On June 11, 2011 a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, for most his death would go unnoticed, a cat that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, another causality of urbanization. For scientists his death would eventually reveal an incredible and ultimately tragic journey, while giving hope to the idea that mountain lions could one day reclaim their former territory in the Eastern U.S. where they have been considered officially extinct for decades. For wildlife journalist and author William Stolzenburg this young male mountain lion would become the extraordinary and unlikely hero of his book Heart of A Lion.
The mountain lion, who has been nicknamed Walker, was discovered to have journeyed almost 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills all the way to Connecticut, not that far from New York City. Through DNA analysis, physical evidence left behind, eyewitness accounts and camera traps, biologists were able to trace his origin back to the Black Hills. His journey, which is the longest documented of any mountain lion, would come to an end in a place where his species had not been seen in almost a century.
Heart of A Lion pieces together Walkers short but extraordinary life as he made his way across dangerous and challenging territory complete with urban sprawl, busy roads, and, people who would want him dead simply for existing. The reason for his journey can be found coded in his DNA, the deep biological need to seek out and establish his own territory and, to find a mate. This search would take him east across six U.S. states, and at one point north into Canada and my home province of Ontario. What he couldn’t have known is that he would never encounter a female. With no established mountain lion populations in the east and the fact that females do not undertake long distance journey’s, instead sticking close to their home range (there has been one documented exception), Walker’s search would sadly prove futile.
“The first photographic evidence of a cougar in Wisconsin that would eventually travel all the way to Connecticut. This photo was taken by an automatic camera in a cornfield in Dunn county, Wis. on December 22, 2009.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience
The saying To walk a mile in someone’s shoes, comes to mind when reading Heart of A Lion and I don’t think it makes a difference that in this case the someone happens to be a mountain lion, especially if his story helps readers identify with and feel empathy for him and the plight of his species. Despite traversing his way through highly populated areas he would rarely come into contact with humans, revealing himself only to a lucky few, a testament to the elusive nature of his species. He did not bring harm to nor was he a threat to humans, and he was most definitely not the blood-thirsty killer that mountain lions are so often wrongly labeled as. Walker’s story sends us a message and it’s one that we have heard before – that co-existing with these cats is possible and in some places we are already doing that.
“A cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota prowls forest land in Clark County, Wis., Automatic trail camera snapped this early-morning shot on January 18, 2010. In June 2011, the same cougar was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut, DNA tests showed. The cougar’s journey from South Dakota to Connecticut blew previous cougar travel records out of the water.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – via LiveScience
Heart of A Lion doesn’t rely on portraying these cats as the stereotypical ‘beast’ to tell an intriguing story. Instead, it shows us a side of these animals that rarely makes headlines, the side that research and science is discovering is the norm rather than the exception – mountain lions are shy cats who avoid humans when given the space and opportunity to do so.
Walker’s journey came to an abrupt end on Wilbur Cross Parkway, Milford in June, 2011. (Courtesy Connecticut State Police)
In addition to the main story the book also explores the history of the mountain lion, including how they were treated as vermin, right up to present day and the pressures they face from current day hunting policies. The book is guaranteed to stir up emotions, which may be a good thing especially if gets people thinking and pushes us towards changing outdated attitudes towards North America’s lion. It’s OK to celebrate Walker’s journey and mourn his passing, I know I did.
Whether you already love mountain lions or you are just starting to learn about them, the book is an important read and a new way of looking at these amazing animals, one that I hope becomes a trend. Heart of a Lion can be purchased at various online retailers including Amazon and is part of my Recommended Reading List.
An interesting note is the story of a GPS collard female mountain lion named Sandy who was being studied by biologists in British Columbia. Sandy had made a never before documented journey for a female walking 450 miles from BC to Montana before her life was taken by a trophy hunter in December of 2015. Just how far she would have gone and where she would have ended up, will never be known.