What got you interested in cougars?
Cougars are large, charismatic, mysterious predators. All those things add up to an interesting subject. Plus, they're elusive and not much is known about them really; even though everybody has seen pictures, very few people have actually seen them outside of a zoo.
In the story, you discuss how cougars have been hated throughout history, that even Theodore Roosevelt, the nature-lover, loathed them. What it is about cougars that made people hate them so much, even compared with other predators?
I guess it goes back to frontier times, when humans were meat for cougars, and that's pretty terrifying—the usual predator becomes the prey. I guess that screaming that they do—it's basically caterwauling during sex—is terrifying if you hear it at night, so that probably didn't help. And their stealthiness made them seem cunning and lowborn, so they didn't seem noble as some of the other big cats seemed. It's basically fear; anytime you have a reaction that's that strong, it's basically fear. That has, of course, changed now that people don't have to worry about being eaten by them as much. Now we can see their beauty and their grace.
I have a picture of you here holding a sack of cougar cubs. What was it like to get so close to them?
It was kind of amusing, because they're snarling and putting their claws out—they're practicing to be ferocious. And yet they're also adorable at that size. They're very pretty and spotted. But it's about the only time I'd want to be that close to one.
Did you run into any dangerous situations with their mothers? Were you ever nervous about them?
No, I never was, but that’s probably ignorance. I noticed that Ken Logan was nervous at one point because we were very close to the mother and we were in between her and her cubs, and that can be a dangerous thing. But she slipped away, and that was good. We were pretty close to her, but we didn't see her.
You and the scientists had to go down into canyons and travel across some rough territory to find these cougars. What were those hikes like?
Thank god that Logan and Jim, his assistant, were carrying 40-pound packs, or I would have been hard-pressed to keep up. I did keep up, but only because they were weighed down. There was one point where one of the ATVs took their packs up to the top of the trail because we were at a place where there was an access path. After that I couldn't keep up with them, because they weren't burdened down as we were climbing up out of the canyon. Bruce Ney, the cougar tracker, was a real hardy Westerner. He was very nimble on these extremely steep canyon sides, and the rest of us all had water and lunch and everything. He carried nothing. He didn't need a drink all day. He said, "Well, we didn't do much"—that's what he said at the end of a day that had nearly killed me. He had a couple sips of Gatorade when he got back to his truck, and that was it. He was something else, that guy.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned from researching this story?
I guess the most surprising thing is how much farther east the cats have gotten than I knew about. I assumed there was basically this population of cats in Florida and the West, but when you start doing the research you find that they've been seen in almost every Midwestern state, and that's really interesting.
Will there be more confrontations with humans as the cats move east?
Oh yeah, I think that's inevitable.