It’s walking into the jaws of death,” I whispered. Two zebras had broken away from the herd and were moving through the tall grass toward three lions snoozing in the sun. One zebra lowered its head to graze. The other set a course straight for the lions.
Suddenly the dozing felines were alert. Heads raised, they watched lunch on the hoof come closer. One lioness crouched with the tip of its tail twitching. We could see the muscles bunching and releasing beneath her tawny coat as she stared intently at the zebra. Then, ever so slowly, she began to slink through the grass.
I was with a group of friends and family on safari in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. These weren’t the first lions and zebras we’d seen. But it was the first stalk and potential kill we’d witnessed. The silence in the jeep was palpable.
Then the lioness broke cover, racing toward the zebra. It turned to run but within a few strides the lion leapt and sunk its claws onto the black and white striped haunch. There was a collective “Oh!” from our vehicle. The zebra bucked and kicked with its rear legs causing the lion to lose its grip. It chased the fleeing animal for few metres, then gave up.
In the distance we saw the zebra limping and wondered if the deep, bloody gashes would become infected or attract other predators.
Although a similar colour, African lions are much bigger than cougars and live in large prides unlike the more solitary cougar. (We saw as many as 35 lions lounging together!) But the two species of big cats are equally opportunistic when it comes to prey. And the lion’s total focus and manner of approaching her prey was exactly how a cougar would respond to an unaware deer coming its way.
But the story wasn’t over yet. As the lioness sauntered back to her companions our guide said, “She’s coming back for a hug.” When the lion reached one of the others, she placed her head on its shoulder and the supine lion reached up to wrap her foreleg and paw around the other’s neck.
Mountain lions often hunt alone but on occasion a female with cubs or two young adults will tackle prey together. I wonder if cougars also provide consoling hugs if their prospective meal escapes?
Dogs chase cats and dogs that chase cougars seem to be particularly enthusiastic.
One of the most famous cougar hunters, former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote about “dogs that climbed trees.” He said a bloodhound named Turk scrambled almost nine metres (30 feet) up a pinyon tree before plummeting to the ground. And a half-breed bulldog regularly went as high as six metres (20 feet) or more after cougars. Apparently, the branches broke the dogs’ falls as, no matter how far they fell, they continued to “climb trees.”
Winston Vickers, associate veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, told me about a cougar that jumped out of a tree, landed in the middle of a pack of research tracking hounds, grabbed a dog by the head and took off. Of course, all the other hounds gave chase. One got close enough to grab the cougar by the tail. That was enough to make it drop the dog it was carrying. The dog survived but wasn’t keen on tracking cougars after that.
But until recently, I’d never heard of a dog catching a cougar by the tail and going up a tree. The footage on this short video clip is incredible. And yes, both the dog and cougar survived.
I picked Susan Ketchen up at 6:30 the morning of August 2. The car was loaded with chairs, coolers filled with snacks and boxes of books. We were headed to Telegraph Cove Resort on the northern end of Vancouver Island to participate in their annual outdoor market. Susan had copies of her Born ThatWayseries to sell and I had a box of my latest book, The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous.
Coming around a corner a little ways past Nimpkish Lake, I slowed as a deer was crossing the road ahead. Only it didn’t have long, skinny legs and wasn’t the right shape. It moved like a bear but wasn’t black. And then, as its hind end became the predominant view, we saw the tail and shouted, “It’s a cougar!”
It was HUGE and just languidly walking across the pavement, not in any hurry and not at all concerned about the approaching car. In fact, it never even glanced at us. We had time to watch the big paws strike the asphalt, observe the reddish tan fur and the super long tail with its distinctive black tip. And then – poof! It disappeared into a thin rim of bush alongside a clearcut. We were on a cougar high all day!
Due to its size and casual swagger, we think it was a mature male. And strangely, the only cougar my partner, Rick, has seen in the wild, was spotted not too far away about 20 years ago. He said that cat was also enormous and that the grace and speed of it running across the road in two bounds and then effortlessly leaping up a nine metre bank was incredible.
Although the time span makes it impossible that Rick and I saw the same cougar, it’s possible my sighting was the son or grandson of the one he saw. Either way, there’s no doubt that area is excellent cougar habitat.
And I wonder how many authors that have written books about cougars have seen one on the way to sell their book?
I’d forgotten about the Foreword Review’s IndieFab Nature Book of the Year nomination so was caught totally off guard when The Cougar received the gold award!
As always, I’m so grateful for the support and great work done by my publisher, Douglas & McIntyre and to all the people who so generously contributed their knowledge, experiences and photographs. The book wouldn’t exist without them.