Thursday, 1 March 2018

Good Book: Cat Attacks

I didn't want to read this book. And I really didn't want to keep reading after I started. But as I've often said, denial is an unskilful response to danger.

Most of my life has happened in cougar country, much of it in the woods, where I prefer to practice Zen when possible. A few years back I sat 100 Days on the Mountain, an ancient Buddhist ritual, in Washington's coastal jungle.

The cat threat there, of which I was generally aware, comes up several times in my book. (Which is now finished and seeking a publisher.) But if I'd read Cat Attacks: True Stories and Hard Lessons from Cougar Country, I wouldn't have slept once during those more than three months.

Authors Dean Miller and Jo Deurbrouck are careful to point out that human-cougar encounters are extremely rare, and physical contact a tiny blip in that statistic. But they are also conscientious – downright didactic, in fact – in recounting, second by horrific second, exactly what happens in a mountain lion attack.

And though it's apparently impossible to escape a gruesome death if you're alone when the stats turn against you, your chances of avoiding that actuarial convergence drop to zero if you've no hard data on your predator's habits and methods.

Some of which, thanks to Miller and Deurbrouck, I now know:

•    Cougars prefer silent, lightning ambush from behind and above, after extensive stalking at close quarters. When in the woods, turn and look behind you, thoroughly and often.

•    Your predator's single-minded intent is to kill and eat you. This makes your bear-mollifying skills guaranteed death. Instead, if one atypically shows itself before lunging, go big, mean, and criminally insane. This may convince the cougar to go back to just stalking you for now. If on the other hand you make yourself quiet and small and avoid eye contact, you've green-lit a kill.

•    The charge, when it comes, is supernaturally fast; witnesses uniformly report a "brown blur". And its dump-truck impact is instantaneous. So even if you see a lion crouching to strike (which they take great pains to conceal) you have no time to raise or aim, much less draw, a firearm.

•    Though they'll attack groups, particularly children in the midst of one, as readily as they'll strike a loner, cougars rarely turn on rescuers. (It's bizarre, un-prey behaviour that evolution has not prepared them to answer.) So if a companion is hit, come in hot and hostile and fight hard at close quarters, with feet and fists if necessary. Once engaged, a lion may cling stubbornly to its quarry, but they seldom or never accept third-party combat. So keep on hammering until you completely weird it out and it withdraws.

•    Solitary humans have no chance of survival.

This is just a smattering of the practical, unromantic intelligence Cat Attacks contains. The authors' steely pragmatism, while traumatic, gives the work great strength. Particularly valuable is their bullheaded refusal to get sucked into either of the silly postures – "kill 'em all" or "poor persecuted kitties" – one usually encounters when the topic is raised.

To counteract the first, they illuminate in equal detail the harsh reality of a cougar's life, which is astonishingly brutal and getting crueller by the day, thanks to overweaning human arrogance.

As for the second, well… in the same instant a cougar touches you it rips your face off. This allows it to begin eating you without waiting for you to die.

That image brings me keenly in mind of Meditation in the Wild, wherein Charles S. Fisher points out that early Buddhist monks – originally all, and then most, of whom were hermits – had a tendency to enter Asia's primordial jungles and never be seen again. Tigers are even bigger than cougars, and not one whit more sentimental.

These are the conditions that forged our nihilistic Zen world view.

So if you live or travel in the northern and/or western half of North America, read Cat Attacks. Get schooled. Be prudently terrified.

Because when I think of all the times I've been afoot in the rough at dusk – including every day of ango – I break into a cold sweat. One unmoderated by the knowledge that cats also attack people in broad daylight. (Even housecats creep me out now.)

So be safe out there, brothers and sisters.

As safe as this existence allows.

(Note: a slightly updated release of this book came out in 2007 under the title Stalked by a Mountain Lion: Fear, Fact, And The Uncertain Future Of Cougars In America.)

UPDATE, 31 MAY 2018. Coverage of a local fatal attack, with further information on staying safe in the forest, is available here.
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