As a frequent hiker and outings leader for the Sierra Club I regularly see wildlife. But in my entire life, I've only ever seen three cougars and those were just fleeting glimpses as the animal ran away. Remarkably, in two of those sightings, the cougar even fled from a kill upon which it had been feeding.
Recently, I led an outing with two dozen participants when we encountered a cougar. It also quickly ran away. On this hike, I was bringing up the rear and so unfortunately, while I missed the actual sighting – I enjoyed the thrill my luckier companions experienced. Exuberant by this rare encounter, we all lingered and scanned for tracks. Our senses sharpened, we noticed minute details in the terrain: the plants, the soil, and the litter--even smells and sounds.
On this excursion, children and dogs were present--but no one panicked or wanted the outing to end. The children were near adults and dogs were on leashes so no one felt threatened by the encounter. In fact, we longed for even more connection.
In that moment, we all felt deep respect, appreciation, and gratitude that cougars are in the landscape. They are regal, stately beings who are enormously beneficial to their environment. And we are glad for the simple precautions we took.
New Mexico's wildlands also contain venomous snakes, drastic changes in weather can abruptly occur, and even loose rocks can cause hazards--but that's makes one feel so alive when outside.
I saw first hand how this cougar encounter was such an enriching experience to my companions. To experience this encounter with an apex carnivore was one of those moments that we will never forget. We, in fact, hold it dear.
Mary Katherine Ray
Rio Grande Chapter Sierra Club