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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Heart of a Lion

Air Date: Week of

Mountain lions used to live from coast to coast across the continental U.S., but are now absent from the East Coast except for a few rare males passing through. (Photo: wplynn, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Mountain Lions have been considered extinct in the Eastern U.S. for decades, but one trekked from his home in the Dakotas to just a few miles outside of New York City. Host Steve Curwood talks with author William Stolzenburg, whose new book, Heart of a Lion, carefully documents this creature’s extraordinary two-thousand-mile journey.


CURWOOD: And now for an adventure story, a true animal adventure story. As urbanization has advanced across the US, so wild animals have been in retreat. Yet just a few years ago a mountain lion ended up in Connecticut near New York City, where none had been spotted in a century. Cougars still inhabit the American West, especially in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, but it’s a journey of thousands of miles to reach the East Coast, and fraught with peril. Wildlife ecology writer William Stolzenburg tracks the unlikely journey of this big cat in his new book "Heart of A Lion". Welcome to Living On Earth.

STOLZENBURG: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: This is a fascinating book. For years, and I mean many, many, years there's been rumors of mountain lions in the east, and your book, of course, is about this journey of one. So, tell us about this particular wandering lion. Where did he come from, what was he like, and what made his journey unique?

STOLZENBURG: Well, yeah, SO in June 2011, we got this news that cat had killed on a roadside in Connecticut of all places and so we all sat up in our chairs and most of us just dismissed it as just perhaps this must be an animal, a pet that's been released, something that got out of the zoo or something. This couldn't be a real honest to God wild cougar, but lo and behold, six weeks later the DNA tests came back and determined this cat had come all the way from the black hills of South Dakota. Now he was a three-year-old young mountain lion. He had left probably when he was a teenager, about a year and a half old and set out on this incredible cross country journey that we believe may have taken his across at least six states and very likely he went across most of Canada's largest province of Ontario.

Stolzenburg’s book chronicles one cougar’s eastward trek. (Photo: courtesy of Sara Mercurio)

CURWOOD: Tell me about the circumstances in South Dakota, the Black Hills of South Dakota that might have prompted this lion to begin his journey.

STOLZENBURG: Well, what we have is a situation in the Black Hills of South Dakota that is rather unique. It's an island, it's a mountain island that is separated from the rest of the Rockies, and it is one of the most easternmost populations of mountain lions in the country, and what's happening there now is that the place is filled up with mountain lions, there's not room for very many more to go and as happens with all juvenile male lions when they come of age, when they're almost of breeding age, they head out. They head out and seek their own territory somewhere and most of them in the Black Hills head west back into prime cougar habitat. Well, a feel of the outliers headed in the wrong direction, as it turns out, they head east. We know, we're pretty sure why they're going there. They're looking for mates as I say in new territories, but there's a strange trickle of these eastern wandering cats that head out and that's where are our Connecticut cat started from.

CURWOOD: I imagine that any young male lion that heads east looking for a mate is probably just going to be out of luck. There are no females out there, are there?

STOLZENBURG: There's no females in the east, and they don't go as far as the males, and so this idea that they're on their way, it's just a stepping stone journey and they're going to be here in 20 years or so. Well, the problem with that is that the females don't make these huge jaunts as males do, even if they could survive it, they usually don't. To imagine a female doing what our Connecticut cat did in one big leap, you might as well put the money down on the Powerball. But what that leaves us is this other option, which is going to be a real controversial one, but which the some of the best minds in eastern cougars are thinking has to happen, we're going to have to start a colony. We're going to have to think of bringing the starter colony here and helping them along.

Journalist William Stolzenburg has written hundreds of science articles and two other books about living creatures, in addition to Heart of a Lion. (Photo: Kathy Stolzenburg)

CURWOOD: Now, one of the really cool things about your book, Will, is that you used modern DNA techniques to document this journey of this lion from South Dakota to Connecticut. So where is the first sighting of this lion where somebody gets some DNA?

STOLZENBURG: Yeah, well, it happened in the outskirts just west of Minneapolis in St. Paul in a little place called Champlin, and yet he showed up in the Mississippi River and was spotted by a police officer crossing the street. He jumped in the car and went chasing after this thing in the dark and actually got a video of this animal, so we know very well that this wasn't just him seeing something because we have a very clear video of this thing through a police dash cam of this animal walking through somebody's yard, just really amazing.

CURWOOD: And with the video, what about some DNA?

STOLZENBURG: Yeah, well they didn't get good DNA on that cat, but as it turns out, he was still headed eastward and a couple days later he did leaving some DNA. He wound up in this little nature reserve of an industrial section of town in Badness Heights, Minnesota, and he did leave his DNA in some feces.

CURWOOD: And why were those who were...had a vested interest in protecting this lion relieved when he left Minnesota and went to Wisconsin?

STOLZENBURG: The norm for animals doing what this animal attempted to do is to get shot. If they don't get shot, they usually get run over or they just seem to disappear. But none of them have been known to survive. The closest we have to something like that was a cat that in 2008 tried the same thing from the Black Hills, wound up in of all places downtown Chicago and there's dozens other. There's probably more than somewhere over 100, 120 cats that have died trying to make that trip across.

CURWOOD: From Wisconsin, the mountain lion, and I guess this mountain lion never really had a name...goes where?

STOLZENBURG: Yeah and he didn't have a name. They would name him as he went through town. The local papers would write him up as the Champlin cougar, or the Twin Cities cougar or the St. Croix cougar, but he made it to Wisconsin and then he headed north. What most people think is that he went through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and crossed the international boundary in the St Mary’s river.

Male mountain lions sometimes travel great distances in search of a mate. (Photo: Bec., Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: And so, where does he go after that?

STOLZENBURG: So, the next place shows up is in Lake George, New York, in the Adirondacks. He was walking into somebody's backyard in the middle of night when their motion-sensing floodlight went on in and the lady washing her dishes at the kitchen sink was looking out the window when the light comes on and lo and behold, there's the mountain lion. It just so happened that her husband was a retired conservation officer who went out the next morning and sure enough they followed this mountain lion's tracks, and actually came to a bed where he’d laid and got a hair sample and that came back positive for this animal linking to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

CURWOOD: You know, you’d think the Adirondacks would actually be good territory for mountain lion. There's a lot of woods there.

STOLZENBURG: This animal kept going for some reason, and we think it's because he simply didn't find any females along the way, and if there had been, if there had been female lions there, very likely he would have stayed.

CURWOOD: So, what happens to him? He doesn't find love in the Adirondacks so he heads...

STOLZENBURG: He heads south. The next time we see him, he shows up 23 air miles from Manhattan's Central Park. He's in Southern Connecticut, in Greenwich of all places. He starts revealing himself like he has along the whole way. In the middle of the day, he's seen walking across somebody's patio in Greenwich, Connecticut.

CURWOOD: And so what happens to him?

STOLZENBURG: Yeah, that's where the story gets sad. A week later just past midnight just outside of the coastal town of Milford, he was killed. He was struck by an SUV. It's actually, there wasn't many cars on the road and when you consider all the different highways he crossed in his many many miles getting across United States. He'd overcome all the hurdles. All of a sudden he just made a mistake and stepped in front of the car on this night June 11.

A map charting the mountain lion’s journey from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Milford, Connecticut pinpoints some of the places he stopped along the way. (Photo: courtesy of Sara Mercurio)

CURWOOD: How sad.

STOLZENBURG: Oh, it was, yeah. I mean looking back it's truly a tearful thing when you consider the 18-month trip that this lion made across the country. But the bright side of it is again that this lion left an incredible legacy. He left this incredible line of evidence that proved many many things about mountain lions. He was really quite an ambassador for his species.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book, you document that not only did this cat, this mountain lion get all the way from South Dakota to Connecticut but he had to get through a gauntlet of people out with guns looking to kill animals like him.

STOLZENBURG: Yeah you know it's an unfortunate situation that in his home state they have a hunting season, they have a limited hunting season on the Black Hills itself, but in the rest the prairie for all those animals that are trying to escape, it's year-round. You can shoot an animal year-round. There's no limit.

CURWOOD: You said the other direction they go is west, and you write about California where people don't shoot mountain lions. Why is that?

STOLZENBURG: Well, 30 or 40 years ago, Californians voted against it. They decided years ago that they were not going to shoot their lions and the citizenry upheld that several times. California has the most people and most mountain lions of any state that has mountain lions, OK? They don't have the most conflicts, they don't have the most attacks, they don't have the most livestock lost to them, so the idea that most other states go by is that we really need to shoot these animals, keep them in their place, to protect people and their livestock. California is the antithesis of that.

CURWOOD: What does the research say about sport hunting's effect on preventing mountain lion attacks?

STOLZENBURG: Well, you know, there was a panel of blue chip lion experts who look at this situation 10 years ago, and they gathered all the evidence they could and they just could not find any science to back this idea that sport hunting in any way makes people safer, livestock safer.

CURWOOD: What do you think can be done if anything to shift long-held attitudes towards mountain lions?

STOLZENBURG: Well, I'm kind of hoping that that's happening right now and I'm hoping that maybe if the plight of the Connecticut lion gets a little more attention, thank you, that people will realize that there's a different beast out there than the one we've been told by the media oftentimes.

The Black Hills of South Dakota have a glut of mountain lions -- so some of the young males must leave the place of their birth. (Photo: Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, it's really interesting to talk about this because I spend some time in wild places when I can, and one of those places includes the Allagash where there's a guy who swore to me not once but at least twice he's seen these in northern Maine just across the border from Québec there.

STOLZENBURG: OK. Here's my answer to that. He could be right and he could be wrong, but here's why I think he could be right. Again we have thousands of these animals being held in captivity across the country, and this is often what happens when people realize they've got a cat they can't take care or they're tired of it and they don’t realize this is what it was going to take when their 10 pound little pussy cat turns into a 140 pound mountain lion. They let it go in places where they think, here's a good place for them to go. Unfortunately, they don't often survive.

Now, here's another thing that makes me think he could be wrong. There are stores like that everywhere you go and you can talk to some of the best naturalists across the eastern half of this country and they will swear up-and-down that they have seen these animals and 99 percent of time when biologists actually follow up on a lot of these so-called sightings, they come to the conclusion there's some other animal and then there's a whole other class of sighting out there which is under the hoax category and there's a whole bunch of people out there who would really like to fool us by posting stuff on the Internet.

CURWOOD: And, Will, before you go what you make of this notion that maybe a starter colony should come east?

STOLZENBURG: You know, I don't see why not. And I think this is just a matter of time. I think people are nervous of course because they know that we haven't lived with these animals for over a century now so it's really a strange thing to imagine them doing it. All you have to do though is go to California and you'll talk to people on the trails who say, yeah, I don't think much about it anymore. They're here, and that's fine. And so we can have mountain lions here, but it's going to be a big political fight to make it happen.

CURWOOD: William Stolzenburg is a wildlife writer and author of "Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat's Walk Across America". Thanks so much, Will, for talking with us today.

STOLZENBURG: Thank you, Steve.



Author William Stolzenburg’s official site

Smithsonian: “Cougars on the Move”

Mountain Lion Death Report

Cougar Rewilding Foundation


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