The Dec. 9, 2009, online edition of the Star Tribune featured a grainy video shot by a dashboard camera in Sgt. Bob Penney’s patrol car. It showed a mountain lion padding through a wooded area of Champlin on the night of Dec. 7. Eighteen months later, the same tawny cougar would be struck and killed by an SUV on a Connecticut parkway just north of New York City.
Subsequent research revealed that the young male had come from the Black Hills in western South Dakota and that his 2,000-mile journey was the longest ever recorded of a member of Puma concolor, a subfamily of the so-called “small” wildcats that at one time were found throughout North and South America.
In “Heart of a Lion,” William Stolzenburg could have presented a straightforward narrative about the legendary animal sometimes called the cat of many names — cougar, puma, catamount and mountain lion being just a few — and its surprising survival against tremendous odds. Instead, he has taken on the far more complex task of examining the human-wildlife conflict in 21st-century America through the story of a single animal.
Stolzenburg, author of “Rat Island,” “Where the Wild Things Were” and numerous magazine articles on saving wildlife, is understandably passionate about a subject the lay reader likely hears more about in the African context than in a U.S. context.
The wildcats “were the immigrants who filled missing ranks and brought new blood to established colonies. In their risky, gallivanting way, the transients served as the ironic balancing rods of cougar society,” he writes.
Although he occasionally succumbs to the anthropomorphizing that often characterizes writing about wildlife, Stolzenburg tells a riveting story that often reads like a thriller.
And he introduces the unschooled reader to the vast — and occasionally dizzying — network of scientists, game wardens, organizations, journals, state and federal agencies and politicians who joust with fact and myth in what might be a quintessential American paradox: the freedom to be and to roam and to hunt, vs. the constraints and challenges of living in an increasingly urban and diverse country.
There is little question that human concentration and activities present serious problems for wild animals. Stolzenburg and colleagues in the re-wilding camp advocate the reintroduction or support of natural predators such as cougars and wolves to restore wildlife balance.
“Where the predators no longer hunted, their prey had run amok, amassing at freakish densities, crowding out competing species, denuding landscapes and seascapes as they went.”
And year after year, impelled by stoked fear of the legendary beast, the South Dakota Legislature increases the kill limit on mountain lions — deemed by many in that state to be a dangerous varmint. California lawmakers, meanwhile, have determined that the same animal deserves official protection.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who was with the Associated Press for 25 years in North and South America, Europe and East and West Africa.
Heart of a Lion
By: William Stolzenburg.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 245 pages, $27