September 17, 2013
This is another essay from my archives. It is about an old cougar, a longtime muse, who is much on my mind as I prepare for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October. This story was first published in the Seattle Weekly on September 6, 1989. It was later reprinted in the Fall 1990 issue of the Interspecies Newsletter. Although I never saw Bonnie, the subject of this piece, anywhere other than her enclosures at the zoo, working on her portrait for the show reconnected me with her unwavering spirit. This collage honors her memory, and is an offering to the all cougars in the wild, in captivity, and in our collective imagination.
When I was a child, I hated going to the zoo. While my classmates breathlessly anticipated seasonal outings, I dreaded them. More than once, I feigned a fever to avoid painful encounters with unhappily caged animals.
Considering this, my adult choices, first to volunteer, and then to work at a zoo, seem strange. Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Woodland Park Zoo shortly after moving to Seattle seven years ago. Intrigued by its shift to more humane enclosures and its evolving commitment to conservation, I sought ways to become involved. Soon I was a keeper’s aide and docent-in-training; within a year, I was hired by the zoo’s education department as a summer programs manager.
Of all my memories from those years, none are as clear as my first adventure as a volunteer into the feline house. A true cat aficionado, I floated like Alice in Wonderland through that inner sanctum, a hallowed hall with snow leopards, lions, and tigers on one side, ocelots, caracals, and sand cats on the other.
At first, I was attracted to the most exotic of the animals. I joined the International Snow Leopard Trust and fell in with a circle of observers who brave winter weather each year to watch the great furred ones during breeding season. At the time, it felt like love, very privileged love.
But remarkable as they were, the Snows stayed aloof. I watched them, diligently recorded their movements, and walked away. By then, I had cultivated a practical reverence for all the inhabitants of the feline house. As I cleaned cages and distributed meals at feeding time, I kept my distance and went about my business in a state of awe. Still, I dreamed of having more contact with the wild cats.
And that is what I got, from an unlikely quarter. One morning as I ambled past the cougar holding area, I was greeted by a deep, rumbling purr. In disbelief, I recited feline classification: genus Panthera, the largest cats such as lions and tigers, roars but does not purr; genus Felis, cougar included, does indeed purr. But why was this imposing creature purring at me? Was this a trick? Did she intend to deceive me, or worse yet, break my heart with false promises?
I soon learned the promises were real. For months, I had scrubbed this enclosure and all but ignored its occupants. The purring cougar and her two cage mates were, along with the likewise native lynx at the other end of the unit, the least glamorous, most inconspicuous cats in the house. All were old and overweight, relegated to a dismal corner of the building. They weren’t spotted, striped, or imported. They were American and common through and through, the kind of cat who on occasion wanders into a suburban yard to eat a poodle.
From my youth in Colorado, I recalled a raft of disturbing cougar stories. In rural areas, ranchers consider the big cats a nuisance. Only recently, and grudgingly, have the bounties on them been lifted. Today, trophy hunters pay large sums to fly into remote Southwestern sites where cougars have been treed by hounds. One bullet, and the puma spends eternity in a paneled den.
These are the pockmarks of human interactions with co-predators. And once again, the native gets shortchanged. Americans know and care more about Bengal tigers than about our own large cats. Felis concolor fades into the shadows at the zoo as it does in the wild.
But this one specimen demanded my full attention. First it was the purr, and then an invitation to touch. Before getting too friendly, I looked into her background and learned that she had arrived at the zoo in 1968 as a small cub. She was named Bonnie, and hand-raised by keeper Gordy Swanberg in his home.
In time, Bonnie had her own cubs and became one of the first zoo cats to receive an experimental birth control implant. These were the facts on file. More important to me and to the others who knew her was one hand-written note in her records that understated, “Very friendly to people.”
As a zoological educator, I knew well the cardinal rule of zoo work: never anthropomorphize the animals, never interpret their behavior in human terms. But inside the feline unit, I quietly but fervently believed Bonnie and I were becoming friends. Sometimes I felt torn between these contradictory notions, but when I read The Ghost Walker by the distinguished naturalist R.D. Lawrence, I knew I kept good company. As a preface to his field studies of cougars, Lawrence relates his encounters with one in London’s Regent Park Zoo. His experiences mirrored mine almost exactly.
I knew Lawrence would understand my attraction to Bonnie as she enticed me closer to her enclosure. Gingerly at first, but with growing confidence and familiarity as time went on, I spread my fingers through the narrow slots in the grating to rub her neck and ears. She responded with eager purrs.
More than once, I imagined going into the enclosure with Bonnie. But, as they should, such thoughts remained fantasies. I never tested the limits, never presumed upon the safety I believed I would enjoy at close quarters. Even though she responded to my voice and rolled flirtatiously on her back just out of reach, she was still a wild cat, and a large one. Our relationship thrived despite the barriers.
For three years after I left employment at Woodland Park, I continued to visit Bonnie. Ever the docent, I spent hours on the public side of her enclosure, telling zoo visitors about cougars. What most people saw was an obese, matted, broken-down cat. What I saw was an indomitable character, confined by years of crowds and cages, but still more at ease with humans than I am myself. Spectator response to her varied from indifference, to jeers, to pity. She certainly was not the defiant, screaming wildcat of legend, but her tolerance of the situation was not born out of resignation, either. I think she simply made the best of it, with as much dignity and serenity as she could preserve.
Bonnie died in her sleep at the end of May. The average life expectancy of a captive cougar is pegged at ten years. She more than doubled that span, but her last year was one of increasing discomfort and fatigue. When a keeper friend called to tell me of her death, I responded with an unexpected sigh of relief. In my last visits, I wanted to shield Bonnie from the public’s probing, judging eye, to guarantee her the company of people who knew her condition and still respected her essential cougarness.
Bonnie was the last of a generation of hand-raised cats in the feline unit. In her lifetime, zoos began to change, and so did theories of animal management. The pandering bears of old rarely wave from their pits today; their generation of zoo animals, raised and schooled to a very different relationship with humans, has nearly passed. The move is on to emulate nature. Now we peer into man-made habitats and pretend to see wild and free animals at home on the range.
But none of this is natural. By the time I left Woodland Park Zoo, I wondered if these improvements actually benefited captive animals or merely eased human consciences. So I have come full circle, again feeling uncomfortable with the idea of captivity, but aware of how much I owe to barred cages. Although I may never see cougars in the wild, I am now content to ask them to live in my imagination rather than in a state of suspended animation at a zoo. I treasure my memories of Bonnie. For animals like her, I wish the undisturbed solitude of high, rocky places, which is, after all, their birthright. Try as we may, we can never duplicate that.