William Stolzenburg / Bloomsbury USA / 213 pages
Heart of a Lion chronicles the true life, against-all-odds odyssey of a mountain lion over 2,000 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the tony town of Greenwich, Connecticut. Though we know the fateful end, when the lion crossed paths with an SUV in the dark of night, the story is gripping and reads as much like a suspense novel as a meticulous scientific retrospective.
The 139-pound male lion died on June 11, 2011, two centuries after the last mountain lions roamed Connecticut and, ironically, only three months after the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the eastern cougar was extinct. Sightings and DNA analysis not only confirmed his birthplace, but also his journey through the Great Plains, the Great Lakes boreal forest, the Adirondack Mountains, and the densely populated East Coast, where he ventured only 23 miles from Central Park. Throughout his journey—which was the longest of any big cat ever tracked—he was never known to threaten a human life.
What propelled a lone mountain lion to take innumerable risks and venture so far from home? Was he a “tourist of miraculous luck or a courageous explorer of incalculable resolve?” He was all that, and then some, Stolzenburg writes. “All, it turned out, was in blind pursuit of a mate. The lion had ultimately come so far looking for what some would call love.”
Throughout our history, mountain lions have been demonized and killed. Stolzenburg traces this history, from the westward settlers who considered them vermin, exterminating them with a fervor reserved for witch hunts, to the current policies of state wildlife commissions that ignore research and sanction their destruction through increased hunting quotas. A total of 94 lions were killed in the Black Hills in 2010, nearly half of the estimated population, leaving orphaned cubs who die of starvation and juveniles who wander into trouble by venturing into civilization and suburban backyards.
Moreover, the hunting of alpha predators such as lions has wreaked havoc on ecosystems. Stolzenburg surveys some of the greatest devastation, particularly in national parks such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, where deer and elk literally altered the landscape through indiscriminate foraging. In the case of mountain lions, who are ambush specialists and hunters of the edges, fear among deer kept them moving and forced them to consume lightly. Twenty years after the release of wolves in Yellowstone, tree saplings that had been suppressed for 70 years are thriving, and scientists now advocate for the reintroduction of mountain lions in some national parks and forests as well.
Stolzenburg is a master wordsmith and his prose is both precise and lyrical. Though unsentimental to its core, Heart of a Lion is also a passionate wake-up call to reconsider our wildlife policies. It is an important book and a compulsive read. It is an urgent call to save these majestic creatures and our environment.
—Caroline Griffin, Esq.