The cougar looks thin, his narrow belly dragging close to the ground as he slinks along. Paws as big as saucers on the oil-spotted concrete. Mouth agape in a terrified pant below wild, shifting eyes. Shifting at cars that whoosh by, shifting at men who flicker at the edge of his vision -- they're clearly afraid, possibly pursuing, possibly struck-dumb staring. Sometimes both.
Because this is not some rural outpost the cougar is traversing. It's downtown El Paso, TX.
The frightened animal turns up first on the Union Pacific railroad tracks near downtown, then holes up in a parking garage next to a state office building (which, conveniently, contains the offices of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department). There, he is shot with a tranquilizer dart before leaping from the second story and dashing through a school yard. Finally, he is trapped in a local carwash, where he's shot with a second dart.
When he makes a run for one of the exits, trying to squeeze out between a gap in a metal gate and the top of a car bay, police officers shoot him dead. And that is it. There he lays. Small and still and so out of place.
That was May 10. In the days since, two more big cats have shown up in El Paso -- a mountain lion and a bobcat. Officials speculate that drought conditions in the Rio Grande Basin have left them hungry and ranging out from wild country in the nearby Franklin Mountains in search of food. Meanwhile, last week, another cougar was shot on the porch of a Helena, Mont. home where it had apparently curled up to sleep.
These stories are massively popular, spurring follow-ups and blurbs and commentary. I too note each with interest and fascination, and in free moments, I watch clips of the first El Paso mountain lion again and again, tense with worry and awe as it scoots around corners, paces the car wash, huddles for cover, stares past the camera with its haunted gaze. Finally I realize that this animal's appearance in the concrete maze of a major city, its recent cohorts in the suburbs, on a Helena porch -- all are extraordinary precisely because they are so ordinary.
So few of the details of most peoples' lives are truly ordinary these days, though we accept them as such. We rarely exclaim in wonder over being able to climb into a machine that, with a spark and a reservoir of flammable liquid, can send us hurtling over a paved strip of land at once unthinkable speeds. We do not bat an eye as our voices travel in nanoseconds across distances that it would take hours or days or weeks to physically close. Our clothes may be assembled in several different countries -- the fiber for the cloth grown in one we have never thought of, the cloth woven in another we have never seen, the pattern pieces sewn in still another that perhaps we have dreamed of going to one day. We may coast along at 35,000 feet in altitude and do nothing more than scan a SkyMall or New Yorker before dropping into a listless snooze.
And so maybe that's what the plenty and glitz and wow of the modern world have given us -- a renewed appreciation for the deficit of the ordinary in our lives -- the world as it has been for eons, as it has made itself, all its creatures, starving, mating, birthing, dying, surviving, ranging in search of food, water, territory. Seeing cougars in places we'd never expect, perhaps we recognize something of them in ourselves. Seeing wildness, we remember.
Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.