1. Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo; how about you, you, you; you can come too, too, too . . .
Even as a child I didn’t like zoos—all those captured and caged animals—but I’m doing what a mother does and taking my kids to the zoo, zoo, zoo with my sisters and brother-in-law and their children, driving up 280 singing all the way to the San Francisco Zoo, where three-year-old Kenney runs around and I have to watch him more than the animals while Tyler rides in a Snugli at my belly.
After giraffes, elephants, and birds, and monkeys throwing turds, we go inside the cathouse. Lions and tigers circle their cages in their patrols of inside and outside and inside and outside all day long. But it’s feeding time and the lion feeder is forking huge slabs of meat into the cages and the lions and tigers snarl and growl and snap at meat on pitchforks pushed through the one-way openings into each pen. We clump near the African lions and they growl loudly as they snag their dinners, sinking claws and canines into fresh red bloody flesh. Those not yet fed roar as if on Animal Kingdom but this is real and close and crawls up my back and Kenney looks up at me with his amazing, amazed green eyes.
2. The boys are older—two and five—when my mother and I take them to the Santa Barbara Zoo. We stop before a mountain lion. The big cat paces between the corners of his pen, back and forth, back and forth, tail twitching, stopping to pee—out—at regular intervals.
“He’s pissing on us,” says my mother.
3. The boys are not with Scott and me when we go to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson. Here the mountain lion pen is acres large and replicates Puma concolor’s natural habitat, minus the distances. Typically these cats have been rescued from somewhere else, deemed unable to survive in the wild, and given this home. Scott and I watch a mountain lion with a limp. Even with her limp and acres to roam, her pacings have worn a path in the hard desert soil.
4. Wendy Beth sits beside me in the Outpost van, a man who could hug us both seated to her right. Behind us are the rest of the writing students and our fearless leader Gary Ferguson. I sit directly behind the driver. It is July 7th, my first love’s birthday, 7-7. I am thinking about sex and wildness and how being with Craig was for me the ultimate connection between Earth, spirit, and body because we were so often outside, and I’m noticing that I still long for that—for sex outdoors—because outside is best—and suddenly Wendy Beth is saying “Cat, cat!”
To my ears she is saying “Kat, Kat!” so I look at her instead of ahead around the driver and I miss it. Not even its long tail do I see. Wendy Beth and the man who could hug us both (and I wish he would) and the driver and the woman in the passenger seat all saw the mountain lion and they talk about it all the way back to the Outpost ranch buildings set in a country of no trees.
I have seen six cougars in the wild. That would have been my seventh. A seventh mountain lion on Craig’s birthday. 7-7-7. But I didn’t see it.
5. The day after I wrote that, as I was winding up the dirt road out of Disappointment, a young cat flashed before me and disappeared into the Gambel oaks. Reddish-brown in the sunlight, this one, but that tail . . . only a mountain lion has that tail.
In the winter in Disappointment I see tracks as I hike through the snow. I know they live out here and it thrills me.
On the mornings after a fresh snow, lion hunters patrol the road at dawn, sending their dogs on the trails they find. Their trucks are easily identifiable—the beds holding large custom dog boxes, the heads of hounds sticking out the holes in rows.
One morning I’m in my truck on the road, searching for cell service, and a pair of lion hunters stops to see if I’m okay. Nice of them. On their roof rack on top of the dog box lies a she-lion, her head propped up on the rack so she is clearly visible, her sleek body as long as the truckbed, her tail wrapped around her powerful hind end. She looks at me with dull, dead eyes.
6. The combination of a summer of drought followed by a winter of more snow than anyone can remember produces a thick crop of the invasive and toxic Russian knapweed. Some landowners spray. Others don’t want to. One landowner drops fifteen goats into a fifty-acre field to eat the knapweed. As over time the goats top the knapweed, it grows thicker, taller.
One day two goats show up outside their pasture, and one doesn’t show up at all.
The next day one goat is missing, and another lies dead in the field. It gets hauled in the bucket of a tractor to a distant corner near a big Fremont cottonwood. When I go out to see it, I pick its head up by the horns. The head swivels like an owl’s, nearly in a 360.
I find tracks near the kill site. Big round cat tracks.
We coerce the nervous remaining goats closer to the barn and house, to lights and human sounds. That night unusual noises draw the house-dweller outside. A goat is being ridden by a mountain lion—a short ride as the person yells and fires a pistol into the night sky. The lion slips quickly away through the panels and brush, its long tail following its lithe body.
The next day the goat is checked. Its neck is as limber as an owl’s.
The remaining eleven goats go to a ranch near town, where they are safe.
I go to look for more tracks, and find them. They are smaller than the first set. A juvenile and its mother. But the landowner wants the goats back, to feed on Russian knapweed. The goats go home to their pasture of weeds.
7. The first night back, the goats stay inside the trailer, captured and caged. Quiet. Safe.
The next day they are released, a demure domestic animal facing a wild world. Quickly they disappear, first in the tall weeds, then, where?
The goats are no longer feeding on knapweed.
They are out feeding the lions.