Kindred Spirits 06.08.09
Jesse Wolf Hardin Kindred Spirits
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An Excerpt from an exceptionally beautiful and moving work





The Saga of the Puma

...the young lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet.

—The Prayer Book, 1665

A lion who dies of an ass's kick, the wronged great soul of an ancient Master.

—Robert Browning, “Old Pictures in Florence”

Auf Andere warte ich...

For others do I wait... for higher ones, stronger ones, more triumphant ones, merrier ones, for such as are built squarely in body and soul:

laughing lions must come...

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Die Begrussung”

Escape! Escape!

You felt this terror before, if only in the black sweat of your worst nightmare. Relentlessly pursued. And no where to escape to, nowhere free of discovery, nowhere safe.

Run! Run for your very life. Tight-fisted heart pounding against your ribcage. Legs cramping, flailing like the frantic fins of a beached fish. You suffer the screaming lungs of someone unable to surface. Submerged, not underwater, but under too thin air. Staring up through watering eyes, searching for the orienting glow of sun or moon, any indication of north and south, up and down. The earth spins beneath you. Every step is labored now, as if running in deep sand. Your mind strains against all known reference, the way a tree strains at the inescapable approach of the logger's chainsaw.

Stop to rest and you're finished. Somehow you've got to go on, and there's really only one way to go. Listen carefully, over the rush of blood in your ears, over the brush breaking in staccato bursts beneath your swelling feet. Listen for the clamor, penetrating the silence like polished teeth. Listen for the maddened tones of baying dogs, ever louder, rolling up on you, suffocating you with sound, shoving you forward, slamming you down against ungiving ground. Quickly! Fix their position in your panting mind, and then run in the opposite direction. Away! Away!

You don't know who is chasing you, or why. But you know instinctively that it is you they pursue. Single-mindedly, mechanically, with the determination of death and the finality of extinction. You've tried every trick— exiting the river a hundred yards below where you entered it. Backtracking and circling around them. Racing along rimrock where your scent is less likely to adhere, where there is no sand to record the shape and depth of your steps and spill your story to your tormentors. Struggling up near-vertical cliffs as telltale rocks plummet noisily below. But nothing seems to work! The frothing, bug-eyed pack is almost on you, and somewhere following, the armed men who trained them to find you. Trackers and marksmen, bloodhounds and attack dogs, servants of the paradigm. Man and dog unified in common cause, obsessed with but a single goal. And that goal is to kill you.

There is no other way they could catch you in this dense undergrowth. You could easily crawl under a canopy of boughs, climb a high tree, or squeeze into a rock crevice, pulling concealing brush in behind you. But there's no hiding from those determined canine noses, raised heads sniffing the prevailing wind, or lowered to root and probe leaf-strewn soil. Even if they were days behind you instead of hot on your trail, they would still find you eventually, homing in like flies to rotting flesh. They're coming to get you!

You break cover, leaping onto the sheer face of a sandstone spire, digging your trembling nails in as the toeholds give way to the weight of your trembling body. You fall hard to the ground as the pack comes abruptly into sight. You squint to see the sparkle of the setting sun bounce off their collars of chain and trailing beads of spittle.

What to do? Keep your back against the rock, strike out at the closest one with all your might, taking care not to expose your back to the others harrying your sides, testing your steadily slowing reaction time. If they can, they will rip into your throat, disembowel you, pull bitefulls of your hair out, and then urinate on your lifeless corpse. If you fight back hard enough, you might survive to witness the clumsier approach of their handlers. You will then have the privilege of watching helplessly as one of them unhurriedly removes a revolver from its sheath, pulls the hammer back, and sends a one-hundred and fifty-eight grain lead and copper projectile at eleven hundred feet-per-second crashing through the front of your skull.

You are Puma, the mountain lion. And your life is at an end.

Panther. Painter. Cougar. Much too wily to be stalked, they are vulnerable to two things: loss of habitat, and men with hounds. Dogs, the genetically manipulated descendants of the wolf, are turned against their wild brethren, accomplishing what “Lord Man” cannot do for himself: outmaneuver the great cats! They are the four-legged equivalent of the “good Indians” once employed as turncoat scouts to search out the hidden “hostiles” for a largely inept U.S. Cavalry.

Hunting the largest cats north of the Mexican border with dogs is objectionable for several reasons. Unlike meat hunters, acting out an ancient imperative and providing food for their families, the lion hunter seldom samples the flesh of his quarry, leaving it for scavengers, or cutting it up for dog food. Usually only the hide is taken, or the hide and head to be turned into a fearsome mount by a local taxidermist. It's common in the west for urban “sportsmen” to wait for a call that a cat has been treed before buying his license and rushing to the scene. Either way, he has only to work his way to the radio-collared dogs and pull the trigger on a cat helplessly treed ten feet away. And while the use of dog packs virtually insures a kill, the elimination of dog hunting would do as much as prohibiting hunting them altogether towards removing this pressure.

With skill and practice I have been able to sneak up on feeding black bear, and learned to walk the stream bank without alerting the trout swimming at the edge of the shadows. Yet I have spent years in the middle of lion country without ever having the fortune of seeing one. I once followed a big female all day, returning homeward in defeat only to find her tracks superimposed over mine where she, in turn, had followed me. Although I never saw her, I knew she'd had her feline eyes on me, and that alone felt justly invigorating. What a blessing to ever glimpse them in the wilds, staring back at you, eye to eye, before vanishing like tawny specters into a mosaic of rock and scrub.

Hunters and preservationists alike agree that this is one hell of an animal. A hundred to two hundred pounds of lithe energy, they can swim, climb trees, and leap up to twenty-five feet in two quick bounds in order to secure some prey. They may cover twenty miles in a single night's hunt. A female's two to six cubs are fully four feet long by the end of their first year, and will stretch to eight feet from nose to tail by adulthood.

Trapped and poisoned as a threat to livestock, the truth is that the lions much prefer deer and rabbits on their plate. This has earned them the enmity of a certain percentage of deer hunters, although lion predation actually works towards a strengthening of the herd. Cougar kills of sick or weaker deer prevent the epidemics associated with overpopulation, and insures their genetic viability.

The greatest threat to the puma, as with most species, is the disappearance of the larger natural ecosystem, the various prey species, the undisturbed environment, the ground, the room they need to survive.

Once extending over 120° latitude, from the tip of South America to the uppermost Yukon, the mountain lion at one time claimed the largest home range of any terrestrial mammal in this hemisphere. They were equally at home in brushy canyons, wide open mesas, pine bottoms, rocky chaparral and tropical rainforest. Yet by 1990 they were likely extinct in all of eastern Canada and virtually extirpated from the eastern United States— all except a few isolated individuals in northern Vermont and the southern Appalachians, and some thirty members of the distinct subspecies, felis concolor coryi. While referred to as the Florida panther, it originally haunted the wooded lands as far east as Louisiana, and as far north as Tennessee. In the next decade it is another subspecies likely to die out, finally succumbing to hybridization, illness related to inbreeding and the development of the last suitable lion habitat in the state of Florida.

As of this writing there are an estimated fifteen hundred people per day moving into the “Sunshine State”— retirees from the madness of industrial urban areas, refugees from the crowds who in turn become the crowd again. Diversion of water and backfilling of wetlands in southern Florida have resulted in the destruction of habitat in and adjacent to Everglades National Park, with a concentration of contaminants in the remaining surface water. Escaped exotic plant species are now crowding out the native vegetation depended on by the threatened deer population, the panther's primary prey. Building roads into Florida panther habitat, as into puma habitat anywhere, sounds the death knell for their kind. Roads are the equivalent of open wounds in the body of the ecosystem, opening up a pathway for pathogenic agents— in this case, man-made fires, disruptive ATV and four-wheel drive traffic, the droves of real estate developers, the dramatic increase in hunters of both the lions and their principal food source, an increase in the number of lions hit by vehicles (continent wide, as many as seven die by car for every one that dies by bullet), and the overall loss of solitude for a species dependent upon it.

First listed as endangered in 1967, it wasn't until an Audubon conference on the vanishing species in 1976 that it began to receive any real consideration or attention. The panther was an animal occasionally found dead on the side of the interstate highway, and otherwise best left slumbering, while the mega-billion dollar real-estate boom progresses unabated. And as always, there were those in the scientific and academic communities who questioned if the physical anomalies of a subspecies (for the panther this includes a narrower face, raised or “Roman” line, white-flecked necks, and a decidedly kinked tail) are worthy of protection when similar species survive elsewhere. Following the initial conference a recovery team was formed for the purpose of studying and determining ways of preserving the subspecies, the last large true carnivores in the eastern half of this continent. Given that we are talking about a total species population of three dozen or less, saving them from looming extinction would require some extreme efforts. One such extreme would be the appropriation of remaining private, wooded lands north of the “Alligator Belt”— the last suitably dry and yet undeveloped lion habitat in the state. They chose, instead, extreme monitoring, handling and manipulation. Whatever the success of their methods, while they are trying to “manage” the species recovery, the last of its territory is handed over to subdivisions accommodating the seemingly endless population growth.

Critics of intensive management in general point to the case of the Florida panther, hunted by biologists with hounds, treed, shot with tranquilizer darts, and fitted with bulky radio collars with capture devices. For the rest of their lives they will wear these instruments of concern and control, regularly recaptured, weighed, their blood taken, their dignity robbed. For the few males in zoos, add to their denigration the ramming of an electric rod up their anus to stimulate the ejaculation of sperm destined for in vitro union. Part of the team strategy involves test-tube unions, followed by implantation in a surrogate mother— a western cougar chosen for that purpose. The researchers seem saddened, believing that they have to invasively manipulate the panther to save it, whereas with a slightly different cultural attitude towards the wild, none of this remedial floundering would have been necessary in the first place.

In 1989 a Captive Breeding Specialist Group was called in. Their conclusions were that the Florida Panther would be totally extinct within twenty-five years without an intensive captive breeding program. In 1990 special permits were requested for the capture of an initial ten wild panthers for this purpose. The permits were stalled by the filing of lawsuits by animal rights activists and deep ecologists on the grounds that the agencies entrusted with the animals’ survival had done nothing to protect the little suitable lion habitat on public land, nor to protect the bulk of lion habitat which is privately owned, either through land-use legislation or acquisition. Neither had they made any attempt to insure the panther's prey base by restricting deer hunting in their known territory. Most importantly, according to conservation biologists, the removal of the animals from the wild frees the developers from any possible restraints. They point to the madcap rush to develop California condor habitat north of Los Angeles following their capture for that species' experimental breeding program.

It seems to me the problem is that researchers justify undignified treatment of the individual animal if it seems to benefit the integrity of the species. If we applied this to the human sociopolitical arena, it would be all right to torture suspects if it seemed to reduce the incidence of crime. Some hold that the panthers would be better served by allowing them to face their death in complete freedom, with their dignity intact. They ask, “Would you lock your mother up against her will in an effort to treat her illness?” They ask, “Is a life in confinement really living at all?” For the answer we need only turn to the spirits of these magic animals.

If field biology is to be an integral part of species preservation, it must be plied with a gentle hand. Cartesian science functions only as a narrow lens; to perceive the vast intricacy of the natural world, scientists must broaden their vision to include a sense of the great mysteries inherent in the wild spirit.

—Jan DeBlieu, Meant To Be Wild

The panther is almost gone, the western puma hurting in the Pacific mountain states and only holding its own in western Canada and the Rocky Mountain states. The presence of the puma is like that of the wolf and the bear. Wild turkey in lion country see farther and fly harder. The deer are bigger, stronger, swifter, more alert, more alive as a direct result of the lone cat's stalk, short downhill rush, and decisive blow.

We hominids seldom get to lay eyes on them. So what is their lesson? The big cats, even in their absence, tell a story like the vanished Anasazi tribes that shared their southwestern range:

Old One, I feel you in these windswept lonely places

in the calm of breathless echoes.

Your touch lies gentle on the land

Steps still sound in the shadows of the ledges

the far side of golden mesas.

Earth holds you

Spirit whole


—Walkin' Jim Stoltz, The Whisper Behind the Wind

Somewhere in the Rockies, on a warm outcropping, mother puma is being mauled by her spotted, blue-eyed young. Her whiskers are being pulled and ears nipped as she gently pushes them back. Shelies curled, but flowing, like a golden furred lake bordered by sandstone. When she moves, she embodies the physics of water, weighty liquid waves, one ripple after another beneath loose-hung skin. Always flowing.

She doesn't jump down the rocks, but cascades over them, hindquarters and tufted tail following the front half through some invisible river channel. She flows down the dry wash, the arroyo seco, filling the mountain seeps and fissures.

To protect the puma is to secure a secret too special for the telling, to save a spirit floating noiselessly somewhere outside the limits of our experience. It means protecting a poetic ensemble of fur and claw, a set of somber yellow orbs staring out of the Paleolithic towards an uncertain future. They are the feel of water in the shape of a cat, an artistic subject of the highest beauty, a vision of grace you will probably never get to witness. Music you may never get to hear. With puma, we learn the medicine of appreciating that which is not there for us.

A man looks into a pool of water. He sees a reflection of himself first, and apart from that, he sees a reflection of the world.

The puma looks into a pool of water, and sees the world...

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