Our neighborhood has had a sensational visitor recently, a slender, slinky nighttime prowler who exudes an aura of mystery and danger. A cougar!
And no, I don't mean the kind of cougar who stalks younger men. We're talking about an actual mountain lion here! A puma; a catamount; a painter cat!
This isn't the first time such a creature has been spotted in this area. Way back when I was a little kid, reports circulated of a mountain lion in our neighborhood. It was said that the wildcat took 30-foot leaps as it bounded away from the eyewitness. Cat tracks bigger than a man's fist were found in the mud.
Creepiest of all were the stories of the lion's screams echoing through the night. It was said that the wails were just like those of a woman shrieking in terror.
If that doesn't make your hair stand on end, nothing will. It was especially difficult for me to do evening chores that fall. I imagined a pair of yellow eyes watching me from the deepening shadows as I carried pails of silage. Oh, no! Not a good time to stumble and become entangled in the pails! My innards turned to liquid and frantically sought the nearest exit.
I imagined the yellow eyes narrowing. "That one's obviously a weak and uncoordinated member of the herd. He'll do."
Yes, there's nothing like cougar rumors to ensure that evening chores get done double-quick.
Months passed with no new lion sightings. Before long, we resumed playing in the shelter belt. We even quit scanning the lower branches for the telltale flick of a tawny tail.
The years wore on and the notion of a mountain lion roving this area was mostly forgotten. That is, until some weeks ago when a puma was photographed by a game camera located just 20 miles from here! A cougar can go 40 mph, so that meant he or she was only half an hour away!
The game cam photos were widely published and thoroughly discussed. Things gradually settled back to normal, although my wife says she feels a deep sense of the heebie-jeebies whenever she has to walk (Quickly! Quickly!) the ten yards from our car to the house at night.
"Don't be silly!" I scoffed, "You're much more likely to run into a unicorn than to have a run-in with a cougar!"
Despite this veneer of courage, I became extra alert during my walks with the dog. It's easy to see why we humans would be easy prey: we don't have horns or fangs, we couldn't outrun a housecat, our night vision is pitiable, and our olfactory systems have been rendered useless by the overuse of Axe body spray. All that stands between us and us becoming lunch is our intellects.
"In that case, you're pretty much out of luck," said a tiny voice in my head.
Then came some deeply troubling news. One recent evening when I was out for my walk, a neighbor who was driving past in his pickup stopped to chat. He informed me that a mountain lion had been spotted only a mile and a half from our house!
I glanced at the setting sun and quickly excused myself, explaining that there was an urgent household emergency that needed my immediate attention. What I didn't tell him was that it was a laundry emergency - so to speak.
When my wife came home I relayed the recent cougar report. She shivered involuntarily and said, "I was awakened last night by bloodcurdling shrieks off in the distance. It sounded just like a woman screaming! Think that was the lion?"
I tried to convince her that the screeches probably had some other unexplainable, otherworldly source. But the next day my wife ran into a neighbor lady who said she'd also heard the nighttime screams. Screams that shook her to the marrow and caused her sit bolt upright in bed, suddenly and totally awake.
My wife began to opine that I should quit taking my walks with the dog, so I called Jeff Grendler, our local Conservation Officer. He agreed that I was much more likely to be hit on by two-legged cougar than hit by a puma.
"I wouldn't change my lifestyle one bit because of these reports," he said. "These cougars are just passing through. They're looking for habitat and other lions; we have neither of them here."
But let's say the impossibly unlikely happens. Would our Golden Retriever be able to fight off a catamount?
"A dog ain't much of a match for a mountain lion," said Grendler.
OK! So, the way I see it, I don't need to outrun the cougar. I just have to outrun the dog.