, fight back, I immediately discard the first two. The third is a possibility, although I may not be able to find my voice by then. The fourth feels reassuring, but standing there alone in the woods I feel like a shadow boxer with nothing to hit but a false image. Better yet, I feel like a fool when I consider my history.
In all my years of wandering the backcountry wildlands of the Southwest, I have never seen a wild cougar. I can’t say I’ve hiked a million miles but I’ve covered some ground. As a park ranger in Arches National Park, I would grind my molars when informed by a tourist that they had just spotted a cougar crossing one of the park’s roads. Or, better yet, when they would ask me what a cougar looked like for they had spotted some “large cat” lazing about on the sandstone. So, with all this in mind, I carefully choose to follow the fresh tracks and maybe get my first glimpse of this fabled “shadow cat.”

I walk slowly back towards the trailhead. I stop often, scan the trail and surrounding woods with my binoculars, listening for the nerve-shattering sound of snapping twigs. I pay attention to the few birds calling, figuring that if they stop singing, something is up. Although I half expect some mule deer to come blasting out of the woods with a lion hot on its tail, nothing of the sort happens. Again, I am the victim of my preconceived notions.





When I reach my vehicle I see that the tracks follow the road a short ways before veering off into the thickets. Like an invitation to step into the haunted house, I stand before the dense vegetation and contemplate my options. Plunge in and see a cat. Plunge in and get eaten. If I were pulling apart a daisy I would end with “She loves me not.” I stand there on the edge of the road for a few minutes more while my mind conjures up a better excuse than I’m just not that brave to plunge into good cougar habitat.

Later that day one of my coworkers tells about how he saw a mountain lion kitten sitting in the middle of the road earlier in the day. He had just seen a black bear cub a few miles back, and then there was this young cougar. The kitten and he exchanged surprised looks, and then it bolted off into the woods. He waited in his vehicle for the mother to race across the road, but she wasn’t about to show herself. After a time he had driven away, whistling at his good luck.

Even though my luck was not as fortunate as my coworker’s, I was pleased about my encounter. Even though mine was only minutes-old tracks, this meant that there were cougars up in these hills keeping the deer population honest. Perhaps my luck would change the following day or sometime in the near future and I would get a glimpse of this secretive predator. Then again I thought, maybe no luck at all is better than having bad luck.
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