« Return to this article

Know the West

Ordinary wild


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 - some pursuing, some struck-dumb-staring. Everyone is clearly excited.

Because this is not some rural outpost the cougar has ventured into. It's downtown El Paso.

The frightened animal turns up at 8:30 a.m. on the Union Pacific railroad tracks, and is later spotted disappearing into a parking garage next to a state office building (which, conveniently, contains offices belonging to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department). There, a state veterinarian manages to nail him with a tranquillizer dart before he resumes flight, leaping from the second story and dashing through a schoolyard, where a panicked security guard rushes to protect as many children as he can. Finally, after a half-mile of chase, the cat is trapped in a local carwash, where the veterinarian darts him again.

Despite the drugs, the cougar dashes for the street, trying to squeeze out between a gap in a metal gate and the top of a car bay. Apparently, though, escape this time is unacceptable: Two police officers take aim and fire. And there he lies: small and still in death, out of place.

That was May 10. In the days since, at least two more wild cats have shown up in El Paso -- a cougar 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, on May 24, a Southern California man rooting around his garage for what he thought was a raccoon came face to face with a cougar instead. Officials tranquilized and released the less-than-year-old male, who had apparently been wandering the Hesperia neighborhood for a few days. On May 25, wildlife officials shot another cougar on the porch of a Helena, Mont., home, where it had apparently curled up to sleep.

I have heard such stories all my life. They're always massively popular, spurring follow-up news coverage, letters, commentary and plenty of water-cooler chatter. I, too, note each incident with fascination, and in free moments these past weeks, I've watched clips of the first El Paso mountain lion again and again, tense with worry and awe as it scoots around corners, paces the carwash, 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 is extraordinary precisely because it is so ordinary.

Few 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 travel. Our clothes may be assembled in several different countries -- the fiber for the cloth grown in one, the cloth woven in another, 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.

Maybe that's what the glitz and wow and plenty 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 a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine's associate editor (hcn.org).