Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (In My Woods, I Hope)

A neighbor was going out to her compost pile one bright evening last July when, about forty feet away, she saw an animal lying down with its back to her.  From its size and earthy color, she thought it was a deer.  But then it turned on its belly, and she realized that it was a really large cat, with a long, long tail.  Not a bobcat, not a lynx, not an overfed Scottish shorthair.  A mountain lion.

She was standing there transfixed, the compost bucket in her hand, when a woodchuck leaped by the creature's head, flopped down and flew up again in a very un-woodchuck-like manner, but exactly like a mouse that is being tormented by a cat.  All kinds of thoughts rushed through my neighbor's head:  "I must rescue that woodchuck" (fortunately she thought better of that);  "I should run into the kitchen and grab my camera" (instead she decided to stay and live the moment--good for her!).

After three or four minutes of tossing the woodchuck around, the lion turned and looked at my neighbor.  My neighbor looked at the lion.  Then languidly the lion stood up, woodchuck in mouth, and disappeared into a brush pile.

This magnificent event, I am proud to say, happened a mere mile from our house, and I am basking in its reflected glory.  A mountain lion's range is between 50 and 100 miles, so I like to think that one of these days my neighbor's lion might honor our compost pile with a visit.  I know it sounds insane to wish this, especially with Bisou around, who is practically woodchuck-sized.  But I am told that mountain lions (puma concolor) on the East Coast are less dangerous than their brethren in the West, because our woods and fields are crawling with critters that they like to eat.

This is not the only sighting of a mountain lion in our area.  A couple of years ago, an even closer neighbor told me that he had seen one in the meadow by the river that runs between our houses.  And Wolfie's herding teacher, who lives just over the border in New York, saw one on a summer evening as she was driving down the road from her house.  She stopped the truck.  The lion looked at her, she looked at the lion...then he gathered his hind legs under him and gave a leap that took him almost across the two-lane road.

The lion (or lions) that roams our neighborhood is not, alas, the fabled catamount.  According to the Vermont Department of Wildlife, the Eastern Mountain Lion is extinct.  But their cousins from Canada and the West are coming this way.  Last summer, a mountain lion was killed by an SUV on a highway in Connecticut, and DNA analysis shows that it came from a population that makes its home in South Dakota (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/07/27/138748682/connecticut-mountain-lion-likely-came-from-the-black-hills)


To these wild immigrants, I say, welcome to the neighborhood.  Welcome to the mountain lion.  Welcome back to the wild turkeys rescued from the brink of extinction and who, this summer, outnumbered the  chickens on our yard.  And welcome, if it should choose to come this way, to canis lupus, the gray wolf.  Its DNA is already evident in the extra-large and furry coyotes that run around these parts.  The habitat is perfect, and I would dearly love to see one before I die. 

Veni, veni, canis lupus, puma concolor et al.  Come reassure me that all is not lost, all is not yet predictable.  My scraggly woods can be your shrine--you'll find all sorts of sustenance here, from deer to fisher cats. (For your sake, stay away from the porcupine that's eating our garage; and for mine, don't eat Bisou.)  Come and make yourselves at home.  Just don't make me wait too long.



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