Saturday, February 18, 2006

Oklahoma's big cat

Darren Naish's post on British big cats brought to mind one of my favorite animals from Oklahoma: the mountain lion.

Huh? Mountain lions in Oklahoma?

Yup. The mountain lions are there, although you can live there your whole life without ever becoming aware of them. My only Oklahoma mountian lion encounter was finding tracks down at the local creek when I was in my early teens. The tracks were big, clear, and unmistakably feline. I knew that there were bobcats around, but the tracks were way too big to be those of a bobcat, and I didn't know that there were any mountain lions in Oklahoma. I thought I was going crazy, but Mom said that people living in the area (Garfield County in north-central Oklahoma) reported seeing them with fair regularity, but that the local wildlife guys would never confirm that they were present.

I learned more about Oklahoma mountain lions when I was going to OU and living in Norman, right in the middle of the state. Norman is in Cleveland County, which is part of the Greater Oklahoma City Statistical Area. People like to joke about Oklahoma being the sticks, and with a total population of just over 200,000, Cleveland County is hardly the Bay Area. But people are pretty thick on the ground--about 373 humans per square mile, on average. Of course, that average is misleading, but not as much as you might think. Half of the people in the county live in Norman, which occupies just over a third of the county's area (190/550 square miles). That still leaves 100,000 people in the rest of the county.

Why am I boring you with all of this demographic and geographic detail? Because according to a friend in the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, there are six mountain lions living in Cleveland County. Six.

This has obvious implications for the "reality" of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) in England and other places--or rather, for our perception of their reality. From the perspective of the average Cleveland County resident, mountain lions are crytozoological phenomena. ABC skeptics who don't think that big cats can survive in, say, the English countryside without their presence becoming widely known need to consider that that's exactly what mountain lions are doing in one of the most densely populated counties in Oklahoma.

My only encounter with a mountain lion in the wild was at Fort Chaffee in northwestern Arkansas, when I was on a beetle survey. One zipped across the road as my partner and I were driving up to one of our transects. But before I tell you about that, I'll tell you about my bobcat encounter.

When I was a kid my brothers and I used to go on long walks, and since we lived in the country, that meant walking along dirt roads. Most of the land in Oklahoma is given over to cow pastures and wheat fields, including the fields around our place. The diversity and density of wildlife that we saw on a regular basis would boggle someone raised in a city. There were two coyote dens nearby, about a quarter mile to the east and west of the house. We saw deer, pheasants, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and red-tailed hawks often enough that they hardly deserved comment, unless the deer came right up into the yard, as they occasionally did. Foxes and golden eagles, those we got excited about.

Anyway, Todd and I were on a walk and we heard a critter rustling around in the tall grass in the ditch next to the road. Naturally we wanted to flush it out so we could see what it was, so we picked up a couple of rocks off the road and tossed them into the grass where the sound was coming from. The movement stopped. I tossed one more rock, and then we heard the loudest, most devilish, most pissed-off hiss I have ever heard in my life. It was terrifying. We backed up to the other side of the road and walked off as quickly and quietly as dignity would allow.

I assume that the thing that hissed at us was a bobcat. We never actually saw it, so for all I know it might have been an especially cantankerous raccoon, or some kind of brain-sucking alien. But bobcats were known to be about and it hissed like a cat, and it didn't back down or run away, which also tends to make me think it was a cat. But the bobcat-ness or otherwise of the mystery hisser is not the point. The point is that an animal that can hide its entire body in 18 inches of grass doesn't sound very scary, until you're standing eight feet from it and it's hissing at you. Suddenly you are devastatingly aware, as you never have been, of just how slow, defenseless, and generally lame humans are.

Multiply that acute awareness of your vulnerability by about a thousand, and you have some idea of what it's like to walk a 180-meter transect through the woods where you just saw a mountain lion. Up until then, my partner and I had thought nothing about splitting up and each checking half the traps, which would put us well out of sight and often almost out of voice range of each other. Not after that day! When we got back to base we found out that two other teams had also seen mountain lions that day, and they were close enough in time and distant enough in space that they had to be three different cats.

Mom and Dad still live in the house in the country where I did most of my growing up. Unless the weather is downright beastly, Mom gets out and walks about half a mile every evening. Last fall she had a mountain lion encounter of her own, and it puts mine to shame. When she was just a couple hundred yards from the house, a mountain lion slowly paced across the road in front of her, about halfway to the house. When it got across the road, it sat down looked right at her. Naturally she stopped, and she and the mountain lion just stared at each other across less than the length of a football field for several minutes. Eventually the lion lost interest and padded off into the field, and Mom got home in one piece. She said it was the most frightening experience of her life.

Oh, one other parallel between Oklahoma mountain lions and British big cats: silence or derision on the part of the authorities. It's not like the ODWC doesn't admit that mountain lions are around, but from reading their
page on the subject you could be forgiven if you got the impression that there were maybe two or three mountain lions out in western Oklahoma and the rest were anomalies that had wandered in from neighboring states. I found this statement especially curious: "Agency personnel have not conducted population surveys or assessed habitat availability, making it impossible to issue clear statements about the abundance of wild mountain lions." In-ter-est-ing. Why would ODWC personnel want avoid making clear statements about how mountain lions are around? Part of it is probably the same reason that British authorities don't want to admit that panthers and so on are padding around the English countryside: government officials have nothing to gain and plenty to lose by admitting that big cats are in your neighborhood. But I think the ODWC's relative silence is probably a protective measure, as well--for the mountain lions. Right now Oklahoma's mountain lions seem to be coexisting with humans with a minimum of noise or trouble. If they are nabbing a calf here and there, no one seems to be raising any hell about it. Raising public awareness of mountain lions is bad for everybody. Ranchers will demand that the ODWC census the cats, and probably track them as well, and maybe even relocate them or cull them. That's harrassment the cats, and the ODWC personnel, just don't need. And I'm sure those f'ing morons on the evening news would whip up a maelstrom of mountain lion panic faster than you can say "yellow journalism". Mountain lions have survived in Oklahoma by being invisible, and I'm glad the ODWC is letting them stay that way, regardless of their motives or the official position.

There's one other thing I keep thinking about. We've got a mounted T. rex skeleton in the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley. Everyone who works in the building walks past it at least twice a day. It's easy to get blase about it. But I can't help thinking about the bobcat--or bobcat-sized mammal--that scared the living piss out of me, and about how desperately vulnerable I felt being on the ground where I'd just seen a mountain lion. I think if any of us saw a T. rex in real life, we'd be literally paralyzed with fear. It would be so frightening that it would transcent the category. I suppose infantrymen who have been attacked by tanks have some idea of what it would be like to run into a T. rex, but I doubt if the rest of us have any idea at all.

So, yes, this post started with mountain lions and ended with tyrannosaurs. I told you I had a thing for them. And c'mon--don't tell me you never think about this stuff, you big faker.


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

(I assume that comment was directed at me.) Yes, of course I think about it. The best illustration I've ever seen of rex-fear is the one near the beginning of Greg Paul's Predatory Dinosaurus of the World that shows a running human and tiger ... and then a mind-bendingly huge and utterly terrifying T. rex running along behind them, making the tiger look like a cuddly toy. Awesome.

(Not as awesome as sauropods, though.)

1:56 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

"(I assume that comment was directed at me.)"

Actually, I was addressing non-paleontologists. I've spent my whole life walking around with a head full of dinosaurs, rockets, brain-sucking aliens, giant robots, hovertanks, time machines, AT-ATs, and legions of orcs. I often wonder what other people spend their time thinking about.

You're right about that GSP tyrannosaur/tiger/human illo. In the past when I've had dead space in a presentation when I just need people to listen to what I'm saying, I've thrown up that picture so they have something cool to look at, sorta like stained glass windows in a cathedral.

I like your description of tyrannosaurs as "mind-bendingly huge"...and still not as awesome as sauropods. GSP ought to redraw his illustration with the tyrannosaur et al. nearly being stomped on by an Amphicoelias, which I would describe as "reality-warpingly vast".

1:50 PM  
Blogger J-Rod said...

Knowing you and your brothers, I cannot bring myself to believe that the most terrifying experience your mom had came that late, and had anything to do with a cat.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Hey, I don't make 'em up, I just report 'em.

One of the most memorable experiences from her years of raising three boys must have been the morning that Ryan, aged 4 I think, hurled a Hot Wheels car at Todd, aged 10, and completely shattered one of his front teeth, just a few minutes before the school bus was supposed to arrive. Todd looked like he'd been hit with a shotgun shell full of tooth shards--there were little tiny pieces of tooth everywhere.

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could post pictures here, I own a 6 acre lot with a 2 acre pond, just east of OKC, south of I-40 on Triple X Rd, and yesterday 03/14/2007, I notice one of my malard ducks missing after looking around the pond I notice the paw prints all over, they are almost as big as a women fist, I own a Mastif Dog and the prints that the Mastif makes are not as big. I do not know what it is but I have pictures of the prints; if anybody wants to see them email me at I emailed the wildlife department and still waiting to hear from them.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live about 5 miles S.E. of Allen hughes county.I moved here in spring of 94.I had a bunch of peacocks.As they came up missing one by one I figured it to be coyotes.Across the road was one BIG oak tree,I saw a cat with long tail about 90-100 pounds I also lost geese,guinneas, chickens and 2 puppies.One of my young horses had claw markes all down her sides.My neabor stoped by and informed me they saw 2 longttailed spoted cats about 50-60 poundes going into my horse pasture.I called the game warden in Holdenville about this He said they had no trapper at this time.I only saw it one more time after that.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

They are here! I've seen both bobcat and a mountain lion,in the last 60 days. I live at lake Tenkiller in eastern Ok. I travel daily on my gator just to see the wildlife around the lake. First time to see either in the 6 years I've lived there.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a mountain lion comment (though something has been tearing up our pets around here~ E. Norman, but about a bob cat. I grew up outside of Little Axe (east of Noble/Norman) and my sisters and I went to visit my folks. While we were there the kids said they saw a huge cat and my sisters and I see something running across the road in the woods. We take off after it (not one of us was above 130 pounds) and get into the woods. Tracking it for a bit we give up because the thing has disappeared. We then hear this noise and a loud thump. We were in a loose triangle and a large bobcat (about as tall as my mid thigh and I'm 5'7") jumped out of a tree between all of us. Needless to say we all took off running. That's how it went down, thought when we tell the story in real life we were much braver. =)

10:51 AM  

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