Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
by Bob Worcester
About 30 years ago we began sojourning from the city to our cabin in Howe Sound. Our island retreat was an idyllic place to relax and recharge before returning to the work and worries of the city. It was also a safe and stimulating place to introduce children and now grandchildren to the wild outdoors. They spent summers exploring beaches and forest trails, mostly unsupervised and unstructured. It was hard to get lost on an island and they were mostly isolated from serious hazards. There were the acceptable risks of wasps, water sports, fires and falls. Deer, ravens, owls and occasionally raccoons visited our clearing on the island but they were mostly welcome unless they took excessive interest in our garden.
Recently, however, rumours circulated of a cougar on the island. A dog had been mauled, paw prints were found in mud, and there were second-hand reports of sightings. It is a large island so such warnings were filed mentally away with the forest fire advisories as something to be aware of but not too concerned about. Then we heard first hand that the cougar had been seen on the rocks above our beach where the grandchildren had played on their summer visit.
The abstract became real. Our sense of safety shifted as we imagined an encounter on the trail to the beach. Cougars are iconic creatures and efficient predators. They rely on stealth, speed and precision to bring down prey often twice their size. Attacks on humans are rare but have been fatal. Although the probabilities are low, when shadows lengthen and you are alone on a trail the possibile seems real enough. I found myself more vigilant, scanning my surroundings more closely and listening more carefully to sounds I might have otherwise ignored. I carry a walking stick now that is a bit more solid than before and a flashlight when I am out at night.
There is something primal in this reminder of my tenuous position on the food chain. The feeling probably predates the ice age when humans were fair game for predators before technology gave us the edge in close encounters. I can imagine the cougar watching me from the shadows to see what the upright apes are up to now. It is good to remember that the wild is not a Disney movie or a nature documentary. And I am glad cougars are not vengeful since this one was no doubt displaced from its home range by land development or clear cut logging.
We can share the island as long as the cougar does not develop a taste for grandchildren. I am probably at greater risk from ticks than from this new neighbour and there certainly are far greater dangers in the city than from cougars in the wild. That said, I will continue to carry a stout stick when I walk in the woods and be more alert to the sudden, swift and silent movement that would presage a dramatic end to my story – but one well worth telling to the grandchildren.