Remember that New York Times Dialect Quiz from the end of 2013? The one you played with your siblings at Christmas that likely nailed where in the United States you're from, based on your term for carbonated beverages, how you pronounce "been," and what you call rain on a sunny day? That quiz, based on old work by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, revolves around the basic truth that certain concepts ubiquitous across America are deeply regionalized in name, if not perception, too. With that in mind, one question stood out: What do you call a large, wild cat native to the Americas?
How did you answer? The feline in question is Puma concolor, our nation's largest cat species, unless you count the odd wayward jaguar. It's a striking creature—the size of a Great Dane, sleek and muscular, with golden fur, golden eyes, rounded ears, and a white muzzle. But unlike a can of Coke, a firefly, or that area of grass between the sidewalk and the road, you've likely never seen one. If you live in the East, you've never even had a chance. P. concolor once ranged over all of the Americas, including every contiguous U.S. state. But when European settlers arrived, they promptly put bounties on all their new cat subjects. From the earliest colonization through the late 1960s in certain states, any citizen with a gun and the gumption could earn a cash reward bagging a puma. Incentivized slaughter eliminated P. concolor east of the Mississippi River by around 1900, and that section of the natural range remains forsaken, save for a tiny, endangered subspecies population in South Florida (and so, so many deer). Even out west, where the gradual elimination of bounty hunting and the movement toward conservation have preserved the species, sightings are naturally rare. Pumas are solitary, crepuscular animals that feed mainly on wild ungulates—deer, elk, and the like—so they rarely have any business with humans.
After halting the centuries-long sweep of extermination, Americans now want to co-exist with wild pumas. We just can't agree how best to make that so. Since we don't encounter many pumas, we deal mainly with the idea of them.
So whether or not you live within the remaining half of P. concolor's North American range, you've likely never had to identify one. And yet you might tend toward one of its highly regionalized names—the puma remains a cultural presence, if only sparsely a physical one. In Spanish, it's just puma, though according to the quiz, we don't use the Latin name much in the U.S. Going off quiz response maps, it appears most of America calls it a "mountain lion," a misnomer that dates back to confused European explorers in the new world. (It's not a lion, and not even part of the "big cat" genus Panthera, nor does it live exclusively in mountains.) Folks in the areas surrounding Washington State University, the University of Houston, and Brigham Young University in Utah lean toward "cougar"—a word with roots in a monitory Tupi Indian term meaning "false deer"—which makes sense given their mascots. Vermonters go with "catamount," an old contraction of "cat-of-the-mountain" and also the mascot of their local college team. Southeasterners pick "panther" (or the heavily accented "painter"), as in "Florida Panther," just like the Miami NHL team named in 1993 for that endangered Everglades subspecies.
A creature we rarely see still goes by many names, and we apply those names to institutions even in the absence of the actual creatures. Penn State University didn't become the Nittany Lions until years after the last cat vanished off Mount Nittany. The University of Pittsburgh adopted the Panther mascot (choosing an alliterative name over a regionally familiar one) because "The Panther was the most formidable creature once indigenous to the Pittsburgh region." In 2012, Apple named the ninth release of their serially cat-themed OS X platform "Mountain Lion," licensing "Cougar" and, incongruently, "Lynx" as well (they'd already used "Puma," so it was a retread of sorts). Apple may have decided on "Mountain Lion" because "cougar" is slang for an older woman attracted to younger men, perhaps the most widespread—if least explicable—reference to P. concolor in American culture.
IF P. CONCOLOR PERSISTS as an icon, then what of our relationship with the actual animals that remain? It's complicated. It always is with predators. We were on track to completely extinguish the species from the United States, but widespread reclassification of pumas from “bounty target” to “game animal” in the '60s and '70s diverted us at least somewhat off that course. Today, human Americans exist alongside pumas in the 15 westernmost states, plus Florida. It's not always a comfortable co-existence, because the same fierce qualities we admire in the beasts as mascots make us wary of personal encounters. And indeed, a puma will occasionally roam into a human settlement and snatch someone's dog, provoking hysteria. On rare occasions, people themselves have been attacked, usually when camping or hiking. These instances are infrequent, though, and according to Sharon Negri—published puma expert and wildlife consultant—statewide polling suggests the average person wants to conserve the puma, an animal they feel "represents the wild western heritage more than any other species." They're like our own pet cats, but with the size, grace, and majesty all dialed way up—textbook charismatic megafauna. P. concolor's appeal as a conservation species falls in line with our tendency to call our products and ourselves Mountain Lions and Cougars and Panthers and such, but it's not universal.
Opposition to outright conservation of P. concolor comes mainly from ranchers, hunters, and the state wildlife agencies beholden to those constituencies. Almost all Western states issue sport-hunting licenses, and somehaveincreased harvest quotas recently to control population and protect livestock—a practice with some logical flaws. As with any large carnivore species, natural selective pressures and social dynamics limit puma population on their own. Studiessuggest the current practice of quota-guided sport hunting can actually destabilize those social dynamics in counterproductive ways. "The death of a single cougar will create a territorial vacancy that other cougars will attempt to occupy," Negri says. "Younger, more opportunistic cougars come in and can be more dangerous to livestock."
Nonetheless, California is the sole Western state in which pumas are not a legal game animal, and only because Negri and others both sued the Department of Fish and Game and battled the NRA to pass Proposition 117, which permanently banned mountain lion trophy hunting and allocated $30 million per year to protect critical wildlife habitat in the state. Meanwhile, Texan mountain lions are treated as varmint, eligible to be killed without any specific license or seasonal restrictions. Nebraska just held its inaugural puma-hunting season despite a confirmed state population that numbers in the dozens.
The controversy therein may soon crop up elsewhere, as Nebraska is just one of several Midwestern states to which small numbers of pumas have returned. The newcomers are mostly transient males, and perhaps not yet numbered enough to establish breeding populations, but enough that folks are noticing.
This eastward creep, even of just a few individuals, has brought out the weird in people. A botanist in Chicago just plead guilty to threatening police who'd killed a surprise visitor in 2008. All it took was one exceptional stray in 2011 to stir up conspiracy theories in Connecticut. If pumas really do disperse back into some of their former range, the reaction is bound to fragment—just like it has in the states where they never left.
After halting the centuries-long sweep of extermination, Americans now want to co-exist with wild pumas. We just can't agree how best to make that so. Since we don't encounter many pumas, we deal mainly with the idea of them. Negri, who's spent much of her career conducting surveys to better understand the layers of the relationship, summarizes it thusly: "People may never see a mountain lion in the wild, but they want to know they're out there. They want to know they're wild and free, because somehow they remind them of their own need for freedom." That rings dreamy, but it also resonates in its converse. The puma is something we alternately work to preserve and suppress. It goes by different names and treatments from one state to the next. Its representation on hats and bumper stickers far exceeds its actual presence. Is that not unlike freedom itself?