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ASLAN
RESURRECTED
Searching for wild panthers in a
domesticated world
'ByJay CJ1rk
The Being that we are asking about is almost like poor man who called him one day out of breath,
Nothing. a guy who confessed that he'd been ridiculing
-Heidegger Roger behind his back for years, that he'd never

I t was only my third day in Ulysses, Pennsyl-


vania, when the one-armed panther hunter and
believed, but now he'd seen the truth and, he
said, you can tell me they're pink from now on and
I'll believe ya. Converts alwaysmake his day. "How
I stepped in out of the abyssto playa game of pool. many people like to admit they're wrong?" he
We'd been searching the hills that morning, like asked me. "Darn few." He studied the seven ball
the morning before, for an animal sternly and then sank it gently.
that I had been told all my life did "You're darn right."
not exist, but then, just before In the months since I began
noon, we'd come across a set of looking for the supposedly extinct
its tracks in the snow. At first, eastern panther (a.k.a. mountain
standing outside his truck, squint- lion, puma, cougar, ghost cat of
ing at the large, long-gaited pug- America), coming to the conclu-
marks, holding himself with his sion that it is quite possibly the
one arm for warmth, my elderly most metaphysical mystery in
companion had seemed uncertain. American natural history, I have
But now, as Roger Cowburn an- flown in gut-wrenching pirouettes
gled his cue, he was more than fifty feet over the Everglades in a
certain, almost evangelical, act- falling-apart Cessna piloted by a
ing as if the beating he was going hungover Frenchman; I have in-
to dole out to me was due punish- sulted chaplain-faced biologists
ment for my lack of faith. with badly timed questions about
The game room in the back of feline electroejaculation; I have
his house was forsaken and stale-smelling like an been given a deep-tissue massage by an employ-
after-hours club for veterans. The bottles behind ee of the West Virginia Division of Natural Re-
the built-in bar looked as musty as the skins and sources-a balding, dentally compromised guy
heads and other uselessparts of slain animals dec- with flaming skulls tattooed on his forearms; I
orating the walls. Staring at me down the cue have ducked lightning while tiptoeing through a
stick with a triumphal glow in his keen hunter's bear sanctuary; and I have listened to exasperat-
eyes, he said that nothing makes his heart gladder ed apparatchiks of the wildlife agencies, who are,
than a nonbeliever, like myself, turned believer. frankly, "sick of this crap" about the mythical
He tapped the corner pocket. It's like this one panthers. I have dwelt in the penetralia of

Jay Kirk's last article for Harper'sMagazine,"Watching the Detectives," appeared in the August 2003 issue.

FOLlO 49
Appalachia with seekers and hard-boiled moun- long bloody trail led from the woods where the
tainmen. I have visited sordid animal sanctuar- deer had been killed and then dragged to the
ies where mountain lions are caged in cement edge of the road. A cursory postmortem revealed
cells plastered with ads for psychics and divorce that the heart, liver, and lungs of the deer had
lawyers; I've gazed upon the entrails of dead an- been eaten-or were, at any rate, missing. It was
imals; and I've studiously attempted to learn how this unique way in which the prey's viscera had
to discern a tapered coil of fox shit from the been dispatched, and the way the remains were
then halfheartedly covered with loose dirt, leaves,
and debris, that convinced Roger the culprit was
THE TONE OF THE MEETING IS in fact Puma concolor couguar. "First they pull
FURTIVE, AS IF THE CELL HAD out the intestines." Roger pronounces the last
syllable so that I can't help but imagine ropy in-
EVIDENCE OF A PLOT FOR nards coiled around the tines of a fork. "Now, a
WORLD DOMINION bear will just rip one all to pieces. A coyote will
hamstring it. But a cat, they'll break its neck, go
for the throat, bleed it out."
blunter robustos left by what I have begun to They searched the area and took photographs.
think of as my bete noire. But my pursuit began While Olson scoured the ground looking for
at a meeting last year, around Roger's kitchen more evidence-he has a talent for nosing out
table, with several core members of a group of self- scat-Roger got his detective kit from the truck
proclaimed "true believers" called the Eastern and set about mixing a batch of plaster. They re-
Puma Research Network (EPRN). . turned to the site every day, but the carcass re-
The house is freezing cold. Shivering under mained undisturbed. Perhaps the cat, put off by
three layers, I am seated across the kitchen table the human stink of forensic molestation, had
from a man named Norman Davis, in a big black abandoned its quarry. By the fourth day still
Russian shapka, and Roger, who holds court from nothing had fed on it, so they conducted a field
the end. Stitched to the good sleeve of Roger's autopsy by skinning out the carcass and count-
bulky parka is the official Eastern Puma Field Re- ing the wounds. In the black-bound photo album
search patch, an encircled snarling eat's head tediously documenting each bloody step of their
bearing closer resemblance, on first glance, to a inquest, there is a close-up of a latex-gloved
saber-toothed tiger than to a mountain lion. The hand tugging back the hide of the fawn with a
furtive tone of the meeting, as if the cell has in hand-drawn arrow pointing to a puncture in the
its possession evidence of a plot for world do- exposed crimson under the caption "tooth mark."
minion rather than clues to a natural mystery, is When they came back on the tenth day, they
made only slightly more tense by the presence of found fresh tracks in the mud, and the deer was
its third member, a mute in tall rubber boots not where they'd left it. They searched up and
standing just behind me, his thuggish presence un- down the road until they found it again, dragged
softened by a faded sweatshirt blazoned with a sad, out into a field and almost completely devoured,
green-irised puma under his camouflage jacket. nothing left but ribs and hoof. Everything about
Scattered before me are the morguish photos the predation showed signs of a mountain lion,
of slain woodland creatures and half a dozen paw- Roger said, right down to the way its spinal cord
print plaster casts. On the table is a can of Zip- was severed. Roger knows the behavior of the cat
po lighter fluid, a sputtering police scanner, and intimately. He has seen kills like this himself
a small-caliber pistol half-concealed in a sock. several times. And yet the animal he's talking
A box of shotgun shells sits on top of the about has been thought extinct now
microwave. And looking down on us, caught in for over a hundred years.
a ray of late-afternoon sun, hung above the
kitchen table, is a beatific portrait of a panther, he fate of the eastern panther was sealed by
framed by heavenly blue, like Jesus Himself. the arrival of European settlers. When the super-
Roger holds up one of the casts-which re- stitious pilgrims first encountered the primordial
sembles, in heft and texture, a large fossilized bestiary of the New World-wolves, bears, and
clam-and traces its lobed heel pad while com- prehistoric serpents among the mangroves-it
paring it with a heavier bear track. This partic- was the panther that preyed on their worst fears.
ular cast was made from tracks found near the It was a monster with a "Tail like a Lyon, its
body of a fawn that Roger's cousin discovered Leggs like a Bear's ... its Claws like an Eagle, its
while plowing a late March snowfall. Roger and eyes like a Tyger, its countenance ... a mixture of
his research deputy, Olson, the guy standing over every Thing that is Fierce and Savage." Powerful
me, had gone to the scene and found the rabbit- enough to pull down a horse, to leap twenty feet
faced fawn in the ditch, its abdomen sliced open into the branches of a tree with a dog clamped in
and its guts strewn on the half-frozen ground. A its jaws, the cat, when hungry enough, could

50 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I APRIL 2004


slaughter a flock of sheep in a single night. Its un- had shot a panther or two himself, declared the
earthly scream sounded like a woman being mur- animal close to extinction in the eastern states
dered; its hide glowed like "fox-fire at night and by 1851. The last bounty paid in Pennsylvania
green lights burned from the eyes"; it stalked was in 1868, and the last confirmed eastern pan-
children; it was rumored to have a taste for preg- ther killed in the United States was shot in
nant wives. Barnard, Vermont, on Thanksgiving Day, 1881.
With the Inquisition, during which cats were Its stuffed corpse was then mounted and parad-
associated with witchcraft, fresh in the pilgrims' ed from town to town under the billing: "Mon-
minds, the panther was an intolerable demon, a ster Panther-Don't Fail to See Him-An Ob-
dread symbol of the dark ject Lesson in Natural
wilderness they had come to History." Thus was the pan-
tame with the benevolent light ther banished from the
of Christianity. So then, after wilderness.
all of the deer and the rabbits The larger species, Puma
and the grouse and the turkeys concolor-a genus of its own-
and the elk had been wiped is now officially confined to a
out by over-hunting and by few patches of South America,
cutting down the forests to let Texas, and fringes of the west-
in all that celestial light, thus ern United States and Cana-
forcing the panther to eat the da; the only known remnant
settlers' livestock, it waseasy to in the East is a genetically
tum it into a scapegoat. "It is compromised population of
now only," Henry W. Shoe- fifty or so cats mucking out an
maker lamented in his 1917 existence in the swamps of
treatise Extinct Pennsylvania southern Florida. It's hard to
Animals, "that people are be- believe it survived at all, con-
ginning to wake up to the fact sidering the universal vilifica-
that the panthers were the victims of a cowardly tion. To the famous panther slayer Ben Lilly, "all
plot to avert the white hunters' culpability." panthers were dragons." Cougars are still treated
Bounties were set, and out of the forests rum- as varmint in Texas. Even one early curator at
bled wagonspiled high with slain lions,heaped like the American Museum of Natural History re-
Persian rugs.The cats were burned and their heads ferred to the panther as that "most insidious and
were stacked in the village square like bewitched, deadly foe of human kind." Thoreau, a lone voice,
outlawed gourds. A trapper could fetch twenty wrote in his journal, in 1856, that since the pan-
dollars for a scalp, but the animal was so reviled ther had been exterminated he felt that he lived
that its pelt was hardly worth nailing to the side in a "tamed and ... emasculated country."
of a drafty shithouse. Even some Native Ameri- One surprising reason hunters detested the
cans loathed the panther, since it was associated animal was for its alleged cowardice. Popular
with Machtando, the Evil One, and because they hunting lore had it that you could sneak up on
believed that the souls of unfaithful wives were re- the cat and pull its tail. "When about to be
born as cougars.The wolfwasa terrifyingfairy tale, knifed or shot, these animals are known to
but the panther was an inconceivable monster, the have looked the hunters in the eyes and shed
most vilified and feared of predators. real tears," Shoemaker wrote. Legendary out-
Once the species was dominant over a range doorsmen like James Capen "Grizzly" Adams
greater than any predator in the New World, had only contempt for the cougar .. Teddy
from northern Alberta to the tip of Patagonia'; Roosevelt, that great preserver of land, also
by 1890 the eastern subspecies had evaporated. believed the cougar to be a coward, referred to
It was considered officially extinct in New Jersey it as a "noxious species," and favored killing it
and Massachusetts by 1800, with the last strag- off entirely. And so it went that the policy of
glers killed in 1830 and 1858, respectively. The zero tolerance continued into the twentieth
last slain in Illinois was in 1818. Audubon, who century, with federal exterminators chasing
down the fugitives out West with strychnine-
, Its omnipresent range not only attests to the cat's abili-
laced horsemeat and catnip-scented traps.
ty to adapt to any climate-even, it appears, to the cli- These noble killers, early game wardens,
mate of nonexistence-but also suggests how the animal employees of the Predator and Rodent Control
acquired such an absurd catalogue of names: puma, division of the old U.S. Bureau of Biological
mountain lion, panther, cougar, catamount, painter, pur- Survey-the former name of the U.S. Fish and
ple panther, Ozark howler, red tiger, deer tiger, brown
lion, Mexican lion, American lion, mountain screamer, Wildlife Service, the same agency now respon-
cat-of-the-mountains, Indian devil, etc. No other crea- sible for protecting the wildlife it once so
ture, save perhaps God, has as many names. enthusiastically ushered into obsolescence-

lllustrarions by Stan Fellows. Page borders are details from Gwayakoshkaa, Nandawendagwed,
and Ninmikowa. by Tom Uttech. Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York City. !DUO 51
continued killing them one by one up until the one former director of the Fish and Wildlife Ser-
fifties, when people like Roger Cowburn began vice have claimed to have seen them. David
to see apparitions of the cat everywhere, like Mamet saw one in Vermont. Sightings come in
ghosts come back to haunt soldiers. from every direction. The believers think they
In the last decade, the number of sightings has are coming in by train tracks, coming down from
increased so much that you might begin to believe Canada, down off the high abandoned logging
the cats are everywhere. They are spotted in the roads, traveling along the craggy mountain ridges.
suburbs of Baltimore, in the ghettos of Philadel- The cats are coming in through tributaries from
phia, prowling the woods of Appalachia, and the West, migrating from the North, trickling up
haunting the grounds of nuclear reactors in the through the Appalachians, from Florida, from
South. Lured into cars at rest areas by ham-and- Texas, following their instincts, their internal
cheese sandwiches, they are seen absconding with compasses,coming in the dark, in the fog of morn-
dogs in their jaws. They are seen climbing tele- ing,so that one begins to imagine that they are con-
phone poles. Loping across bike paths. In ceme- vening, a coven of cats, and that they will keep
teries. Napping on church lawns. Chasing dogs in coming until they have flooded the East, that we
Mississippi. Trapped on the median strip of 1-91 won't see them until it's too late,
outside Boston. A woman in Binghamton, New " . until there's no place left to hide.
York, said that a mountain lion showed up in her
driveway and stared down her cat for twenty full he Game Commission categorically denies
minutes. Five teachers and sixty children at an el- they exist," says the man in the shapka. In the
ementary school in Pennsylvania saw a black pan- next room, the videotape of a tawny nebulous
ther, a mass hallucination that the Department of spot that appears to be licking itself in a square
Conservation and Natural Resources informed of sun-dappled grass, narrated by an astonished
them was not a puma but merely "a black collie hunter and his family, plays over and over. Be-
with mange.'" In Oneida, ew York, the birds side the mustard-upholstered couch is a small
have stopped chirping and there has been an table with a deer-leg lamp. On the wall is the
"eerie silence" since its citizens first saw a large fe- mounted head of a cat, its broad paws turned up
male cougar on the prowl. They devour house like coat hooks, with the head dead center, form-
pets and confound drunks. They give horses heart ing a grisly quincunx. The head is so deformed
attacks. They show up in Arkansas on the hoods by a bad taxidermy job that it's hard to tell if it's
of cars, on rennis courts. One panther visited an really rhe beast in question.
old lady who put supper out on the porch for it "They won't acknowledge nothin'," Roger says.
every night in winter. When it "There's a big cover-up."
cut its feet on the ice, she said, "A helluva cover-up."
the great cat lay still so she could Just yesterday Roger got a re-
stitch its bleeding paws. In Ohio port about game commissioners
a mountain lion attacked a man showing up at a farmer's out of the
and his dog riding peaceably on blue two days after he'd shot a
their ATV. When the same man cougar and deep-sixed it in his
shot it, a day later, its "claws back yard; the wardens knew he
were six inches from my barrel." had it because it'd been implant-
A dairy farmer in Orwell, Ver- ed with a tracking device and they
mont, found fifteen of his cattle told him if he didn't hand it over
sliced to ribbons. he'd be arrested.
They are everywhere. And "But yet the biologists say they
lest you think these are merely don't exist?"
the Appalachian phantasmagoria of individuals "Baloney, that's all."
"eating too many squirrel brains and drinking "Their big song and dance is that any moun-
muscadine wine" (as one endangered-species ex- tain lion that you do possibly see, if it isn't mis-
pert put it), know that there is no shortage of taken identity, 'cause usually they'll tell you you
credible witnesses. Game wardens in the Smoky saw a fish or you saw a coyote-but if you press
Mountain National Park watched a panther for it too much, if you describe the animal too close-
several hours through a telescope. The police are ly, they say, well yeah, you probably did see one,
still searching for a pair in Delaware. Animal- but it had to be an escaped pet."
control officers, U.S. representatives, and even Most people who believe in the eastern cougar
think that it somehow, against the odds, managed
"A local vet said that was ridiculous," says Norman to evade extinction by holding onto the craggy
Davis, "that there are no such things as black collies."
Which is odd, considering that there are no such things as remote parts of Appalachia and that the wildlife
black panthers either, if by panther you mean a mountain agencies deny its existence only out of ignorance.
lion-Puma concolor-and not a leopard. But to Roger and the other members of the EPRN,

52 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2C04


the campaign of denial is due to the fact that, takes me up to see where his cousin found the
quite simply, the government secretly reintro- massacred fawn. It is so cold that he still has
duced the lions. blue flecks of shampoo in his hair from when
It began in the early 1950s, around the same the pipes froze on him mid-shower. If you were
time that people out West began seeing UFOs. a secret government agent tracking cougars via
The government brought them in on boxcars satellite, looking down on Roger and me listen-
from Texas, put them into large cages on the ing to Tony Bennett, and you waited until night,
backs of trucks, and then let them out in the which would only make sense (cougars are noc-
woods. Roger sayshe knows of a district game pro- turnal), you would see that where we are, in Pot-
tector who set loose six cats into the Pennsylva- ter County, falls within one of the darkest spots
nia Grand Canyon, a dark stretch of forested in the eastern United States. But in freezing day-
gorge in the superior vena cava of the Alleghe-
nies. The man is now deceased, but his son, who
went along as a ten-year-old and helped his father Do NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON
release the cats, told Roger that his father had THE CAT. STAY CALM. DO NOT
"sworn him to secrecy."
"I'll tell you what I think the cover-up is about." TRY TO RUN. MAINTAIN EYE
Norman taps the table like a nervous stenogra- CONTACT. NEVER SCREAM
pher. "The minute they admitted they was here,
you know what would happen? The antis would
step in just like the people did in California," he light, on this narrow glaring road, where the
says, referring to the ban on hunting mountain snow is plowed into fjords taller than the roof of
lions that conservation and animal-rights groups our Blazer, the intensity of the cold and the
successfully lobbied for and put into law in 1990. brightness of the snow turn everything ultra
As a result, he says,people are now getting mauled vivid: a pink house with a battered Santa Claus
while walking the dog. Two women have been waving from the roof; a crowd of cows standing
killed jogging. A bird-watcher was eaten alive. around a steaming water trough, hock deep in
"They got an explosion of mountain lions out shit-stained snow; the Second Amendment Task
there right now." Force Charter Founder pin glinting in Roger's
It's true that as humans sprawl farther into NRAcap.
cougar territory in the West, attacks are on the In these few hundred square miles there are
rise. Nearly half the attacks on humans in the last more sightings than anywhere else in the eastern
hundred years have occurred over the past decade; United States, even more than are reponed in
two recent attacks on children resulted in a southern Florida, where the animal still official-
$50 million suit brought by the parents against the ly exists. (Although the Florida panther popula-
state of California for mismanagement of the tion dwindles at 60 to 80 individuals, according
lion. Just three years ago a man was mauled in a to EPRN figures there is a thriving population of
suburb of Denver: with blood trickling down his at least 1,500 cats, alive and well, in the East
face, he saw a vision of Christ that would have overall.) As we skirt a steep hollow rimmed with
made St. Ignatius jealous-St. Ignatius, who ea- trees the color of frozen mud, an icy stream mov-
gerly cried out from the Colosseum as the lions ing sluggishly below, Roger points out where he
approached: "I am the wheat of God. I must be found his last set of tracks, a few weeks ago. The
ground by the teeth of the lions into flour!" cat had come to the edge of the woods and then
If people knew, there'd be a panic, Norman jumped-thirty feet-to the embankment on
says. That's why the government doesn't want the other side, thirty feet of air from a stationary
it to get out. To counter this information black- position being nothing for a cougar. Roger fol-
out, the EPRN does its best to educate the pub- lowed the tracks all the way down into the ravine
lic so that people will take the imminent threat and then back up into the pines on the other
of this predator seriously. When you write to side. No one saw the cat, but from the lengthy
the EPRN for information, they send a "fact stride he could tell it was damn big.
sheet" crammed with survival tips. Do not turn Roger was bear hunting with some buddies in
your back to the cat. Stay calm. Do not try to Canada the first time he saw a panther. That was
run. Never scream. Maintain eye contact. Nev- thirty-two years ago, in 1972, the year before
er mind that the last known attack in the east- Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into
ern United States was in 1844, when a doctor law.It wasgigantic and dappled by the early morn-
was killed by a panther as he made his way ing sunlight. Chocolate brown, sleek and brawny,
through one of the winter mountain the muscles of the fabled beast literally rippled. It
passes in this very county. was the most beautiful thing Roger had ever seen
in his life. The cat was crouched in the middle of
Roger is packing a .357 the morning he the road, staring down the car. He whispered to

FOLIO 53
the friend sitting beside him in the front seat, in the organization packed heat. One investiga-
Boy, that's a beautiful cat, you know? It'd be a shame tor had even vanished into thin air while look-
to kill it. But he also thought how impressive it ing into a spate of sightings in West Virginia,
would look stuffed and mounted in his game room, where they believed the Navy had planted sev-
maybe propped up on the hearth overlooking the eral cats, fitted with radio collars, in order to
pool table, but by the time his fingerhad found the monitor them via satellite. Shortly after their
man-a naval intelligence officer,as it happened,
or, at any rate, a guy who worked at the Naval Re-
THE MAN IN THE ORANGE CAP search Laboratory-had gone in to check it out,
LOOKED INTO THE CAMERA several black helicopters were seen circling the
property, and then they never saw him again. It
AND SAID THAT HE'D was possible, even likely, Lutz thought, that the
PERSONALLY SHOT THE CAT Navy had used them in this particular case. A
regime of ridicule kept people from openly talk-
ing. Well, yeah, Roger said, sure, he'd pretty much
will to pull the trigger the decision to feel bad figured that out already on his own, or something
about something for the rest of his life was taken like it. He knew the Game Commission was no
away from him. The cat was gone. more trustworthy than the KGB. But the truth
Still, he would not fully accept his true calling was, he hadn't put all the pieces together, and this
until one day fourteen years ago, when he went guy Lutz had really opened his eyes. x

into the trading post for the paper and saw one It was shortly after Roger was appointed chief
of the photocopied wanted posters on the tack- EPRN researcher for Pennsylvania that he found
board beside the ads for firewood, chain-saw re- a black box on his front steps. It was a plain,
pair, and lost dogs. It was a picture of a cougar with unmarked videotape with a yellow Post-it note
a phone number to report sightings. He called the that said, simply, "Killed in Milport, PA." When
number when he got home and spoke to a man, he took the tape inside and put it in his VCR, he
a guy in Baltimore, it turned out, who spoke with found himself looking at footage of a guy in a dirty
the crinkly tenor of a buckshot beer can. His orange hunting cap standing over a dead moun-
name was John Lutz. Lutz was a city guy, a tain lion. The man in the orange cap looked
cryptozoologist who, after seeing a black panther straight into the camera and said that he'd per-
himself, had given up UFOs, spontaneous hu- sonally shot the cat and that if he saw any more
man combustion, and even Bigfoot to form the he was going to shoot them too because they
Eastern Puma Research Network. were killing deer in his favorite hunting spot.
Roger was happy to tell this guy Lutz about Royally creeped out, Roger got a magnifying
the sighting he had, some twenty years earlier, but glass and, with the tape on pause, examined the
Lutz said it would be better for them to speak in swollen pixels until he could make out a sign in
person. Roger was surprised when the guy actu- the background that said Big Five camp. He
ally showed up at his door a couple of days later talked to Lutz, and although they were worried
with his wife. They had driven all the way from about being set up by the feds, Roger drove on
Baltimore, through a snowstorm. They sat at over to Milport to take a look-see himself. He
Roger's kitchen table, and Lutz showed him dia- found the camp, with the help of a couple he
grams that looked like star maps of where cougars found stuck in a mudhole, sitting in a gray Buick
had appeared in the East, constellations of hun-
dreds, thousands, of visions, the same impossible
It's funny the way memes travel over history. Lutz, a true
vision Roger himself had experienced. For hours believer, did not know it but the organization he was form-
Lutz filled him in about how the cougar was re- ing was in the tradition of a group formed in the 1930s by
ally here, despite official denials, and how the a Congregationalist preacher from Chester, Vermont, called
"presumed extinct" status was a cover-up for a the Irrepressibleand Uncompromising Order of Pantherites.
The creed of this quasi-cult, over which the reverend was
more nefarious and massive government con- electedpresident, or Grand Puma, and which included a trea-
spiracy to secretly reintroduce the predator to surer, or Grand Catamount Keeper of the Catnip, was to
control the deer. There was pressure from the likewiseprove the exisumce of the eastern panther. To muster
timber industry,on account of the legions of bark- their zeal for the incorporeal beasts, they sang hymns com-
posed specially about Pumaconcolor,under the direction
hungry ungulates killing the trees, but also part-
of an officer known as the Grand Caterwauler. There is
ly, maybe, as a concession to the auto insurance also a good chance, however, that the holy relic of their
lobby, since deer were costing so much on the faith, a track of the sacred animal discovered by the good rev-
roads. He told Roger that they had received re- erend on a hike, not unlike] oseph Smith stumbling over the
ports of cats being dropped by parachutes into golden tablets, was fraudulent. Still, at least a hundred peo-
ple of "similar conviction" came to the reverend's meeting
forests from government helicopters in the dead in 1934 to be ordained into the fold as "pantherites," where
of night. He wamed him that being a field agent they gazed on the holy relic and listened wistfully to testi-
for the EPRN could be dangerous work. Some monials from those who had beheld the panther itself.

54 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2004


listening to the radio, all four wheels stuck up to and then underhands the truck into reverse, hits
the wells. Roger searched the grounds until he the gas, and steers us backward.
was able to determine exactly where the video He idles, staring at the snowbank, until the
had been filmed. Roger conferred with a friend smell of exhaust seeps into the cab. The Tony
in the Game Commission, who wanted noth- Bennett tape flips. I hear a dog barking in the
ing to do with it but suggested that Roger con- cold. Finally,he mumbles, "H'mm, h'mm, h'mrn."
tact Fish and Wildlife special investigator Kelvin I ask what he sees.
Smith. The investigator was eager to see the "H'mmm."
tape and wanted Roger to send it right away. He What is that? I ask.
told him not to spare a moment. The sooner "There's a possibility that might be a cat track
they could prosecute the poachers, the better. So right there. I can't tell for sure."
Roger immediately put the tape in the mail, He drives forward another inch, squinting at
without making a copy for himself. He regrets it the blinding snow. His head bobs back. "Ho ho
to this day. ho ho, ho ho ho ho."
If he had been more familiar with the mys- "Get out of here," I say.
tery, he would have known that evidence van- "I think it is, I think it is." He reaches through
ished. Specimens vaporized from DNA labs. the wheel and yanks the truck into park and
Things were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Car- then wrestles a glove on with his teeth. Outside,
casses were whisked away in the middle of the the air is so frigid it feels as if my nose 'is being
night. Paperwork was destroyed. Photographs pried off my face. We stand over the curious
wound up missing. Road kills disappeared, wit- tracks in a nimbus of chugging gray exhaust.
nesses were harassed, cameras were confiscated. "Well, you know it's not a bear track, because
After several months without hearing back, he a bear doesn't walk like that. There's only one an-
was about to go get the tape back himself when imal that runs like that."
he saw on the news that this same agent Smith I say I don't know that.
had been arrested. The FBI had raided his sheep He sternly cuts me off: "It's a cat track!"
farm in Perry County and dragged his pond for I ask him what else it could be.
assault rifles and explosives, and then Smith- "Nothin'," he says. He hugs himself and wob-
his real name was Abdul bles his knees. His ears are
Muhaimin-was arraigned crimson. "It can't be a bear.
for training terrorists linked The bear's in hibernation.
to the 1993 World Trade You see the distance be-
Center bombing. Muhaimin tween the tracks? Where he
had apparently purchased as- was lopin'?" Roger bends
sault rifles and other equip- over and sketches four cir-
ment using his federal cles beside the mysterious
wildlife officer discount. holes with his thumb, a
"Damn federal wildlife quick diagram of how the
agent was a terrorist! What eat's foot falls, forepaw to
do you make of that?" hind paw, pattern close to-
Like so much other evi- gether. There's a yard of un-
dence, the tape was never trod snow between each im-
seen again. Terrorism not- .' "~ pression. "When a eat's
withstanding, this uncanny lopin ', you'll see a track
elusiveness of evidence-the troubling tendency here, and right in front of it you'll see another
of hair, blood, and scat to vanish when handed track. You can always tell. See how big those
over for official scrutiny-only reaffirms Roger's tracks are? There's only one animal that makes
conviction that the panther is at the center of tracks like that."
a huge and ominous conspiracy, as if the We are still in the valley of Roger's ancestors.
wilderness itselfwere under the control Arctic fields drift by lopsided and shimmering
of some malign and experimental force. blue-pink in the early setting sun. Roger says he

A we crest onto a highland meadow, Roger


slowsto point off into the woods where his cousin
just can't believe how political the whole panther
thing can get. They have to be paranoid enough
about stings and conspiracies and covert reintro-
found the mutilated fawn. He creeps along, his ductions, but, believe it or not, there are divisions
nose pressed to the window, fogging the glass,and within their own ranks. Saboteurs. He is speaking
he calls what he sees with the bored recitation of of the most prominent name in the whole quixot-
an eye exam. "Deer tracks, deer tracks, deer tracks, ic world of the eastern panther puzzle, a coal
deer tracks. More deer tracks. Squirrel tracks. miner in West Virginia named Todd Lester. Todd
Turkey tracks. Deer tracks. ]eepers!" He brakes Lester, once one of them, is now the victim of a

FOLIO 55
plot by scientists and the antis and the skeptics. tain in West Virginia, in early May), Todd stands
Lester was one of their finest. John Lutz taught half sleeping, leaning against a tree, gazing off
him everything he knows. But then, disillu- into the woods. He is normally asleep at this
sioned, misguided, the young coal miner broke time, with the shades pulled. He has to take
off to start his own separate organization to melatonin to straighten out his head. "If a cougar
search for the eastern panther. And in no time, wanted to jump me now I don't expect I could
he had a board of directors with several scien- put up much of a fight." He wears a camouflage
tists who've infiltrated his jacket and a thin, trim mus-
group, and Roger fears they tache that accentuates the
will quash the faith of the boyishness a life of coal min-
true believers. ing on the graveyard shift
He tells me this as we has yet to rob from his face.
idle at the bottom of a hill A hat pushed back on his
by a pile of bleached boards head says EASTERN COUGAR
poking through the snow. in fat, flamy letters.
A trickle of bone-white We are tying infrared cam-
snow whistles silently off a eras to trees, the same type
dune-shaped drift. The scrap pile is the remains used by voyeuristic hunters to spy on unsuspect-
of his family's farm, land now subdivided and ing prey. Each camera is chained and double-
sold off. It makes Roger sad to think how this padlocked, because bears will tear them apart.
place that he had so many fond childhood \X1henthe thunderclouds that have been gather-
memories of, like knocking potato beetles into ing all morning rumble overhead, there's the sud-
a pan of kerosene with a stick, has changed. den smell of ozone and raw earth. Coming to,
The same place where he stayed up late listen- Todd snatches up the GPS, and as I quickly kneel
ing to his great-grand mother's stories about the in front of the camera to display the whiteboard
panthers-it's hard to believe-now belongs to scrawled with our coordinates, I'm momentarily
August Kreis, the minister of information and blinded by the flash.As I hurriedly follow after my
propaganda for Aryan Nations. \X1hen they camouflage-cladguide, a ghost impressionof woods
sold, nobody imagined that the neo-Nazi party, swarming on my retinas, he flits in and out of
forced into bankruptcy and chased out of their view, half visible in the eye-tricking forest. Before
former home in Idaho, would designate Potter we get back to the truck, it is pouring rain.
County as a potential new headquarters. By way While we sit out the downpour, Todd records
of announcing themselves to the neighbor- the GPS coordinates in his damp little notebook.
hood, Kreis invited over five hundred skinheads Each is five square miles; with eighteen cameras
to his land for a white-supremacist music fest per grid, he has only 80,000 or so acres to go.
fearuring Brutal Attack. Police helicopters filled Then he pops a Mountain Dew and, clutching it
the sky. The cattle were restless for days. loosely on his knee, nods off for a spell. Todd
Roger has a weary look that seems to say, well, worked a full shift in the coal mine two nights ago
if you can believe something like this can hap- before driving here yesterday morning so that we
pen-Nazis occupying the hill you and your could break down the first grid of cameras, set up
brother used to sled as children, the local game a month earlier when the snow was still "axle
warden training Islamist terrorists-the idea that high to a Ferris wheel," as he says, and then, af-
the government might be releasing lethal preda- ter ten hours running around the woods, he was
tors into the woods doesn't seem so farfetched, up past midnight in his motel room, tinkering
does it now? with each camera, changing batteries, rewinding
Listening to this tale, I feel the familiar sense film, setting timers, eating cold pizza, and clean-
of gradual catastrophe that always comes over ing mud off the wires until all eighteen were laid
me at dusk, more so now with the flurrying dark out on the floor around his bed like readied bombs.
ticking silently against the reflection of my face, Then, lying in the dark, he worried the way he will
and I wonder, Why is it so easy for me, a grown when he's five miles underground, obsessingabout
man, to still believe in monsters? Why so much his next cougar expedition, trying to plan for what
instinctual fear? Are these visions of panthers might go wrong, praying that enough things that
only collective hallucinations? Did we kill off all could go wrong will go right just long enough to
of our predators just as we killed off our own give him the chance to prove what he knows is
instincts in order to become what we real. I myself, as usual, dreamed about bears.
are today: bland, over-affluent prey? Because I have this recurring dream in which

I n the pine needles at Todd Lester's feet is a


handheld GPS device. While we wait for it to
I'm running away from a bear, in a similar setting
to the bear sanctuary where Todd and I are now
tramping, it's hard for me not to feel paranoid and
plot our location in the universe (atop a moun- fateful, like the character in one of those

56 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2004


magic-realist stories who suddenly turns the page "You'd be sittin' here till the Fourth of]uly and still
to find himself reading a description of the very see nobody if you broke down up here." The sound
room in which he sits, in the very same chair, his of evergreen saplings rasping against the under-
finger lightly underscoring the sentence that will carriage only partly camouflages the loud pops
reveal to him the plot tum in which his con- each time the tires go over a downed limb. The
sciousness and eternity intersect. In fact, I found road finally gives out, repossessed by the forest.
myself with that very book in my lap one day With no other choice but to search on foot, we
shortly before coming here. A cheap, yellowed gather the gear out of the back of the truck.
copy of C. G. [ung's Man and His Symbols, opened On the tailgate, where somebody else might
at random to discover everything that was wrong have stuck a Jesus fish, is an anatomically correct
with me: paw print, the regal seal of the puma. We each
take a camera, and with bungee cords around our
The familiar dream in which the dreamer is pursued necks and heavy chains looped through our belts,
by an animal nearly always indicates that an in- we wade downhill through the trees, clanging
stinct has been split off from the consciousness and like ghosts or two escapees from a chain gang.
ought to be (or is trying to be) readmitted and rein-
Todd moves ahead swinging his camera like a
tegrated into life. The more dangerous the behav-
camouflage lunchbox. When we tum a bend and
ior of the animal in the dream, the more unconscious
is the primitive and instinctual soul of the dream- I can no longer see the truck, we step off the
er, and the more imperative is its integration into his road, down an embankment, into the perpetual
life if some irreparable evil is to be forestalled. dusk of the deep forest.
We come to a stream, and Todd hops across the
A friend of mine who's familiar enough with my slippery rocks, as agile as a cat himself. On the
tendency toward cosmic paranoia was sadistic other side we scurry up a muddy hill studded with
enough to call me the night before I drove down tiny purple flowers, grabbing roots, and down
to West Virginia to read something he'd found in into a briar-tangled hollow, and then up again
a book called Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, through a jungle of rhododendron. Out of breath,
about how bears faced by Christian martyrs in we stop to inspect a pile of scat, which he pokes
the Colosseum were the most ruthless of all the with a stick, pointing out the embedded bits of
bestia, since, unlike the lion, which slew its vic- mouse vertebrae.
tims with one swift merciful bite, the bear in- "See how it's got them constrictions in it? Kind
flicted the slowest and most terrifying death, ham- of weathered out?" He gives a defeated little nod.
stringing and then eating its prey alive, indifferent "Probably can't get no DNA out of it."
to the wails of mortal pain that must have so tit- From there, we pick up a game trail, which we
illated the Roman bystanders, etc. What my friend follow till it feeds into a photogenic hub of
doesn't know is that in a demented way, part of me interconnected animal paths with good light. A
finds the idea of being ushered out of this world
by a wild animal strangely appealing. To have
one's worst fear finally realized: it WE INCH DOWN THROUGH A
must be a great relief.
JUNGLE OF SLICK FERNS,
~n it starts misting, Todd puts the truck JUDDERING, AS IF BEING LET
in drive, and we begin scouting for locations. The SLOWLY DOWN ON A WINCH
best spots to plant a camera, the best places to cap-
rure a glimpse of the spectral cat, fall along the nat-
ural highways of the forest, the labyrinthine pas- thrush skirls glassily in the canopy overhead, its
sageways cut through the wilderness by the song everywhere and nowhere at once. Todd
countless foot falls of unseen animals. These in- gives me his bowie knife to cut down half a dozen
visible trails emerge for his eyes effortlessly. The or so ill-placed saplings that, along with other
GPS rattling on the dashboard tells us that we're brush and dead branches, he makes into a pile,
at 4,137 feet, high on an ancient overgrown log- which we drag into a barricade he hopes will fun-
ging road in an area simply called the Back Coun- nel passing wildlife toward the eye of the camera.
try. In three hours we've set up only two cameras, After he picks a tree with the best vantage and
but a half hour later he's yet to see a tree or trail secures the camera with a bungee cord, he stacks
that offers any promise. At this rate I fear we'll be a couple of flat rocks underneath.
here overnight. Finally he turns down a steep, "Afraid this one won't do too hot," he says,
descending skid road that hasn't been used in at wedging a half-rotten stick near at hand behind
least a decade. We inch down through a jungle of the camera. This frustration perplexes me, not just
slick ferns, juddering, as if being let down slowly because we've already traveled nearly an hour
on a winch. I cannot help noticing that Todd's away from the truck but because we have passed
knuckles are white, when he says, as if to himself, what I would bet were at least a hundred

FOLIO 57
perfectly decent places. The pressure to get it grant a "Similarity of Appearances" clause, which
right-to put a camera where it will reap the de- the Eastern Cougar Foundation did in 2000. If
sired image, the unlikely image, the impossibleim- granted, this petition would give the puma uni-
age-was not so intense before he began flirting versal protection across its genus. Once the cat
with legitimacy. had the government's unconditional protection
It was shortly after he broke off from Lutz and it would have the chance to repopulate unhin-
formed his own group, the Eastern Cougar Foun- dered, and measures for recovery could be put
dation, that this shy but charismatic Quixote into place without undue violence.
began to attract the eco-intelligentsia. First came But soon after the ECF's petition was sent to
Washington, Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the in-
terior under Clinton, rejected it, saying that the
IF IT WERE YOUR SOUL THAT government could not consider such a clause un-
HAD FLED TO THE MOUNTAINS, til there was adequate proof of a breeding, self-
perpetuating non-ethereal population. And so
YOU TOO WOULD HUNT AFTER Todd continues to look.
IT LIKE AHAB GONE MAD Once camera #19 is chained and padlocked
and the togglesand timers and whatnot are set, he
walks off into the woods until he's just out of
the nature writer. Then the biologist who, thir- sight. And then, looking pale and entranced, he
ty years earlier, had shown that the eastern coy- comes back as a passably deranged sleepless ani-
ote had indeed made a successful comeback de- mal, a half-devoted impression of something that
spite similar official denials. Then the renowned walkson all four limbs,stooped low,arms dangling,
tracker. Then the jaguar expert. Then the ge- moving slowly back and forth across the camera's
neticist. And then, almost by magic, the wildlife purview like a burglar trying to foil a trip wire, with
biologist, David Maehr, the former head of the a little nod each time the laser tags his arm and
Florida Panther Project, under the Florida Game triggers a flash, until he's sure the camera will
and Freshwater Fish Commission, a man hailed snare anything that enters its ambit. *
for doing more to save the East's last known It was not far from here, eighteen years ago,
relict of the cougar than any other single hu- that Todd had his own vision of the panther. It
man. Before he knew it, Todd had a board of di- was the one and only time the coal miner ever
rectors, a grant for cameras, and an insider's ac- laid eyes on the fabular beast. When he report-
cess to the land. ed it to the Department of Natural Resources,
It's hard to determine the motives of the var- they treated him as if he'd spotted a UFO. They
ious regulating agencies whose blessing he need- told him he'd probably seen a dog. But that's
ed to conduct his camera survey, but for some of the thing: He'd been looking for a dog. One of his
Todd's scientific advisers, who all strongly be- redbone coonhounds had gone stray at dusk, and
lieve that the eastern wilderness is a grievous he had dog on his mind, was intently focused on
place without native predators like the wolf and dog, on the essence and expectation of dog, but
the mountain lion, it may have more to do with here was something crouched before him with
laying the groundwork for reintroduction than kohl-traced eyes and a long willowy tail that
with a genuine belief that Todd will find any- evoked nothing in the way of dog so much as a
thing already living there. frequency completely and unequivocally cat.
Their first political action was a gambit on the Then, with the cat, a part of what the coal min-
radical notion that a real live mountain lion de- er knew to be his soul broke off and vanished. If
served as much protection as an extinct mountain it were your soul that had fled to the mountains,
lion. As it stands, out of an alleged thirty-two you too would spend every spare hour of your life
subspecies,only two subspecies-the inbred Flori- hunting after it like Ahab gone mad. You would
da panther, and, due to a fluke of logic that no- not want to hear that the animal has been extinct
body is able to explain, the eastern cougar-were for a hundred years. And neither, probably, would
granted protection in 1973 when the Endangered you find much consolation in the notion that
Species Act was signed into law. And so, in the
extremely rare instance when a mountain lion is When he collects the pictures a month later, in addition
to several dozen pictures of me holding the rain-speckled
caught moseying around the eastern woods, it whiteboard, like the guy on a film shoot with the slate clap-
inevitably turns out to be an escaped captive per, the cameras we set up today will have harvested 110
from a South American or western subspecies, deer, 11 black bears, 2 coyotes, 2 raccoons, 1 grouse,
none of which are protected. The best bet for 1 black dog, and one unknown animal. A month after
securing protection for any mountain lion in the that a very angry bear will destroy five of the cameras and
make off with # 14, never to be seen again. The only evi-
eastern United States, regardless of its origins dence of the culprit will be an out-of-[ocus close-up of two
(migrant, circus fugitive, or whatever), would be beady eyes, and then, in the next frame, a dead man's
to petition the Department of the Interior to view of sky, pardy visible through an oculus in the treetops.

58 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2004


your "instinct's perception of itself," as [ung escaped pet, how come they didn't keep the doc-
wrote, burrowed deep in the unconscious, may umentation? If the female cat died in captivity, he
have emerged from its lightless den in the thinks, given the regulations of such animals,
archetypal guise of a lion, all the more there should be, at the very least, a record of
powerful for being invisible. what happened to the kittens. What happened to
the kittens? "I won't say cover-up, but it's shady.
Although Todd doesn't believe in Lutz's And the female, if they did tum her loose .. ." He
crazy conspiracy theories anymore, he does be- looks around, as if the offspring of such an animal
lieve that you can't ignore the ample evidence could now be just out of sight, just off-camera, in
of cover-ups. He is still perturbed by the mystery the brush behind us:
of what happened to a female cougar captured Meanwhile, as authorities in Pocahontas Coun-
by authorities in nearby Pocahontas County in ty fought over what to do with their cougar, down
1976. It caused such a stir that a mob showed up in North Carolina environmentalists were testing
to see the cat, with many in the crowd holler- the boundaries of the newly minted Endangered
ing for it be killed then and there. The towns- Species Act. They were threatening to sue the
people were already riled because, only two days U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the
before, a farmer taken by surprise while tinker- U.S. Forest Service, unless they halted timber ex-
ing on his truck-he'd looked up in time to see traction in Nantahala National Forest on the
the animal jump the fence with one of his lambs grounds that numerous (though, naturally, un-
in its jaws-had shot a male lion, which was confirmed) mountain lions had been reported. A
supposedly an escaped pet. To complicate mat- brilliant ploy: if the habitat rights of the snail
ters, the female turned out to be pregnant, which darter could quash a hundred-million-dollar dam,
not only bolstered suspicions that it was the legal protection of the cougar-an umbrella species
mate of the slain male but strongly suggested with a range of 150 square miles-could thwart
the presence of a breeding population, which mining, road construction, logging, and com-
meant the intervention of the Fish and Wildlife mercial development, plus protect the habitats
Service, the federal agency responsible for en- of thousands of smaller species otherwise des-
forcing the Endangered Species Act. Nobody tined for the river of extinction. The lion,
knew what to do with the cat. The West Virginia whether real or not, had become to many eyes
Division of Natural Resources, which was hold- the savior returned from the
ing the animal, kept telling the feds to come " wilderness. Asian resurrected.
get "your" cat. The feds told the state to re-
release it into the woods, but the state balked,
saying that it would only be
See this cliff?" Todd says, pointing directly
over our heads. "This is a good
shot if it were set loose back place for a cougar to ambush
in the vicinity. Finally they something below." He sighs,
decided to set the mountain disgustedwith the poor choice
lion loose in the "extremely of location for the next cam-
wild" Back Country of the era, as if there were not
Monongahela, which is enough wilderness. Who
where Todd and I are now. knows which way the panther
But then, at the last minute, will travel? Who knows how
Maurice Hornocker, a poor the odds are that this
renowned expert on moun- tree-accessorized with a me-
tain lions, stepped in and de- chanical eye-will be the one
termined-reportedly over out of ten billion? If he had
the telephone-that the cat his way he would go by in-
was tame and should not be stinct. He would set up cam-
released, since tame mountain lions were "dan- eras wherever it felt right instead of worrying
gerous when turned loose in the wild because about following the established grids and stuff
they home in on small children." like that put in place by the advisers. He tries not
"That's where the letters end," Todd says, re-
ferring to a batch he received through a ForA re-
Adding to this mystery, the skull of the male was sent to
quest. We have stopped in the middle of a stream the Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory at the National
congested with bright green moss-covered boul- Museum of Natural History for final analysis. Yet,
ders to regard a waterfall. "The DNR said they de- according to Alfred Gardner, curator of North American
stroyed all the paperwork." He does not take their mammals at the National Museum, who was able to tell
me from personal experience that cougar meat was
word for it that the cat died in captivity. Nor
"assuredly quite tasty," they were never able to ascertain
does he rule out that it was a relict of the eastern the subspecies since the specimen in question had myste-
subspecies. If tests on the male showed it was an riously vanished the very weekend it appeared at the lab.

FOLlO 59
to worry about his patrons losingfaith if after a few brought us here, where, just in front of American
months, or a year, he has still produced no evi- Legion Post 452, with a giant white early-model
dence. But mainly, I suspect, he can't choose a lo- cruise missile parked on the front lawn, he snaps
cation because in each choice, in each camera, in on latex gloves to deal with the broken deer ly-
each dull snapshot of a deer or a fox, lies the po- ing on the shoulder. It is mysteriously unscathed,
tential for failure. except for one upturned ear, like a purse filled with
He already fears that he's lost the geneticist. blood that flickers obscenely in the truck's flash-
That will be disappointing, of course, not just ing yellow light. With a clang, Williams drops the
because it means no longer having access to deer rack, a mesh metal gurney hinged to the
cheap DNA tests but also because it was such a rear of his Dakota, and he drags the buck by one
coup to get Melanie Culver on their board of stiff leg, leaving a trail of gore, and heaves it
directors in the first place. Culver is the scientist onto the platform, all without getting a spot on
who upset the applecart of taxonomy by declar- his creased khaki shirt.
ing, after a four-year study of cougar DNA, that Back in his truck, rolling down one of the
instead of the previously believed thirty-two dis- finest paved roads in Sullivan County, Pennsyl-
tinct subspecies there were only six: five indige- vania, he picks up where he left off. "There's an
nous to South and Central America, and only element out there who thinks there's a-I guess
one north of Nicaragua. Meaning, of course, you would call it a conspiracy. That there's some
then, that all pumas in North America-Puma sort of cover-up by the state wildlife agencies to
concolor hippolestes, P.c. oregonensis, P.c. browni, convince people there aren't mountain lions here
P.c. azteca, P.c. stanleyana, P.c. when there are. It's totally wrong.
vancouverensis, P. c. californica, P. c. There's nothing to hide, There re-
olympus, etc., even the inbred, ally isn't." He saysthat if the Game
one-balled murmur-hearted P.c. Commission had reintroduced
coryi down in Florida-belong to mountain lions, they would not
a single subspecies. That they are, have done it covertly; they'd be
in fact, all the same animal. And patting themselves on the back.
if you want to look at it this way, "We've introduced a number of
you could say they are now all east- species back into the state: fishers,
ern panthers. If taxonomy is the the otter, bald eagle, osprey, pere-
science of what we name our- grine falcon-and, if you go back
selves, then this would be the to the turn of the century, there
mountain lion's greatest identity were practically no deer left in the
crisis. But for the ECF it is the state. They actually brought them
best news they've ever heard: po- in on boxcars from Michigan."
litical salvation in the slime of a WCO Williams has somewhat
petri dish. In effect, Culver's study has handed raw features, lashless eyes, and a head shaved like
them the genetic version of a similarity of ap- a Marine's. He is a law-enforcement officer, not
pearances clause, and, with time, it will no doubt a dogcatcher. "Game warden," he admonishes
significantly alter the legal future of cougars in the me, is a term as dead as the notion that wildlife,
East. But until then, in woods blurred by verging that great welfare state, might get by on its own
nightfall, there will be men tying without the protection of men with guns. Which
cameras to trees. explains why his truck is crammed with firepow-
er. He's got a pistol strapped to his hip, and
EnnSylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer strapped overhead is a 12-gauge shotgun-a
William Williams says lately there's been a lot of weapon, he said, mostly for human control:
beaver problems. Bears are also a major pain in poachers and perps like the hick assholes who
his neck. With the drought, there were no blue- insist on bringing machine guns to deer camp.
berries, the nut harvest was not so hot, so you had Rattling in his coin nook are a handful of spare
a lot of trash cans raided. A lot of nuisance calls. cartridges. The scope-mounted .22 on the back
Just yesterday he had to respond to a call from a seat is for "dispatching" animals. The other rifle,
woman who'd been assaulted by a woodchuck. a tranquilizer gun, is for giving them bad dreams.
And then, this morning, with me tagging along, "\YJe have over a million hunters in the woods
he went directly from baiting a beaver trap out to every fall. No one's either accidentally or on
some lake cabins where a 600-pound black bear purpose shot one. A lot of highways through the
had been seen cavorting in somebody's hot tub. state, and there hasn't been any roadkills of
There, he checked the trap, set a few days earli- mountain lions. Mountain lions have to die
er: a length of culvert with a trail of doughnuts somewhere. How about a skull? Certainly bones
leading up to the guillotine door. Wildlife, it would be hard evidence. You know? They don't
seems, is a nuisance, but easy to fool. The next call hibernate, so how about a snowfall with a good

60 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2004


set of tracks? And I guess if you look at the unbearable, but maybe less so than the unnatur-
broader picture-and this isn't just Pennsyl- al image of so much jumbled death: rib cages and
vania-how about a population in Maine? or skulls picked clean and nondescript mammalia all
Vermont) Someplace. West Virginia? Nowhere dissolving into the same colorless gray mush.
in the East. They don't float above the ground. When he tosses the deer on top of the heap its
They leave tracks. They have to die sometime. tenacious vibrancy-its life hues-glow stub-
They have to have young. They're not Dracula, bornly against the utter monochrome of death.
so I imagine they show up on film." He ticks off By mid-afternoon, we're trundling through
the same exasperated litany of reasons that I Game Lands #13-50,000 acres of happy hunt-
have heard, with varying degrees of rancor, from
countless state wildlife agencies regarding the
eastern panther's great implausibility. "It's just LEAVES EXPLODE IN A
not true. \Y./edon't have a population of cougars. PLUME OF CONFETTI WHEN A
They're not here. But if people want to believe
it, they're gonna believe it." GIANT BLACK BIRD DROPS
He makes a right onto an indistinguishable OUT OF A TREE
dirt road-you wouldn't notice it unless you
were looking-and we bump along through the
woods until we come to a bosky clearing of ing grounds. He's telling me he gets probably
giant ferns that feather past as high as the bot- twenty cougar sightings a year, and how, when he
tom of our windows, filling the forest air with a first started at the Game Commission, he was
celery, happy light. In my side mirror I can see more inclined to investigate, whereas today he's
the buck's hooves, crossed like a ballerina's, not going to give it much priority. Ninety percent
bouncing along. of the time, he says,they happen to people in cars
"It just amazes me that people would dedicate at dusk. A fulvous, long-tailed blur crossing the
their lives to searching for something that road. A slinking specter in the fading light.
doesn't exist." He adjusts the rattling CB. Then, struck with a fresh idea, he says that if
"People get a thought in their mind that there's there's anyone out there more apt to see a moun-
a particular animal out there, and by God, in tain lion than himself, it's gonna be the Food
their mind that's what they're looking at. I and Cover guys. They're out here every day. Un-
mean, you talk to these Area 51 people-now like him, the Food and Cover guys-the divi-
I'm not comparing these people who think they sion of the Game Commission responsible for
saw a mountain lion to them exactly, but I think keeping the resident game species (and thereby
maybe there's an element out there that go to hunters) fat and happy-spend most of their time
that extreme." He whistles through his teeth. on foot. They plant clover for rabbits and fruit and
He tells me how two years ago he was manning nut trees for bears, and they cut browse for deer
a booth at a local bow festival when a man and maintain roads and stuff like that. A mile lat-
approached him to report that he knew what er, he turns down a drive that ends at a giant
the Game Commission was up to because his shed, where there's a bulldozer parked cockeyed
brother personally knew the pilot who'd flown on a hill of gravel, a few big trucks, and some
the helicopter that had lowered several moun- muddy farm equipment. We're greeted by the
tain lions onto the game lands. Amused, he maintenance supervisor and two other men load-
thrums his fingers on the steering wheel. ing bags of seed onto a tractor. Williams tells
"Maybe they kicked them out of the helicopter. them that I'm doing a story about the sightings,
Cats always land on their feet, right?" and he smiles to let them know that he thinks it's
Just ahead, leaves explode in a plume of con- pucky, but within five minutes, without the
fetti when a giant black bird drops heavily out of faintest hint of irony, all three Food and Cover
a tree, gaining altitude belatedly; another twelve guys avow their belief that mountain lions, with-
or thirteen of its comrades, wicked black beasts out doubt, exist in these woods. All three have a
with wingspans as wide as the truck, burst up out mountain-lion story. One knows of a horse killed.
of the ferns. When Williams stops at a pit sur- The youngest guy,wearing an oil-stained shirt, saw
rounded by snow fence, the last few bold turkey a lion with a cub not a week ago. And the su-
vultures join the roost of ghouls regarding us from pervisor, with twenty-seven years in the Game
the branches overhead. Commission, told us that the winter before, while
"This is what I call the bird feeder," he says. cutting browse for deer, he'd seen five-inch pug-
"The boneyard. You may want to stay inside, it's marks in the snow; the way they skittered and
a little smelly out there." But I get out and stand darted and jumped under and over fallen logs
by the edge of the pit, without offering to help looked to him like a cat tracking mice. "I know
with the deer. Its eyes are still vivid green. The they're here," he said. Williams stands mute, with
ground is covered with bird shit, and the stink is his hand resting on the butt of his pistol.

FOLIO 61
Back in the truck, heading out of the game slip into unconsciousness. I sit on a fallen log a
lands, the radio muttering like a voice trying to short distance away,not really giving a shit, smok-
reach us from deep space, WCO William ing a cigarette in the hope that it will drive away
Williams graduallyemerges from his baffledsilence the biting midges. This is the only place where I
to regroup the argument. He exhales quickly. could arrange to meet Dave Maehr, the erstwhile
What he will concede, as will his superiors, is Florida panther expert, now professor of conser-
that there very well could be a few escaped or re- vation biology at the University of Kentucky,
leased mountain lions running around in the where he is immersed (with an environmental-
woods. "People do own mountain lions. They writing class in tow) in a bear study for the state.
As with mountain lions, bears were pushed out
of Kentucky by 1850, but their recent home-
USING THE SAME VISELIKE coming is a phenomenon that shows there is in-
INSTRUMENT, THEY PUT deed vacancy for large predators in the East. The
undergrads, with their enthusiasm and open note-
ANOTHER TATTOO IN THE books, make me feel fraudulent and aura less for
BEARS CROTCH not being able to get past the disappointing
realness of the moment: the disappointing real-
ness of the bear. In part, I chalk up the diminished
own panthers and tigers and lions and everything grandeur of the bear's nature to the boxy radio col-
else." Strangely enough, the Game Commission lar around its neck, the long red-and-white
is the agency that sells these exotic pet permits streamers in its ears, the green ink still foaming
in the first place and that enforces the regula- from a fresh tattoo stamped inside its lip, and the
tions under which mountain lions, tigers, chee- purple bandanna blindfold.
tahs, leopards, emus, prairie dogs, eagles, munt- The students diligently observe every detail
jacs, coyotes, coatimundi, lynx, bobcats, monkeys, of the sleeping bear, stroking its bristly fur, in-
macaws, camels, buffalo, lemurs, kangaroos, yaks haling its rooty musk, bravely touching the pads
and coyotes, zebras, giraffes, alpacas, elephants, of its massive paws, its claws, crouching down to
wolves, servais, and bears may be kept. It is not observe it from every possible creative angle, not-
hard to imagine how, on occasion, the difficulties ing the way it drools, the way the dirt skitters
of keeping a 2oo-pound carnivore might lead to beneath its nostrils, making deft little sketches in
an owner "accidentally" leaving the gate open one the margins of their well-bound notebooks. They
night. Wildlife agents say that this explains the ask good questions. One cute nineteen-year-old
few non-hallucinatory sightings: escapees from in a pink coral necklace-a wad of chewing to-
roadside petting zoos, exotic pets on the lam. It bacco tucked ironically in her cheek-wants to
is also suspected that ecowarriors of the Earth know the dimension of the bear's testicles. (The
Liberation Front ilk may have set some of the biologist crouched down with calipers tells her:
animals free to help reintroduce a critical species 8 x 4.5 em.) The kinder students swat at insects
to the eastern woods. Given the ease with which hovering over its wounds, bite marks dealt out by
one can buy a cougar in, say,Florida, it isn't hard more dominant bears. Our bear, #15, is at the
to imagine an idealistic young man in Tevas and bottom of the totem pole, one of.Maehr's aides
an EarthFirst! shirt trundling down a dirt road in says. I throw out that perhaps running around
a pickup with a mysteriouslycanvas-cloaked crate. the forest with bicycle streamers in its ears might
Ted Turner, the green-spirited media mogul, was affect the status of the animal. To which the bi-
fined $1,500 in 1988 for releasing cougars onto his ologist counters that the accessories only en-
Florida plantation. The cougar also is reputed to hance its status in the eyes of its peers, and I
be a favored pet among strippers and drug deal- can't quite remember if it was before or after we
ers. Such are the unlikely allies of this charis- stopped laughing at this little joke that he spread
matic megafauna. open its legsto show us all the bear's "penis bone,"
"I can't tell you that there's not a tiger running only to discover the vindictive bite marks and the
around out here. What I'm saying is, as far as any nasty, raw gash in its groin. Using the same vise-
sort of reproducing mountain lions-it's not hap- like instrument and bottle of green ink used to tat-
pening." As for the escapees, Williams says, too the bear's lip, they put another tattoo in its
captive-bred animals are ill equipped to survive in crotch. Since bears have been found with their
the wild. "If that's not taught, you know, in the heads lopped off-by poachers, maybe, harvest-
wild state, the chances of survival aren't very ing gallbladders for the black-market trade in
good." His eyes flicker over the passing Asian aphrodisiacs-a mere tattoo in the mouth
woods. "Maybe instinct isn't enough." is no longer adequate. Then, once #15 is brand-

On another mountain, this time in Ken-


tucky, in the dead heat of July, I watch a bear
ed, the biologist lifts its tail and thrusts a ther-
mometer into my hand so that I might have the
honor of inserting it up the bear's rectum.

62 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I APRIL 2004


In a camo jacket, with cropped gray hair and natural corridors (at the expense of a few inter-
rugged blue eyes, standing off to the side with a states and suburban populations), would better
boot propped on a half-rotten log, Maehr has the facilitate movement among large carnivores
face and air of a colonel supervising triage. The across the landscape, permitting the game of
dart gun lies at his feet near a pile of moldering evolution to flourish free of human interven-
doughnuts and an empty vial of tranquilizer, tion. Reed Noss, the chief scientist of the
which says, in small print, DOGS AND CATS ONLY. Wildlands Project, told me that the cougar,
While his aides work over the bear and collect specifically, will be the "key focal species for the
their data, he fidgets calmly with a stick and talks rewilding of the entire Atlantic megalinkage."
to me about the other, less visible animal. For "It'd be very, very exciting to put some evolu-
the most part, he chalks up the sightings to folk- tionary forces back in the landscape," Maehr
lore. "It's like people in southern England who be- whispers. Even though he is enthused by the ap-
lieve in the Beast of Bodmin Moor and the Sur- parent phenomenon over the past ten years of
rey Puma," he says. "There hasn't been a large mountain lions migrating from the West, it will
carnivore in southern England since lynxes and be a long time, he says, if ever, before they make
wolves were eradicated five hundred years ago." it this far on their own. The obstacles are nearly
As the most prominent scientist on the Eastern insurmountable. The only way a recovery effort
Cougar Foundation's board of directors, Maehr will go forward is if something big enough-like
does not for a second think eastern mountain the sudden and miraculous appearance of a breed-
lions survived the nineteenth-century persecution, ing population-happens to force the hand of
and he says the idea of a government conspiracy the wildlife agencies. "Once they were confronted
is ludicrous. But, on the other hand, like a lot of with the reality of them being there," he says, "I
deep ecology thinkers, he would desperately like think they would have no choice but to manage
to bring them back. it responsibly."
"There's plenty people out there who say why As former research supervisor of the Florida
would we want to bring something back that we Panther Project, he knows a thing or two about
fought so hard to get rid of in the first place?" He the disharmony between biologyand government.
speaks quietly so as not to wake the bear. "There's He proved not only that the Florida panther
a high anxiety associated with big furry things wasn't, as many had alleged, on the verge of ex-
with sharp teeth. No doubt about it." But to tinction but that there was a larger population
Maehr and other biocentrists, the risk of cougar than formerly believed. His drive to make more
attacks on humans is infinitesimal compared with and more daring captures, however, earned him a
the ways in which its restoration would redeem reputation as a cowboy who sometimes risked the
the East's moribund ecosystem. The reintroduc- lives of the cats he was trying to save, and his
tion of the mountain lion would "dramatically" self-confessed tendency to butt heads with the
improve the landscape itself. other agency officials led to his
This was seen in Yellowstone, ." abrupt resignation in 1994. He
where the reintroduction of twiddles his stick and looksdown
wolves had a direct and salutary at the bear; it languidly probes
effect on vital flora such as as- the ground with its bright green
pen and willow, two key tree tongue. He's sure some of his for-
species for songbirds, decimated mer colleagues look at his asso-
by elk until wolf packs redistrib- ciation with the ECF and think
uted the herds. "There are species in the tropics he's gone off the deep end. '''Yeah, Maehr, he's be-
that are dropping out because all the seeds are be- come a real wacko now.''' He shrugs. "My credi-
ing eaten by things like agoutis and capybaras bility is shot with a lot of people anyway."
and tapirs and stuff like that. These are places that He stops briefly to ask, "\X/hat'sthe latest prog-
are absent jaguar. They're absent mountain nosis on Boo-boo?"
lion." And nature has become too complacent, he A few of the students are having their picture
thinks, because it has lost that tension between taken with the bear, holding up its heavy, sagging
predator and prey. head for the flash. The staff are arguing about
He is not alone in his idealism. In fact, antibiotics.
putting meat eaters back in the forest is a cen- "If we really wanted to pull it off, we could do
tral doctrine of the Wildlands Project-one of it," Maehr says. "We'd find the people who
the fifty conservation groups that endorsed the would sell us the animals underhanded, and put
ECF's similarity-of-appearance petition-a 'em in crates, and drive them right across the
utopian blueprint hailed by Paul Ehrlich as "the state line. It'd be really easy. I mean, how many
only realistic strategy for ending the extinction vehicles get pulled over just to see what's in the
crisis." The plan, to link and "rewild" vast but back of the truck? We're fortunately not yet at
fragmented stretches of wilderness areas into that police state that it looks like we're heading

FOLIO 63
/

toward more and more every day. But, yeah, I We're responding to these stimuli." He gestures
think it's doable." He twirls his stick off into the as if it is all filtering down on us through the
brush and contemplates his own hypothetical trees. "We've been hammered into this very
stealth for a moment. "Morally, would it be a unnatural setting where we can't control our-
bad thing? No. Legally bad? Yeah. Morally, selves anymore. Somebody walking to work
maybe bad if the lion runs out and kills some- with an automatic weapon killing people:
body." Whether or not human casualties would what's the selective advantage to that?" The
be worth a healthy ecosystem, he says, is a bear is chasing something in its sleep, weakly
tricky semantic question. "Would I turn myself kicking a hind leg. "And we choose to buy into
in after it happened if I was the one to do it? I the technology, into the comfort and calories,
don't know. I'm not willing to risk that myself. the entertainments that go with that. And that
But there are other people independent enough increases our dysfunction. It increases our
that even if they got caught they could with- pathology. There are times I feel anxious, I
stand the jail time and the fine that'd be levied don't know what the fuck I'm even anxious
on them, and they'd be viewed as a hero by a lot about. I think we're living in a society, in a
of people." time, when we've made everything so artificial
However noble Maehr views the restoration that we've become crazy."
of large carnivores, he has no plans to do it him- Since I grew up in the country, in mountains
self (at least, none that he will admit). But the like these, as an adolescent blessed with a
more he speaks, the more I understand that the wilderness of privacy in which to escape and
question is not whether the panther is already think my dark poet-stoner thoughts, I have pro-
here but how soon can we put it back. And not ceeded under the pastoral fantasy that if things
only that, but why, in this declawed world, turned out badly enough in real life, I could
where deer have become less paranoid, does it always just strike out into the woods, build a
seem that we steadily grow more paranoid? The shelter, and live out my days as a happy savage.
reason, he says, echoing the words of the There, in the sacrosanct wilderness, my pure
philosopher Paul Shepard, is that despite our tall and incorruptible true nature, that original pri-
glass buildings and our ability to subjugate other mal thing, whatever it is, my undeviated will,
creatures, we are still wild animals ourselves. my inner wildor, my instinctual self, would
"We've become domestic but not domesti- remain intact. It is only now that my mistake
cated," he says, toeing a semi-glazed doughnut. occurs to me, as I look at the idiotic bear, blind-
The faint drone of insects is lulling. "We still folded, ears beribboned and tongue and crotch
have all the wild emotions and the hormonal painted like a circus animal that's been hazed in
responses-jealousy, raging emotions-that we its stupor by the monkeys. An odd welcome
would have if we were living in Africa in the home for a beast that is, until the return of the
Pleistocene. But, like deer, I think the loss of Machtando, interregnum king of our forest.
certain senses-like when you're out in the Lear playing the fool.
open you're probably always looking over your My mistake was to believe in wilderness in
shoulder waiting for some pack of hyenas to the first place. The instinctual self stands no
come eat your ass-those things have dimin- more chance in these fairy-tale woods where the
ished in us. But that doesn't make us unwild. few curious animals that aren't already dead or
It's because you're a wild animal and you've on the fast track to extinction-or getting by on
been put into a situation that your species clover planted by friendly Food and Cover
didn't evolve to handle. We get overloaded. guys-live out an existence under surveillance,
on camera, wired for sound, tracked by plane,
* Even ifMaehr, in the end, is not willing to risk jail for the auscultated weekly, mined for data, and for all I
sake of biodiversity, the subversive writings of his friend know probed remotely from outer space. It is not
Dave Foreman, the father of EarthFiTst! (and co-founder only that the eastern panther may exist solely in
of the Wildlands Project), may have already inspired re-
leases. Roger Cowburn related one incident when he'd our minds. The truth is, there is no wilderness;
been contacted by a young ecowarrior with plans to set a wilderness itself is extinct.
mountain lion free in the East. At first, the relationshipwas It is no more real than those archetypal bears
purely informational. But then, after the ecowarrior was chasing us down in our dreams, visions of a
robbed in a nightclub, he called back asking for money. species that has disowned its wild nature, that
Sometime after Roger turned him in, the man called]ohn
Lutz, threatening to set a mountain lion looseunless he gave has, in essence, merely surrendered to a life of
him money. Lutz told the man to "stick it!" (in a related captivity. Trapped, our instincts in the dark,
note, one Sunday afternoon shortly after my visit to Ken- banished to a life lived underground, we nour-
tucky, while visiting a cougar sanctuary, standing close ish ourselves with visions of a paradise lost that
enough to an eight-foot-long, 2OG-poundmale that Icould
feel its purr rumbling in my sternum, Ifound myself near- brought into daylight would crumble. But per-
ly talked into becoming an accomplice to a release. Per- haps if we unbanish the monsters, we might, one
suasive are the great cat lovers.) day, restore our own lost wild selves. _

64 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I APRIL 2004