Staredown with a lion

The mountain lion is now America

The mountain lion is now America’s No. 1 human predator, says naturalist Craig Childs. In his latest book, Childs describes what it’s like to confront the animal in all its terrible beauty.

I am one day by foot from the New Mexico border into Arizona’s remote Blue Range. A mountain lion is at the water hole. It is a male, well over 100 pounds, lapping water from the edge. It does not know that I am here. I come on it from behind, staring a beeline down its long tail, which is laid flat against the ground. An early-morning breeze moves in my direction, taking my scent behind. I let down a 60-pound pack without making a sound. I focus binoculars to get a good look.

The mountain lion has been in battle. A long, old scar follows its right side. The males are territory defenders. They will fight over land and come out with ragged ears and torn skin. It looks healthy, though—a strong, agile lion, hunched to the water so that its shoulder blades form shields around its back. When it stands, it makes a careful visual sweep. I am blending into my background, and its eyes swing by mine, not lingering on me at all. It is keyed to motion and scent, and nothing registers. I look like a rock, a stump, something simple and expected. Even so, a shiver pounces down my back.

In America’s suburbs and parks, mountain lions can be aggressive around people. Attacks are up. In fact, it is the mountain lion that has become most likely to make a meal of a human in North America. Close encounters in the deep wilderness are a different category. Concerning humans, lions out here avidly and skillfully avoid them. This is their territory, and I feel safe enough. I am dealing with precepts I think I understand.

The lion at the water hole eventually walks away, into a mesh of junipers that leads into the ponderosa forests and the high desert beyond. I wait for several minutes, then walk to the water to get a good identification, to take measurements and write it all down. The wind has shifted a few times, distributing my scent all over. But if I know the mountain lion, it is half a mile away by now, getting well out of my range.

At the water are many tracks in the mud, like sentences overlapping. I move to get a close look. Before I am on the ground, I scan the perimeter. At first I see nothing.

Then it is there, behind me. It has circled to my back. Eyes are in the shadows of a couple of low junipers, 30 feet away.

I move slowly, deliberately. The lion is probably startled by me. It may be hiding, like a rabbit that is nearly stepped on before it leaps away. But its eyes are not frozen like a hiding rabbit’s, and its body is not bunched, ready for a line drive in the opposite direction. I am being observed.

I watch the lion, taking advantage of my proximity to study its features. I am expecting it to bolt any second, to dive into the woods and vanish. Remember this, I think. You will never be this close again.

Instead of running, it stands. Without a pause for thought, it moves out from under the shadows so that both of us are in the same sunlight. We make clear, rigid eye contact. It begins walking straight toward me.

My heartbeat lodges into my throat. My adrenaline dumps. All of it. No dilemma in the lion’s eyes; it stares me down as if I am prey backed against a water hole. Even with a slow, lucid gait, it is quickly in my world. It looks up at me from under its brow so that its head is down and its eyes are shelved by a shadow. A stalking stare. The distance is closed in seconds.

The cat is going to attack me. I pull a knife off my right hip. It has a 5-inch blade. One claw against eight claws; hesitation against instinct. The advantage is not mine.

Mountain lions are known to take down animals six, seven, and eight times their size. Their method: attack from behind, clamp onto the spine at the base of the prey’s skull, snap the spine. The top few vertebrae are the target, housing respiratory and motor skills that cease instantly when the cord is cut.

Cats have attacked people who have been crouched, or small, or running the other way. Even in zoos they sometimes charge at the cage when children come by. Parents are often asked to hold their children close as they pass cages, to break up the image of fast little kids making random movements. Mountain lions have stalked people for miles. One woman survived an attack and escaped by foot on a road. The lion shortcut the road several miles farther and killed her from behind.

Bone is rarely ever broken. Rather, the teeth slide between vertebrae and open the spine surgically. Cat teeth are heavily laden with nerves so that the animal can actually feel its way around the spine and find the area for incision.

The mountain lion keeps walking straight at me. A powerful voice in me says, Run! Find shelter! The voice wants the mountain lion magically gone, it wants me to flee to my pack and bunch into a tiny ball. The lion is pushing my button, scrambling the innards of my instinct. Never have I felt fight or flight like this. My only choice, the message going to the thick of the muscle in my legs, is to run. I’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late.

What I do, instead, is not move. My eyes lock onto the mountain lion. I hold firm to my ground and do not even intimate that I will back off. If I run, it is certain. I will have a mountain lion all over me. If I give it my back, I will only briefly feel its weight on me against the ground. The canine teeth will open my vertebrae without breaking a single bone.

Some of the larger animals push their faces toward an attacking lion. It can’t get anything at the face. It has got to have a clear shot at the neck, from behind or the sides. It tries to intimidate and push the panic button with this kind of doubtless approach so the prey will turn. When the prey runs, the kill is sealed.

The mountain lion begins to move to my left, and I turn, keeping my face on it, my knife at my right side. It paces to my right, trying to get around on my other side, to get behind me. I turn right, staring at it.

Earlier I would have raised my arms and barked at it, but the lion had come too fast. Now any motion could snap the space we have. My stare is about the only defense I have. People working alone in the mangrove jungles at the mouth of the Ganges River in India sometimes wear the mask of a face on the back of their head. John Seidensticker, who studied the social organization of mountain lions, suggests that humans began to stand upright in order to more vividly show their faces to aggressive cats and to appear less like four-legged prey.

Most of my body has stopped. All that is left are my eyes, my right hand with the knife, and my ability to turn. The lion comes left again. When I rotate, it stops walking. It has got me in a stationary, tight stare from 10 feet. Its nose is moist and pale. Eyes made of gray and green. And that is where I see all of the energy, bound up and ready to flush into the body for one quick jump.

If it jumps, the knife goes into the rib cage. All my energy will be in the thrust. The lion may reconsider after that. But what shape will I be in after the single blow its entire body is built to deliver? Fifty million years of evolution to make an animal designed to kill on the first move. It could be that I will get in a good knife jab, but what will its jaws do around my face and throat? What will its claws do? And mountain lions are known to come back. They do stalk. Will I be holding my skin together with hands and bandanas when it finds me again?

It is looking for the approach. It looks one way, just a couple of inches to one of my sides, and then it looks to the other side. I won’t give it leeway, moving my head to keep its eyes on mine. There have been cases in which a lion cleared 20 feet in about a second when eye contact was broken.

It steps to my right, coming clear around, and I synchronize myself with it. It is not focused on my knife, my body, or even my eyes. It is moving intently at some point through me, inside of me, perhaps the single point where life itself is seated. It has happened so often that a mountain lion has launched straight at a hunter or a field biologist who has a sidearm leveled at its head. The mountain lion does not stop and is shot point-blank, dead. Why is that? A coyote or a bear will know when a person has a gun, and will often behave much differently. But the mountain lion is a creature with too great a nature to see a gun or a knife. It is so focused that the rest of the world goes silent.

The distance between us increases slightly. The lion walks toward the water hole. Until now I haven’t had the room to take a good posture without triggering an attack. It is customary to throw up your arms and make noise when encountering an aggressive animal at a fair distance. Or to put your hands in your pockets and flare out your coat, making yourself look 100 pounds heavier. It is an old bluff trick. Usually works. Now that it is 15 feet away, I lift my hands in the air. All the way so that my knife is an arm’s length over my head, looking like something too unusual and unknown for a mountain lion to bother with.

It doesn’t work. The mountain lion swings back and comes straight at me again. My arms drop. Fast. Right to my sides. Ice comes down my back. The lion stops there, close again. I have never been watched like this.

It begins a long, winding route, still trying to come from behind. It covers a great deal of space, going back and forth. There is a seamless continuum from the surrounding world, through the lion’s eyes, into its heart, and back to the world. I am somewhere in there, holding steady like a rock planted beside the water hole. It watches me closely as it leaves. It walks into the forest and I no longer see it.

I stand for a few minutes, staring at the forest.

I never saw the lion again. For the next week of hiking, though, I could see it all around me. I slept half awake. When I came to water, I gathered it quickly and retreated. I kept my eyes trained into the shadows, waiting, seeing a mountain lion wherever I looked.

From the book The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs. ©2007 by Craig Childs. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co., New York, N.Y. All
rights reserved.


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