Book Shelf, Book 3 — Listening to Cougar

August 15, 2008

Listening to Cougar

By Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe, editors
University Press of Colorado $24.95

Reviewed by David Baron

Compared with North America's other apex predators, cougars get little respect. Whether measured by screen time on the Discovery Channel or dollars raised for their protection, wolves and grizzlies gain the lion's share of attention.

To redress this imbalance, wildlife advocates in 2001 created the Cougar Fund, an organization that aims to "assure a lasting place for this graceful creature." Two of the group's principals – director Cara Blessley Lowe and board member Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado – have now compiled an anthology of cougar-related writings called Listening to Cougar. The book's goal: "to give voice" to cougars so that more Americans will care about the animals and their plight.

The book contains some fine writing. Rick Bass amusingly relates the time his dog flushed a lion from the Montana brush; Bass's response was to utter a lame (though effective) "Hey, asshole, leave my dog alone."

Ted Kerasote writes poetically about not encountering a cougar after finding tracks during a backcountry ski in Wyoming. In a moving short story by Joan Fox, memories of cougars haunt a husband and wife as they cope with loss and try to build a family.

One of the more noteworthy contributions to this collection comes not from a professional writer but from a scientist. Wildlife biologist Linda Sweanor recounts feline coming-of-age stories from a ten-year cougar study she conducted in New Mexico.

She writes of young males she radio-collared and their literal journeys to adulthood. Adolescent toms possess an urge to disperse, and their wanderings often prove deadly as they confront highway crossings, hunters, and territorial attacks by older cougars. Sweanor's stories show in rich detail how habitat fragmentation can threaten the survival of a species.

However, Listening to Cougar is frustratingly uneven. Several of the essays suffer from a breathless earnestness that marks clichéd nature writing. Parts of the book are suffused with a cloying New Age spirituality. (I'm sorry, but when I read a sentence that begins "Just as I was focusing on my second chakra…," I have trouble continuing.) One essay, on the role of mountain lions in Navajo culture, reads like an anthropology dissertation, not like a piece of writing intended for a lay audience.

Good anthologies benefit from writing that is complementary. Here the writing styles clash. The chapters jump from scientific to pseudoscientific, mythological to historical, light-hearted to solemn. To call the book eclectic would be generous.

For those already enamored of America's great cat, Listening to Cougar provides some interesting reading, but this book's goal is to reach a new audience, and that effort is likely to fail. If the Cougar Fund wants the public to listen to its message, it must begin with something coherent and compelling to say.

David Baron is health & science editor for the public radio program "The World" and author of The Beast in the Garden, which explores the growing conflict between people and cougars in suburban America.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008.