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HEART OF A LION book review

‘May Heart of a Lion reawaken millions to the beauty and power we can regain if we welcome home our greatest cat.’

by John Davis

If you are ready to welcome America’s Lion, the Cougar, back to the East, HEART OF A LION will inspire you to take action for that good wild end. If you doubt we should welcome home Cougars, Heart of a Lion may change your mind. It will at least engage you, as a story of a wandering hero, of one of the most athletic species ever to grace our great green Earth, known scientifically as Puma concolor; popularly, as Cougar, Mountain Lion, Puma, Panther, Painter, Catamount, and still other colorful names.

This enthralling story is equal parts adventure, ecology, drama, politics, and history. Will Stolzenburg is one of our country’s best natural history writers, and Heart of a Lion is among his greatest accomplishments.

Go to willstolzenburg.com for links to purchase your copy of Heart of a Lion

I want you to read the book, so I’ll not say too much in this review. In short, the book begins with brief history of the species Puma concolor, and how it was eradicated from most of eastern North America, then follows the tale of a brave young male Cougar who lit out for the territory from South Dakota’s Black Hills in late summer 2009, and rambled thousands of miles, looking for a mate and a safe territory, before finally being killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. That tragic ending, you’d likely already heard, as it made national news; but not likely do you yet know much of the Cougar’s story to that point.

In offering high praise for Heart of a Lion, I admit a personal and professional bias, for promoting protection of big wild habitats and the big wild animals who need these places is my life’s work. Moreover, even as this peripatetic Cougar was crossing most of the country west to east, I was trekking (guided by The Rewilding Foundation and Wildlands Network) similar distances south to north – in part to explore how a lineage of Panthers starting in Florida might eventually recolonize habitats northward through the Appalachians and Adirondacks. When I learned of this cat’s journey, I realized that I needed to look west at least as much as south for cats to rewild my Adirondack home.

The lessons in conservation and ecology from this great cat’s incredible journey could headline chapters in a conservation biology textbook, yet the cat somehow avoided the lethal threesome of roads, cars, and guns for two years of wandering. In so doing, he told us how we might reconnect wildlife habitats west to east across the northern US and southern Canada to allow sorely needed apex predators back into our over-browsed Eastern Deciduous Forest; but he also reminded that while wildlife corridors are necessary, they are not sufficient: coexistence is equally important. This utmost wanderer (who, curiously, was never granted a personifying name, as were famous wandering Wolves Journey and Echo) was not killed by a bullet, as many carnivore are, but his mere appearance – representing perhaps as much danger as an unleashed dog – caused hysteria in several Connecticut towns, where he ran out of wild woods and started being seen in human neighborhoods.

As good stories do, Heart of a Lion makes you yearn for a better, wilder world. Readers may wonder, as the Cougar’s story unfolds, why we humans are such wanton killers of other predators: why, in the face of proof that native carnivores are no threat to our welfare, do we persist in persecuting them? Why do South Dakota wildlife managers, for sad example, increase kill quotas of the great cats, rather than celebrating their return?

Fear of top predators, Will Stolzenberg reminds us, is deep-rooted, though outmoded. These days, arguably at least, top predators make life safer for people, by lessening incidence of zoonotic disease outbreaks and of car/deer collisions. (The states with the highest rates of Lyme disease and of fatal car collisions with deer are eastern states that have eradicated their top predators.) In our evolutionary past, though, we humans and our primate predecessors actually were commonly food for big toothy carnivores. In some African and Asian countries, Lions or Leopards do still eat people occasionally; yet, interestingly (and unflatteringly, for we the American people), folks in these supposedly less developed countries more willingly coexist with apex predators (though African and Asian Lions and Leopards are also imperiled across much of their original range, due to habitat destruction).

Along the journey from South Dakota to Connecticut, Stolzenberg teaches us about Cougar ecology and about the obstacles carnivores face in trying to recolonize the East (obstacles similar to what I saw on my journey north from Florida, chief among them, roads and cars). Apparently, this cat at least, had no trouble crossing major rivers, whereas roads ultimately killed him.

The lion was now heading into a country of farm and forest rich with deer and scarce of roads. He was traveling east through the peninsula, bound north and south by the Great Lakes Superior and Huron. Straight ahead, flowing between the twin cities of Sault Ste Marie, Canada, and the United States, was the St. Mary’s River….

Either the twin city of Sault Ste. Marie or the Soo Locks was a lion accident waiting to happen. But there was a way around the rapids and across the river, and a certain parade of wildlife had over time figured it out. Twenty miles southeast of the Soo Locks, the river braided itself around a cluster of islands, all of them partially forested, some of the crossings measuring no more than half a mile. Biologists flying over the winter archipelago had recorded the tracks of a host of big mammals not uncommonly doing so, Whitetail deer, coyotes, and red foxes had been using the islands as international stepping stones. Over the years, eyewitnesses had seen all the great northern mammals (moose, elk, deer, bear, and wolf) commuting here between countries. It was here also that some half century earlier, the coyote, the archetypal song dog of the western plains and prairies, was suspected of first helping himself into the forests of the East, on his way toward famously colonizing every state in the Lower 48. And soon it appeared that at least one lion was attempting the same thing.

The smart little group (and Wildlands Network partner) Cougar Rewilding Foundation rightly plays a big role in this wild wanderer’s story. Their biologists, naturalists, and citizen scientists, who carefully track efforts of the big cats to move east from their reclaimed homes in prairie states, have ascertained that Cougars are unlikely to make it back to the East in breeding numbers on their own in the foreseeable future. Between South Dakota’s Black Hills or North Dakota’s Badlands or Nebraska’s Pine Ridge and viable habitats in the Appalachians and Adirondacks are too many roads, cars, and guns. If Cougars are to reclaim their keystone role as forest guardians, they will probably need to be actively reintroduced. Once in a rare while, as with the hero of this story, a Cougar runs the gauntlet and survives to reach the deer-bitten Eastern Deciduous Forest. Almost always, though, it’s a male, females being shorter-distance dispersers, and almost always the young male keeps moving in a futile quest to find females, until finally shot or hit by a car.

If our society is just and literate, Heart of a Lion will be among a growing genre of true stories of heroic wild wanderers, which will collectively inspire us to restore missing members of traditional communities, East and West. Will Stolzenberg’s book is both natural history and morality play. It reads lithe, athletic, exploratory, like the noble beast it describes. May Heart of a Lion reawaken millions to the beauty and power we can regain if we welcome home our greatest cat.

—John Davis, naturalist, Split Rock Wildway, eastern Adirondacks, and author of Big, Wild, and Connected: Exploring an Eastern Wildway from Florida to Quebec (Wildways Advocate and Conservation Athlete at Wildlands Network).

Cougar watercolor by Rod Maciver

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