RESCUING IS NEVER PLANNED
COUGAR’S STORY BEGINS without me … .
It was frosty late September on a northern Wisconsin farm midway between Eau Claire and Wausau. Brisk weather isn’t so bad when you’re cozy and warm. But an eighteen-by-thirty-foot chain-link cage with only a small, makeshift wooden enclosure to help block upcoming winter winds was the home provided for a pair of cougars. Certainly not cozy, but most would say that’s not important. In a smaller cage there was a solitary black bear who wailed as corn rippled in the distance and cows ruminated, breath streaming from warm, moist nostrils, which dissipated into the evening stillness. At least no one was starving.
These animals were caged for one reason, breeding. Their cubs would supplement the meager farm income of Dean, Joyce, and their fourteen-year-old son.
Of the two cougars, Nigel was a handsomely regal cat, tawny in color just like a deer, with golden eyes. His mustache, his ears, and the tip of his tail were coal black; his muzzle, chin, and chest were bright as snow. The contrasting mustache and muzzle are distinguishing characteristics of cougars, mountain lions, pumas, and panthers. Nigel was seven years old and weighed more than 300 pounds. He was mammoth by mountain lion standards, though 25 percent of his weight was the fat of inactivity. He’d weigh a trim 250 stalking and capturing prey, but here all he had to do was devour the road-killed deer or slaughtered cows heaved into his cage. Even if he was hungry, which was seldom, Nigel would wait for his mate, Sabrina, to finish eating; then he’d polish off what was left, which was enough to keep his paunch swinging just inches from the ground.
Sabrina, who was five years old, weighed a much trimmer 125 pounds, which was still large for a female. She had smooth, graceful lines and soft eyes. Cougar females look identical to the males except for being smaller, but this autumn evening Sabrina was bulging. Ninety-three days ago she and Nigel had mated, and now it was time to bear her young.
On Dean and Joyce’s farm, both humans and cats just existed. Granted, Nigel and Sabrina were well fed. Their owners weren’t hungry either, but extravagances like a recreational vehicle, a boat, or a motorcycle (except for a rusty, inoperable hand-me-down leaning silently against the barn wall) were all but nonexistent, except in dreams. And dreams ran rampant, because Sabrina was about to deliver three to four furry bundles of tawny fur with dark brown spots, ringed tails, and azure eyes.
It was early evening on September 29, 1990, when Sabrina knew it was time. Nigel recognized that something was up, for Sabrina was uncharacteristically standoffish and didn’t tolerate his being close, which in the cage was everywhere.
Though Nigel was more than twice Sabrina’s size, he honored her wish for solitude. He tried to melt into the corner, lay down, watched, and waited. It wasn’t long before Sabrina sought the privacy of the enclosure. Shortly thereafter, minute cheeping noises emerged from inside. Nigel was curious; after all, the scent was his. But when he approached, Sabrina lashed out with a vengeance.
Dean and Joyce heard the commotion and quickly bolted from the farmhouse. This was it: payday! Dean knew what to do. He grabbed a rope, tied it into a noose, hastened over to the cage door, unlatched it, and stepped through. After closing the chain-link door behind him, he walked slowly over to Nigel, who didn’t mind being led around on a rope. Dean slipped the loop over Nigel’s head, tightened the noose, and led him from the cage to an enclosure so small that Nigel had difficulty turning around.
Over the next several days, Nigel watched from his casketlike retreat as Sabrina and her kittens were on display. She was uncomfortable. In her fishbowl existence she nervously groomed her family, as neighbors came by to gawk. But she wasn’t the only one tending to others.
Dean was calling potential clients, people interested in buying mountain lion cubs for three hundred and fifty bucks each. Dean wished Sabrina had more offspring, but three was better than none. At least after paying their most critical bills, he could get that fishing rod, or buy Joyce a bracelet, or their son that .22 rifle. Thankfully, Nigel and Sabrina caused little expense.
Deer hit on the road or slaughtered cows sufficed as food. And there were no veterinary bills. After all, there were no doctors in the wild. The boy did much of the feeding and cage cleaning after school. All Dean had to do, other than the unending farmwork, was sell the animals.
Dean had heard about a pet dealer from Indianapolis who dealt in exotic animals. That summer, after discovering that Sabrina was pregnant, Dean had called him. The dealer was particularly excited about the timing of a “Christmas cub.” And there was a private individual in North Carolina who was interested in another. That was two. Dean knew it was common, for newborn cubs to die, but he lined up a third potential buyer just in case all three survived. It was unwise to count chickens before they hatched or mountain lions before they were shipped. And sometimes even shipping didn’t mean he got his money.
Twelve days later it was time for Joyce to be a surrogate mother, time these two little guys and one gal were beginning to open their eyes. So Dean heaved a recently killed deer into the corner of Sabrina’s cage. He knew she would be hungry. She glanced at the carcass, stared as if waiting for it to move, then got up, stretched, yawned, and strolled over to it.
Joyce cautiously entered the cage. Without once taking her eyes off Sabrina, she eased her way to the opening of the enclosure. Three squirming kittens lay inside. She quickly snatched all three. They screeched in defiance. Sabrina paused, then continued eating. Joyce quickly let herself out of the cage, feeling much better on the other side of the door. She knew that if these cubs survived, something would forever haunt them—a persistent longing for something soft and warm to suckle, especially when menaced. Then they would mound up whatever was available, and pretend to nurse in order to feel comfortable again.
Joyce felt a twinge of guilt but knew these kittens were for humans. The more their mom taught them, the more catlike they would become. So Joyce fought her feelings, thinking instead about the money. For the next six weeks she would cradle and bottle-feed the cubs cow’s milk—would be their mother until they were sold.
Dean had always marked cattle by cutting a triangle from each animal’s ear. Thinking there was little difference between cattle and cats, Dean walked over to the kitchen drawer, grabbed a pair of large scissors, stepped up to the cubs’ makeshift corrugated cardboard home, and proceeded to notch the left ear of each kitten. They squirmed, then screamed. Outside, Sabrina looked up and froze.
This process of tending to their investment continued for a month and a half until the pet merchant from Indianapolis called. Both Dean and Joyce knew it was too soon to transport the cubs. They needed to be weaned, and that would take at least two more weeks. It was even against federal regulations to ship cubs less than eight weeks old. But Dean and Joyce weren’t licensed. They couldn’t lose a license they didn’t have. Besides, who would know? These cubs were their property and the pet merchant had money … and their unpaid bills were as stifling as the scent of manure, so Dean checked on the next flight to Indianapolis.
Joyce walked out to the shed, dusted off a dilapidated animal carrier, and brought it inside. She found a tattered bath towel and arranged it in the bottom. Early the next morning it was time for her to select the plumpest kitten, bottle-feed him until he nearly burst, fluff the towel in the carrier, and place him inside. It would be time for his next feeding when Dean dropped him at the airport. Then time for another feeding when the plane he was on landed in Chicago. Then time for another feeding before the next takeoff. Then time for another feeding before arrival at his final destination, Indianapolis.
A listless, hungry, dehydrated cub was claimed by the pet merchant and his assistant in midafternoon. They thought he was cute, not knowing his eyes were dry and his squeaks deeper than usual. If only they knew how important it was to feed him! But instead they drove to the store and put him on display. He was finally fed a bottle of milk in early evening, more for show than anything else. And by closing time he had a low-grade fever.
The next morning he had diarrhea. The combination of missing his home, being cold, skipping four successive feedings, the terrifying hissing noise caused by pressurization of the aircraft’s cargo hold, the high-pitched whine of the jet engines, and the bright lights when he was on display and constantly being handled was debilitating. He just wanted it to be the way it was. But it wouldn’t be. A pet merchant, not even licensed to sell exotic animals, would see to that.
This was this cub’s miserable existence for three days. His temperature inched higher and his strength declined. Eventually he didn’t want his bottle. The employee assigned to open the store the next morning was not met with the usual chirps, just silence. Peering inside the cub’s cage, she realized that this little guy had gathered a section of towel up into a mound and pretended to suckle until he died.
She immediately called the pet merchant, who then called Dean, complaining that the cub had died, demanding either a replacement or his money. Dean assured him that he would send another cub, which would arrive the following day. At least, Dean thought, the remaining two were weaned. And they were so different. The male always took control while his sister just sat back. Dean felt that, of the two, the stronger personality was needed to survive the trip; consequently, he selected the determined male.
Without another carrier, Dean had to construct a crate out of spare lumber. The crate, however, wasn’t the only thing different. With seven more days of care than his deceased sibling had had, this little fellow was more coordinated and heavier. More important, though, he was a survivor.
Joyce repeated the preparations for the trip. But this time a chicken leg accompanied the cub in his cage while he was driven to the airport. He missed his home as he waited for his crate to be loaded into an airplane. He was cold. He was terrified of the hissing noises. He was frightened being transferred from one aircraft to another in Chicago. He was scared when the aircraft dropped, feeling his stomach tumbled with it. He was terrified, just as his brother had been. But after arriving in Indianapolis, he felt more determined than weak. He wasn’t taking all this sitting down … and who were these folks calling him cutie?
The pet merchant and his assistant peered into the cub’s crate and cooed. They remembered a lethargic specimen of a mountain lion kitten—one who, because of their selfishness and stupidity, eventually died. But this little guy was a tornado on paws. He didn’t want to be handled, even hissed when they tried. He had an attitude; they called him obstinate. But labels weren’t important, selling him was. He would have to be “cuddly.” The Christmas expo at the Indianapolis Convention Center was the day after tomorrow. He would have to be drugged.
The local newspaper, after finding out that a mountain lion cub was to be one of the extravagant gifts on display, sent a photographer to the pet shop. He found the store was packed with intrigued patrons and, after readying his camera, snapped pictures of an assistant posed with the feature attraction, who, with half-opened eyes, just rested his chin on her forearm. Everyone thought the cub to be cuddly; the photographer was the only one to observe how sleepy he was. The cub’s picture appeared in the paper the following day, a cub seemingly resting in the arms of his benefactor and gazing blankly into the distance, eyelids drooping. This entire situation is deplorable, but mountain lions have no rights in a human world.
IN NATURE, MOUNTAIN lions generally don’t have it much better, living three or four years before being hit by a car or chased up a tree by dogs to be shot by a hunter. In captivity, they may live to be twenty. But can twenty years in a cage be considered living? The destiny of this particular kitten was to have the best of both worlds, be safe from cars and bullets, yet free. Drugged and crammed into a toaster-size cage, he waited.
MY NAME IS David Raber. Riding a motorcycle, racing a car or boat, and flying an airplane are all natural for me; it’s as if I was born to do these things. They require being one with the machine and an ability to feel what’s going to happen before it does. This perception works on people, too. I watch them closely, intently observing, believing actions mean more than words. This could make people uneasy, but usually doesn’t. It’s a trait that has assisted me both personally and in business. Flying was my business and my love until I was diagnosed with diabetes and permanently grounded. Doctors with diabetes can still perform surgery but pilots are not allowed to fly. So my wings were clipped, and if I can’t do what I’m best at, if I can’t be the best at what I’m doing, then it’s not fun anymore.
Linda is my girlfriend and significant other—a five-foot-two brunette who makes a 105-pound Sicilian model look like a mere spin-off. We met ten years before this story begins, but nothing clicked between us. Two years later, however, when we bumped into each other in a crowded nightclub, she reminded me that we’d met before and fired off a dozen reasons why I should remember, too. Taken aback, but intrigued, I invited her to fly to Hilton Head for the weekend, and we’ve been together ever since.
Linda settled in with me and enjoyed the extravagant lifestyle I was then able to provide, though possessions certainly weren’t important to her. Unfortunately, she got a chance to prove that when, because of diabetes, I was unable to fly for a living and my over-leveraged lifestyle quickly brought me to my knees. Economically, we tumbled together. I knew I’d recover, physically and financially, and Linda had faith, but neither of us realized how long this recovery would take.
Having money has never been important to me. Money just happens because I do what I love to do. I adored flying and enjoyed the resulting income, but that was out and my life was changing. To boost our spirits, Linda and I decided to visit the Indianapolis Convention Center where, during the Christmas holidays, they had a show displaying extravagant gifts—luxury yachts and cars and so on. It would be fun and therapeutic. We couldn’t afford to buy anything, but so what? It’s the thought of things to be and then making them happen that counts. So as a couple accustomed to flying high in private aircraft and low in fast cars, we bought two tickets and walked through the doors. A bright red Ferrari was sitting just inside the entrance. It was almost hypnotic—this red rocket on wheels. We circled it, both of us somehow believing it would just be a blink of an eye before we were again sporting about in a high-performance automobile, Pavarotti recordings buffeted by the wind, accompanied by the music that multiple herds of mechanical horses make.
We circled the car slowly, methodically, when there was a scream, not human in origin, but of a much higher pitch, something like a screech. What on earth was that? I thought, gazing in the general direction of the disturbance. It seemed I was being torn away from this tantalizing exoticness before me, drawn by an invisible force. It was like being beamed across the floor into another dimension. And before I knew it I was front and center in a group of approximately fifty people, with Linda at my side.
I’ve never considered myself an animal-rights type of person. Granted, being kind to animals was always important, but eating a hamburger or cutting down trees didn’t bother me. What was in front of me right now, however, was disturbing: a wildlife kitten squeezed into a cage so small he was forced to stand as if in a miniature squeeze box. People were poking and prodding him. How could they do that? Couldn’t they see this little guy was terrified? Apparently not, for what was important to them was touching for their pleasure. It reminded me of molestation. I can’t watch rape scenes on television; it’s easier to see a murder enacted. The powerlessness—the torture mixed with humiliation—makes it unbearable to watch, like what was happening in front of me right now. Abuse is abuse.
This was obviously a wildlife kitten, but what exactly? “Would you please take him out,” I requested, half asking, half demanding. The plump assistant with long brownish-blond hair glanced over her shoulder toward her boss. He eyed me, glanced at my Rolex, and nodded. She grasped the cub, slid him backwards out of his makeshift tomb, and handed him to me. So there I was, a man who didn’t like cats, holding one. I mean, I was an admitted dog person. When I hollered, I wanted action, not a vertical tail telling me to get lost.
I was once given a tabby kitten—more my daughter’s gift to herself—whom I named Regal. Regal was friendly and was little bother. But Chivas, a golden retriever, was my pride and joy. I impulsively got him eight years ago to help lick the sting of divorce away when my children were visiting.
Now all I could see were sky blue eyes rising over a pink nose. When I adjusted my arms, he wanted to bolt, so I held him carefully and, with Linda by my side, walked from the crowd, nonchalantly throwing a question over my shoulder: “What is he?”
“A mountain lion,” the assistant answered. A mountain lion? I pondered. As a boy I drove my parents nuts, always asking why this or why that. Now I had a hundred questions and no one to ask.
When we’d walked to a quiet place, the cub scooted back into the crook of my arm. He seemed curious, not frightened. It wasn’t long before I discovered a lonely pleasure boat on display off the beaten path, so I placed the kitten inside, allowing him to snoop around. Soon he was discovered. I motioned the intruders back and slowly picked him up, this time not by restraining but by scooping with an open hand. Who was training whom?
I knew I should take him back, but hesitated. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a six-foot bench against the convention center wall. It would be just a little delay, I thought, more vacation time from his cage. I walked over and sat down. After I’d placed him next to me, he paused for a moment, then staggered away on the slanted, shellacked surface. It was funny how he kept sliding to the back of the bench. Soon a family of five appeared. This time the cub didn’t wait, but skidded back and jumped into my lap. I felt an electrifying chill, an exhilarating, inspiring thrill. Everyone likes to be wanted, but this was more. I acknowledged his name in a whisper: “Hello, Cougar.”
Oops! Linda had seen this before. I was either in neutral, or hair on fire streaking past Mach 2. Linda knew that whatever happened, I wouldn’t accept anything short of perfection, but she had no idea where this was going. And, honestly, neither did I. The only thing important now was freeing him.
I got up slowly, so as not to disturb my passenger, and stepped toward a transformation, a lifestyle change, a process whereby I would learn to look at the world through Cougar’s eyes and, in so doing, be able to relate. Linda gently scratched him behind the ear and he began to purr. It was easy to see he was happy. Keeping him that way for the rest of his life would be the challenge.
Back at the pet store display, I whispered for Linda to reach into my coat pocket for my wallet. She opened it and I nodded toward a card that I’d used in the past to buy anything I wanted, a card whose unpaid statements were piled high on my desk. She flung it on the counter. Would it be accepted?
The assistant swiped the now worthless piece of plastic through the machine. She hadn’t seen a card like this one and seemed impressed as she examined it, then she smiled. I asked what to feed the kitten. Two pieces of raw chicken a day, she said. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s it.” But this merchant would have fed him dog food if it was cheaper. I’d rather find out for myself.
The din of the crowd became distant. If the card was declined, Cougar might end up cramped in a cage, God knows where, passed from one owner to the next—one abusive and another indifferent, one careless and another mean—until a cat born in a cage died in a cage. It was beyond being a waste. It was an outrage. I was holding my breath when a beep rang out from the credit card terminal. I had heard it a million times before, but this time was different. This was a life. Cougar was mine—or, as I would soon learn, I was his.
The assistant wrote the approval code on the two-thousand-dollar sales ticket and handed me the pen, saying she’d throw in the cage. So who needs a cage? I would have paid more—a ransom, or the cost of adoption. And I’ll always wonder if I would have reacted the same with an “ordinary” house cat. The answer is probably no; after all, I wasn’t even a cat person. It took a special cat to get my attention.
Now it was time to relish the success and not think about tomorrow. But there was a snag, the first of many. This kitten was expected to provide a significant draw for the show. The only way I would be allowed to take him home was if I agreed to return the next day; otherwise, I could pick him up Sunday night. Sure … like I was going to shove him back into that coffin! I agreed, but I’d do it my way: no more cages, no more petting, no more pet store. The pet store exhibitor accepted my terms.
IT WAS DARK outside, a below-zero evening. Snow fell with a silent, swirling rush that stuck to your eyelashes and squeaked under your shoes. The pet store assistant suggested that I put the kitten in his cage and throw the cage into the back of my truck. What a heart! Instead I handed Cougar to Linda and stood close until he was comfortable. Then I was directed to an emergency exit that not only was close by, but was only fifty yards from my duelie truck parked outside. I had used this truck the year before to pull my racing team’s forty-foot trailer. This year, I was racing against time. After a quick jog to start the engine, I returned and Cougar chirped. It was my first lesson in mountain lion talk. Tonight it meant, “Hey, I missed you.” Hundreds more translations, utilizing differences in intensity, volume, and pitch, were to follow.
When I zipped up my jacket around him, he didn’t resist. I’m gaining on it, I thought. Cougar focused on the approaching emergency exit and wasn’t startled when I pushed the bar and opened the door. Winter’s wrath blasted against his little nose. But I didn’t feel it—just the chill of excitement.
The drive home was exhilarating. I talked to Cougar in a high-pitched whisper while he watched streetlights, listened to the sound of traffic, and zeroed in on the occasional shadow leaning against the wind. Cougar seemed comfortable, as if he didn’t have a concern in the world. And at the moment I had only one: Did he have to pee?
Twenty minutes later and still high and dry, I steered into the garage, hearing Chivas excitedly prancing on the kitchen floor just inside the door. I handed Cougar to Linda and asked her to remain in the car until I could “love on” Chivas to settle him down. And I’m glad I did, for after letting myself inside, I was immediately covered with canine welcome-homes. Even Regal joined in with his feline version. Their excitement was noticeably elevated by a new scent—small wonder. So after everything had settled down, I announced that I would like to make introductions. Chivas knew something was up. Regal played oblivious, but didn’t move.
I walked back into the garage, picked up Cougar, and suggested that Linda precede me, so as to drain any remaining excitement from Chivas. And after opening the door only far enough to squeeze by, she bent down and loved both of her “boys.” Then, when I could no longer hear the claw scratches on the kitchen floor, I opened the door and stood motionless. I had their undivided attention.
I bent down. Cougar’s scent was electrifying to them. Chivas rammed his nose under Cougar and kept it there—as if he couldn’t get enough—until Cougar had enough and swatted. Chivas backed up, hesitated, then thrust his nose back under Cougar, who looked like a broncobuster riding a bull. This went on for several seconds until Cougar finally landed a good hard swat, this time with a hiss. It got Chivas’s attention, so he backed up and just stared—tail still wagging, tongue still dangling, and eyes darting back and forth, from me to Cougar.
Finally Chivas sat down and glanced at Linda, who was removing clean dishes from the dishwasher. It seemed that calmness prevailed, so I slowly placed Cougar on the floor. Cougar weighed approximately 7 pounds, Regal 11, and Chivas 115. To the kitten, Chivas must have looked like a horse, and Regal, just because he was an adult, could have been intimidating. This might have been the case, but Cougar saw it differently.
He confidently examined his surroundings and took a step. Chivas rushed forward. Cougar reared back on his haunches and struck him with all his might—a hard, lightening-fast blow with a spit for emphasis. Chivas was startled and Regal was petrified. Chivas backed up and shook his head. Regal didn’t move, just glared. He was awestruck. With extreme trepidation Regal examined Cougar, staring first at his head, then down to his chest, his legs—then, as if hit by a bolt of lightening, he stood frozen with alarm, his eyes glued. Those paws! He’d never seen paws like pillows. They were huge! Regal bolted for cover.
From Cougar’s standpoint that was two down and none to go. Time to explore. Chivas observed from a distance; Regal hid in a distant closet as Cougar quickly left the wooden kitchen floor for the beckoning call of carpet.
Cougar, as if on rails, walked directly over to the Scandinavian teak stereo cabinet that was Regal’s favorite resting spot. It had just enough room underneath for a crouching feline to scooch, turn around, and plop down. Cougar tried it out. It was perfect. But curiosity took precedence; it was on to his next discovery: a large, highly polished, cylindrical copper stand with pictures displayed on top. Cougar lingered in front of his shiny reflection, making sure the image was him. After all, there was only room for one wildlife cat in these parts.
Cougar would soon discover the entire house, an expansive home with few walls and an informal atmosphere where there were vaulted ceilings; picture windows; a massive stone fireplace; many ficus trees and other plants; Remington bronzes; oil paintings; Doolittle nature prints; stained glass art; teak, oak, and cherry tables and chairs; blue and black leather armchairs and couches; Indian tapestries and carpets; stereo systems; silver trays; crystal decanters and glasses; and an outside pool with surrounding cedar deck. I loved this place and saw no earthly reason a mountain lion wouldn’t fit in.
After all, it was now Cougar’s home too. But there were problems. First, I had promised Cougar no more cages. Throwing him into a larger cage just didn’t seem right. This pledge, however, didn’t consider my current fondness for physical things. I adored my possessions. But Cougar took priority and eventually he would weigh two-hundred-plus pounds and be capable of jumping straight up twenty-eight feet and leaping forty-two feet. A cat, I would soon learn, was a chewer. And how about housebreaking?
But first things first: he looked hungry. Those creeps probably didn’t feed him. Call me strange, but throwing food into a bowl seemed impersonal, especially when I was doing my best to get up close and personal. I admit to feeding Chivas and Regal out of bowls. So what was happening? For some reason a bowl didn’t seem appropriate with Cougar; too detached. So I opened the refrigerator door, picked out the biggest and best piece of uncooked chicken, turned around, and almost tripped over Cougar. Smart boy, I thought. After plopping down and sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, I extended my arm, offering a chicken leg. “Do you like white or dark meat?” I whispered with a smile.
First he sniffed; then, with baby teeth bigger than Regal’s adult set, he chomped into the meaty end with a crunch. I guess it doesn’t matter, I thought. But I pondered again. I’ll bet he does have a preference. And this chicken was raw. What about salmonella poisoning and the possibility of parasites? Most, I’m sure, would say that predators like Cougar are immune to such hazards, but how could I be sure? Who knows how mountain lions die in the wild? And how about chlorinated water?
After finishing off everything but my unanswered questions, Cougar scampered away. How would I corral all this energy? Maybe, at times, I could confine him to the solarium, which had a tile floor, wall-to-wall windows overlooking a forest, a bird feeder, and suet for squirrels. Lots of activity for mental stimulation, I thought. I would have to sleep on the idea. Hmm, and where would Cougar sleep? With me, of course. So after watching Cougar explore until after midnight, I lifted him up and carried him to my … and Linda’s … and now Cougar’s bedroom.
After much caressing, I laid him on the floor next to me and turned out the light. It wasn’t long before he was sniffing my hand. Then he pounced on a stray foot moving under the covers. I picked him up, snuggled his face, and put him back on the floor. Seconds later he was back. Maybe there is room for him in bed, I thought. After all, this is a king-size water bed. Hmm. I had visions of three inches of water cascading down the hall. Nah, never happen. So I pressed a comfortable impression into a king-size pillow, placed Cougar in the middle, lightly stroked him, put my head down, and went to sleep … for three hours.
I awoke to Cougar licking my arm. Had he been drugged, and was he now burning up all that pent-up energy? It was like he was on uppers. I stroked him until I fell asleep and started to snore. Then he sat on my face. Gosh, this cat was wound up tighter than a spool of thread; by comparison, Regal didn’t move the entire night.
THE NEXT MORNING Linda and I looked like death warmed over. And to make matters worse, I grudgingly remembered my promise to bring Cougar back to the show. My sleep-deprived mind thought of walking him on a leash. It seemed only natural; after all, I was a dog person.
After showering more for comfort than cleanliness, it was on to toast for Linda, cereal for me, and more chicken for Cougar. Then we were off to get a collar and a leash. I walked the aisles of the store with Cougar in my arms, so we got the correct size—and found one blue like his eyes. Then we were off to the show.
After entering, I glanced nonchalantly at the Ferrari, then put Cougar down, held the leash, and followed. I didn’t think about it then, but “exotic” no longer had to do with a special car—but a special cat. If that transition happened in just one miserable night’s sleep, what more was in store for me? I noted that Cougar walked past the pet store display disinterestedly, just as I had the Ferrari. We both were changing. The assistant raced over, commented on how alert Cougar was, and remarked, with reservation, that all sales were final. She hesitated for a moment, then asked how I had trained him to walk on a leash so quickly. My answer was that I just gave him the opportunity to teach me.
Today was so different from yesterday! Today, he was visiting the show on his terms and the future would be the same. He walked, I followed. And when he got tired, I carried him until he wanted to walk again. Of course, I’d occasionally steer him one way or another, and it wasn’t long before each of us could predict where the other one wanted to go. The next step would be discovering the whys. Yes, now he was cute and cuddly and I could pick him up, but those days were numbered. I always viewed him as an adult, not prompting any behavior that wouldn’t be equally appealing after he had added two hundred pounds.
Before I knew it, it was dinnertime. Yes, there were laws against pets in restaurants, though I didn’t consider Cougar a pet. So I selected an eatery owned by a friend—a small, quaint place dimly lit with candles, making one feel like Paris was on the other side of the door. Cougar snoozed (yes, he was winding down) in my lap until salmon was served. My plate hadn’t hit the table before two paws were between the fork and spoon. The waiter winked and asked if he should bring another plate. I responded no, thank you, my hand would do. And it did, one bite for me and the rest for Cougar. Thankfully, Linda never ate more than half her meal, so the other half was mine. Then there was dessert. I had apple pie à la mode. At least I had apple pie; someone else licked the ice cream. Tomorrow, I would research what he really should eat. I was sure an occasional serving of salmon and ice cream wouldn’t be harmful, but I wanted the best diet possible.
Because of our out-of-the-way table, only one couple discovered Cougar. They loved him. Given the circumstances, though, I felt it especially important to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I didn’t want attention. During the drive home, I thought about this dinner and how it had set the stage.
I’ve always enjoyed living on the edge—the secret being timing and control. But to be accepted while doing so requires much, much more. People dislike what they don’t understand. I knew I was doing something unique and should respect everyone’s opinion, even if it was contrary to my own. I had to educate them while at the same time being respectful and courteous.
Some might suggest that I was just infatuated. So be it. Every minute of every day my feelings intensified and they would continue doing so. This relationship would reorder my priorities and change what I considered important. Through my feelings for Cougar, I would recognize the importance of being good neighbors with all wildlife. I wanted to teach people that mountain lions are to be respected, not feared. There are those who would disagree, selfishly continuing to degrade the environment. Then there are those who only claim to be sympathetic. A few owners of exotic animals are exemplary, as are some environmental agencies; but most are animal-dungeon keepers or fanatical, tax-exempt, self-proclaimed saviors, exploiting the very animals they claim to be saving. I don’t wish to delve into their hypocrisy, their sham, their greed. I will only say it doesn’t work for me.
My thoughts were interrupted when we pulled into the garage. As always, Chivas was prancing on the other side of the door, and I was sure Regal was there, too. I handed Cougar to Linda, opened the door, and trod into a tornado of slobber, nose, tail, and paw. Linda followed and, after taking several steps beyond the mêlée, set Cougar down. After I had “loved on” Chivas for several minutes, he turned and bounded toward Cougar, who just walked away. Chivas stopped and, oh so delicately, inched his nose under Cougar’s tail. I’m sure Cougar found this a bit unsettling, but he continued walking. Chivas then turned and ran back for more human attention with an expression like: “Cats! Who needs’em?” And from Cougar’s perspective, it was probably the same regarding dogs.
I thought I could better keep track of Cougar by tethering him in the solarium-dining area with some twine. It wasn’t long before his tether was wrapped around the legs of the dining room table and most of the chairs. Nothing novel, but what happened next truly was. Cougar, realizing that his travels were curtailed by seven or so encirclings, gently backed up until the line was taut. He then examined which way it was wound around a leg and proceeded to unwrap it by walking in the opposite direction. He continued to do this until he had the entire tether back. Wow!
I thought of the way people who keep wolves talk about how much smarter they are than dogs, and this made me think about the domestication process, all that selective breeding, and how it may have a negative effect on the animals’ intelligence. If intelligence isn’t what the breeders are seeking, then maybe, over the years, the ability to solve problems subtly erodes away. Whatever the explanation, this mountain lion seemed smarter than his domesticated relatives. I wonder if the animal’s intelligence makes training easier or more difficult. I guess I’ll have to ask Cougar. He’s the trainer.
THE PANELED SOLARIUM was to be his territory: wood-framed windows, a corduroy couch, a large-screen TV for him to watch nature films on, wooden chairs, and, of course, plants. Nothing, I thought, to really damage. Cougar immediately zeroed in on the couch. It was, after all, against the window where, just on the other side, birds bustled and squirrels scooted. And it was cat-comfortable. Unfortunately, there were two behaviors that added up to trouble. One, Cougar was teething. Two, he is a chewer. From his perspective the armrest was the perfect teething ring. So after he got comfortable and watched Bambi on TV, or the real thing through the window, it was chomping time. I thought turning the TV off might work, but the chewing continued. He just sat in the corner of the couch, got cozy, and started chewing. First the arm disappeared, then a cushion, then another, then the other arm, then the back. In two weeks, the couch, or what was left of it, looked like a buffalo carcass. Material was stripped from its wooden skeleton and metal springs were laid bare. When Cougar wasn’t in the solarium-dining area he put his dental signature on several leather chairs and punctured a cushion of my wraparound living-room sofa.
Anyone who knew me and my obsession with physical possessions would have thought my relationship with Cougar was finished. Especially at a time when I was losing everything. I surely didn’t want to accelerate the process. But maybe the loss of my physical belongings forced me to cast off their importance. For whatever reason, I didn’t just sit idly by as Cougar destroyed the solarium. No way; with what little money I had left, I bought him another couch. After all, there was nothing comfortable to sit on in the solarium but bare springs. I was a strict disciplinarian in rearing my two children. So what was going on here? Was Cougar subtly demonstrating to me that there’s more than one side to everything? Was I now to go with the flow, rather than bucking it? It sure didn’t sound like me.
I’ve mentioned that Cougar was exceptionally intelligent. So why didn’t I just sit down and explain that chewing the furniture was a no-no? And if he didn’t listen, then why not punish him? Well, punishment may appear to work, but with cats there’s a unique problem. Cats see it one way—theirs—which kind of sounds like me in the years B.C. (Before Cougar). If I were the spiritual type, I’d wonder if someone upstairs was getting even with me. At any rate, cats are uncanny at accomplishing what they want, but blind and deaf to anything contrary to their wishes. Cougar figured out how to unwrap his tether because he wanted to. When I scolded him after he chewed the couch, from his perspective it was I who had lost his marbles. Cats are not only able to survive on their own, they’re good at it. Their one-sided nature is well suited to surviving. For some groups of felines, whether African lions, male cheetahs, or feral cats, survival depends on company, but that is unusual. Cats are self-centered souls; what they want, they try to get—simple, end of story. The secret is to make them want what we want and believe it was their idea. Who knows, this approach might even work for humans. But just because felines are considered aloof and distant, DON’T think for an instant they are.
Rescuing Cougar seemed only right, but understanding him and making him happy would have to follow. I could relate to his one-sided nature, but because of him I no longer thought one-sidedness was appropriate for me. How ironical … good for him … bad for me.
THROUGH COUGAR’S EYES. Copyright © 2001 by David Raber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.