A Close Encounter with a Cougar

By Mark Elbroch Gazette Contributing Writer

Editor’s note: Last June, a vehicle struck and killed a 140- pound male cougar on the Wilbur Cross Parkway near Milford, Conn. DNA tests eventually confirmed that the animal had come from the Black Hills of South Dakota, about 1,500 miles away. Amazing as this feat seems, it lends support to a widely held scientific view that cougars (also called mountain lions and pumas) found in the East are migrants rather than part of an established population.

In addition to DNA testing, wildlife biologists employ a wide range of sophisticated techniques for studying cougars, including radio-collaring the animals to track their movements. Author Mark Elbroch has been working in Chilean Patagonia, catching and collaring the big cats for conservation research. The story below is an excerpt from his journal describing an effort to catch one cougar, whom he and his colleagues named Oportus after the mountain on which they had first radio-collared him. They were trying to catch him again because, while mating with a female, the female had pierced his collar’s battery pack with her teeth.

– Michael Dover, Hitchcock Center

Oportus took refuge in the thickets that paralleled the main road. With little thought, I dropped to my hands and knees and penetrated the thicket. Catching the cat was all that mattered.

Over and over, I wiggled close to the hounds and puma, but more often than not, the great cat heard my approach and ran. Finally, I managed to arrive on scene undetected. I saw Oportus through a lattice of branches, perhaps 30 feet away, lying comfortably in the open vault formed by arching bushes. The two hounds were not so foolish as to attack him, and sat at the safe distance of several meters, barking lazily. All was serene until someone crashed into the edge of the brush on the far side of the trio.

Oportus rose gracefully, and began slithering in my direction through the open paths between and below the thicket of intertwining thorns and brush. The hounds flanked him and escorted his movements, but dared not approach any closer. Oportus walked, confident he would not be further molested, head low so as to see and navigate the labyrinth. His bulk filled the passages, his dangerous sinewy grace both awe- inspiring, and at the time, rather intimidating. I’d certainly considered that I might find myself head to head with the big cat in the thicket, but it had seemed so incredibly unlikely.

I am not ashamed to admit that I was suddenly a little nervous. Closer and closer he approached, unaware of my presence. Well, I thought, at least this is the perfect opportunity to dart him. But fear was also rippling up my body, and I hadn’t realized that I’d disengaged the safety on my rifle. I squeezed the trigger in my fright, and out came the dart, imbedding harmlessly into the debris at the base of a shrub some 15 feet in front of me. Damn! Now what to do?! I lay on my stomach, wedged between bushes, alone with an empty rifle and a looming mountain lion. And then just 15 feet away, he appeared in the opening before me, no longer partially screened by interlacing bushes. His head swung low, his great, coal black pupils seemed as endless as night in his massive, gray head. His large padded feet made no noise.

I was suddenly confronted with a decision. They say to stand tall and make yourself appear as large as possible when shouting down a lion. But the best I could do in the space provided was to prop myself up on my elbows, to raise my eyes to be closer to level with his. I yelled—not words, just a strong noise to let him know I was there. He stopped in mid-stride, one foot held aloft. He studied me with those massive eyes. I yelled again, and for longer to make sure he knew I was human, but admittedly the strangled noise I made was questionable. Still he did not move, but just scrutinized me, his nemesis in the labyrinth, this human form so bold to have crawled into his world. I yelled a third time, and then he finally took several slow steps backwards, and when he had the space, he turned and loped in the opposite direction, the dogs escorting him into the distance.

Bloody hell. I regained my composure, wiggled forward to find the dart, and found it completely intact. I reloaded it and wiggled out to a more open section of thicket where I could squat and breathe more easily. Then I returned to the chase.

[After three hours of chasing him round and round the thicket, Elbroch finally darted Oportus. “We were both exhausted,” he reports.]

Mark Elbroch has spent years tracking, observing and researching mountain lions in California, Idaho, Colorado and Patagonia. He is the author or co-author of several natural history books including Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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