The strong smell of pine and the
pungent scent that the young cougar had deposited amongst the bearberries a few days
before did not obscure the faint trace of white tail deer that he sniffed
in the dried tamarack needles that carpeted the forest floor.
However, the trail had to be abandoned when it veered east into the
clearly marked territory of an older, larger male. Caution had been
learned through previous encounters with bad tempered veterans.
The youngster was 60 kilos of growing muscle and bone but no match for the
more experienced cat who outweighed him by 40 kilos. He expressed
his disappointment with a strange growl, more a cough like the low bark of
a dog. He would have roared out his hunger and solitude but there
was no roar in his vocal repertoire, only shrill screams, sharp coughs and
It was October, and the first
autumn without the
supervision of his mother. He was sufficiently adept at catching
mice and other defenceless rodents. They kept him alive through the
summer, but if he was going to survive the oncoming winter, he would have to put
some meat in his belly.
The only taste of real protein in the months
since his mother had run him off had come from a pair of adult bull elks
whose antlers had locked together during a rutting contest and had starved to death. The
rotting carcasses would have provided a handsome banquet for the hungry,
young mountain lion, but a pack of timber wolves were hungry too, and ready
for a fight.
The youngster was routed with as much ferocity as he
had encountered in his two and a half years on this earth. From a
safe distance he watched in the vain hope that they might leave a little
something for him. But the wolves were meticulous eaters. Then
the ravens and crows gathered round the edges for a feast and by the
time the carrion was abandoned, all that remained were a few scraps of
tough gristle stuck to a fly covered skeleton and two shredded hides.
The incident reminded him of lessons learned through his mother's demonstrations on the camouflage of
half eaten kills, but the dead elk were too big to move. In fact he
had yet to test out the technique of hiding meat for himself as he had not
made a kill that he couldn't devour in a few gulps. Somewhere there
had to be a meal substantial enough to provide some relief from the
gnawing hunger that clawed at the insides of this white furred belly.
Through the day and all of that
night, he did not find a single creature worth chasing. With more
than a little resignation he came down off the rocky ledge he used
as a lookout and melted
into the trees, his long supple body weaving through the close growing trunks with such liquidity of motion that he disturbed not a leaf nor
a loose piece of bark.
He spent his morning marking the
borders of the territory he fancied was his but which he had yet to defend. He squirted
his aromatic urine into carefully built piles of twigs and leaves and
shredded up some soft bark with his sharp claws.
When he finished his
rounds on the ridge above the little lake formed by a hard spine of
granite which interrupted the free flowing river, he was well and truly
starving. In times past he managed to trap
the occasional Shoveller or Ruddy Duck among the reed and
horsetail shallows at the upper end of the lake. They would be devoured
right down to
feathers and bill. But there were no ducks to be had on this
The lake was the young cat's most successful
hunting ground but it was also where his territory crossed both his
mother's and an older male's. It could be a dangerous place to spend
too much time. He was in no mood to endure the wrath of either, but
he was also certain that if he did not eat this day, he might not have the
energy to take a larger prey even if he found one.
He lapped a filling portion of
the cool water into his parched mouth, soothing his raw, irritated
throat. Then after washing his face with is big paws, he paused to
consider his options. He could wait in hiding for an ambush
opportunity or he could go stalking.
second option stood a greater chance of success but required more
energy. Against his natural inclination to keep on the move, he
remembered a wind-fallen tree where the dying branches, ferns and moss had
created a small cave that would serve quite well as cover. On a
previous occasion he had surprised a slightly dotty muskrat with a well
aimed swipe of his paw.
He sniffed anxiously at the
opening of the dark hole before stepping into it. He learned this wisdom from an earlier encounter with a grumpy black bear who was
already using a similar deadfall as a nursery for a pair of hungry
cubs. When he was sure the hiding place was empty, he gingerly stepped in and settled himself for the wait.
It was a long one. Through the day he
lay with his chins resting on his outstretched legs, listening to the
geese reacquainting themselves with each other for the next leg of their
journey South. When a bluebird began an evening song, the cat
stepped out of his hiding place, stretched himself and shook out his fur
before padding off in search of higher ground where the damp air didn't
seep into his bones and there still might be some daylight and something
alive and moving.
He roamed further up the gradual slope,
clearing a small precipice with a single bound. It was a not a place
he expected to see anything, but there, only a few metres in front of him,
stood a ten point white tail buck. The youngster froze, then licked
his snout with a swipe of his tongue to make sure his whiskers and
nostrils were clean and at their sharpest.
The buck was looking out over a gentle
valley that was already well tinted with the vermilion of the maples and
the yellows and browns of the beeches and the birches. He had an
unimpeded view of the hillside above the grove of red spruce where a pair
of does were preparing themselves for the night. The cat
flattened himself against the ground. His gray and gold coat blended
into the rocks making him virtually invisible when the regal deer cast his
gaze in that direction.
The cat was in a position close enough
to leap onto the neck of the prey and sink his pointed incisors into the
vertebrae. His jaws were certainly powerful enough to do
considerable damage, but he preferred the throat onslaught at which his mother
was so expert. But such a tactic was better employed in a chase
because of the death leap had to come up from under the quarry.
Such a maneuver was dangerous in the wake of flying, razor sharp
hooves. Besides, this big buck was likely to show the cat a clean pair of heels in any
Off to the left a woodpecker hammered
at the dead trunk of a poplar, but the cat did not turn his
head. No distraction would divert this eyes from
Under normal circumstances he wouldn't have
considered taking on such a large, powerful prey, but these were not
normal circumstances. In the procession of hunger , desperation
precedes caution. He sniffed the air and was confident
that the evening breeze was in his favour. When the buck briefly
glanced in the other direction, the cat took full advantage and
worked his way up the hillside, giving himself the advantage of height,
but still positioning himself downwind.
Then the buck did something that even this
could not have hoped for. The great deer lowered his rump first and then
followed with his forelegs and lay on his side in a supreme gesture of
confidence and arrogance.
The puma selected each step
that carried him toward the prey with absolute care. No twigs
snapped, no leaves rustled, no pebbles rolled. His sharp should
blades were the high peak on his sleek body, the back of his black ears
were pressed against his thick neck, completely hiding the soft white
tufts of the inner ear. It took more than ten minutes to travel mere
ten metres, but ultimately he gained his position slightly behind and
above his quarry.
He carefully adjusted and
settled every muscle in his body for the leap, his paws testing the
foundation under him to make sure there was no danger of slipping.
Then he launched himself, his rear legs extended, his scimitar shaped claws
fully unsheathed, his mouth open as wide as his powerful jaws would allow, his rippling
muscles stretched to the limit under his elastic skin.
He landed on the back of the
buck, one paw raking the face of the startled animal, the other anchoring
into the front shoulder, while the back legs spread wide to straddle the
surprised victim. The buck rose to his feet in spite of the weight and
shook his great rack of horns, leaping and twisting, loosening the cat's
grip and tossing him over his head so that the cat landed a short
distance away, flat on his back and heavily. The prey then turned attacker and rose up on his hind
legs, preparing to skewer the cat where he lay.
But the cat was not
finished. Gathering his legs beneath him, he sprang for the face of
the buck. The buck, surprised by the resilience of his adversary,
broke stride for just long enough for the cat to seize him firmly on the
snout. The buck came down on his knees and attempted to pin the
cat to the ground with his powerful head. But the cat wriggled
out of the way of the slashing horns and hooves.
The buck now turned
blind in panic and opted for escape, but the trees trapped him like a spider's
web in the gathering gloom of dusk. The cat needed no better
opportunity. In a foot race he would have had no chance, but here
in close quarters, his agility and precision were clearly superior.
He slithered through the small trunks in pursuit, then judged his
opening. He pounced upon exposed neck of the stag with unthinking
boldness. With his long forelegs around the neck and his jaws clamped
onto the throat, he crushed the stag's windpipe and severed the jugular
vein in one smooth operation.
For ten long minutes he kept firm his throttle hold. Not until there had been
absolutely no movement from his prize did he finally loosen his
grip. His face was black with delicious blood and he licked his lips
with relish before lapping up the succulent red fluid that oozed
from the neck of the inert monarch.
The battle had caused a great commotion, the
sound of the females crashing through the underbrush and the smell of
adrenalin and blood wafting through the punky forest air piqued the
interest of an old male cougar who was just coming away from the lakeside
where he had refreshed himself before embarking on a leisurely evening of
hunting. He raised his nose to sniff, then immediately followed the
scent up the hillside.
The younger cat had just begun to open
up the cavity of the body of the stag when his nemesis came slinking up
behind him. So intent was the younger male on eating his fill that
he did not look
up from his labours. The older cat was nearly upon him before he
scented the stranger and startled, reared up with a ferocious hiss.
This, however, did not phase the veteran in the slightest. He had
dealt with the youngster before and had clearly established his
dominance. He expected the young whelp to slope off out of the
way without so much as a warning growl, but the youngster would not be put
off his prize. With a mighty snarl, the tired cat lunged at his
larger, stronger rival, but stopped just short of attack.
predator had no such compunctions. With a scream that sent every
creature from chickadees to chipmunks scurrying for cover, he charged at
the young cougar, claws flashing, teeth bared in menace. The chase
was short lived. The older cat was not interested in a fight, only a
meal, and turned back to the carcass, satisfied that he had done
enough to remind the youngster of how things stood.
The hungry youngster
wanted to stay out of the way. He wanted to keep well clear of this
uncharitable elder, but the smell of the food was too thick in the air,
that taste of blood too strong. He stood behind a bank of trees
until the opportunist had buried his head in the abdomen of the still warm
buck, and then began to creep forward in a attempt to steal a quick
mouthful. But it was not to be.
The older car pulled out his
head and pounced. The chase was on again. The cat turned in an
instant and pelted full flight for the dense trees, the older cat close on
his heels. Safety had just about been reached when the young male
felt his tail caught.
He was brought to a short, sharp halt.
He felt it bend unnaturally at a right angle. The sound of bones
cracking was drowned out by a scream of surprise and agony. Turning
back, he thrashed blindly at his opponent. He had no option. It
was a matter of fight or be mauled. And fight he did, with the
ferocity and frustration that only hunger and loneliness can
inspire. He beat the old cat in a few short explosions of airbourne
fury and life was not so difficult for the elder that he would risk
serious injury for a few mouthfuls of deer meat. He turned tail and
headed from the hills.
The youngster was glad to see the last of
him. Once sure of his victory, he settled down to a well deserved
dinner. He neither knew, nor cared that his tail never straightened
and that he was marked for life. He had claimed his territory and
would defend it for more than twenty years. He was a cat with a