Review by Helen McGinnis ofBeast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma. Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 243 pp.
This is a book of major importance for us eastern cougarmaniacs. I recommend it to all of you. I got my copy from amazon.com for $16.07 plus postage.
I don’t know how long I will go on in this review, so I like to start with Butz’ most important conclusion: If your goal is to help pumas in the East, searching for more evidence will have little or no effect. Nor will pure science. Political involvement is necessary.
Butz lives on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so Michigan is the focus of the book. But he goes beyond Michigan. Over a period of three years, Butz associated with Pat Rusz, not as a friend but as a writer working on a book. He saw Rusz’ evidence and accompanied him on numerous field trips.
No one denies that at least a few wild cougars inhabit Michigan. This is brought home in the opening chapter. Rusz asks Butz to check out a promising report. Butz goes to the site. Soon he finds a foot-long scat, “an olive-colored coil marbled with white deer hair, partially covered with grass but impossible to miss there on the hump between the two tire ruts, exactly where the map indicated I would strike gold.” He looks further and soon finds a track with all the distinguishing features of cougar. It’s a scenario that many of us searching further East have only dreamed of. Later in the book, Butz actually sees a puma, complete with long tail, slinking so quietly and quickly that it might have been an illusion, but perfect tracks in two places on the road the cat crossed and recrossed it showed that it was not.
Butz covers other discoveries of almost certain evidence of cougars in Michigan. Plaster casts and photos of tracks. Yes, those controversial scats. The close-up photos of cougars in Alcona County taken in 1997 [photos 2 and 4 in the Yahoo group photo album] and the Oscoda County, about 2 miles away, in 1993 [photo no. 3].
Like some of the rest of us, Rusz comes across as obsessed with the idea of cougars. He has made some major errors. One was prematurely announcing Dee Dee Hawk’s determination of cougar for those scats, before her determinations could be double-checked by another lab. Another is mixing perfectly good evidence, capable of convincing the most jaded skeptic, with highly dubious evidence.
Rusz has a collection of photos and videos of possible pumas. Some, like the Alcona and Oscoda County photos, are definitely cougar. (Butz, by the way, does not think that Rusz is cheating.) But he also has a stack of “fuzzy kitty" pictures. Gray ones. Black ones. Brown and yellow ones.” Butz was embarrassed for Rusz—for the fact that Rusz even took them seriously. The Stokes and “snow cat” videos are clearly “kitty pictures.” Another error Rusz has made is taking reports of black pumas seriously.
For those of you who want to know more about “The Skull,” it’s here, including the name of the taxidermist and his business. Rusz has managed to turn a straightforward account of a skull carried off by a dog or whatever into a conspiracy.
We meet Dennis Fijalkowki, the executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. Three times in the past, Fij has taken on the DNR. He has won twice. He lost the first time, when he opposed an expensive reintroduction plan for elk in Michigan. He scored victories in opposing the introduction of Sichuan pheasants from China (the captive-raised birds didn’t survive) and introduction of captive-raised turkeys (ditto). It seems that cougars are his fourth campaign. Unfortunately, like Rusz, he mixes good and highly dubious evidence in his public presentations.
Butz visits the endangered species specialists of the Michigan DNR. They say there is no evidence of cougars in Michigan. Butz asks them about clear evidence that has turned up and mentions specific examples. They are totally unaware of it. At this point Butz begins to realize that finding more evidence is not going to change the DNR’s position. Partly, it’s because there is no way to know for sure if any apparently wild cougar or its sign is wild or is a former escaped or released captive (FERC) if DNA analysis shows it is of North American origin. It can establish that is a FERC if it is of Latin American origin. But the origin of those cougars living in the wild is really not important. DNR emphasis on possible FERCs is probably just an excuse. The main reason is that the DNR is simply not interested in pumas. Their funding comes from license fees from hunters. Cougars are not on their agenda.
One argument against the existence of cougars in Michigan is the lack of evidence from houndsmen. This is a problem. Butz found only one houndsman who ever tracked a cougar in the snow.
Toward the end of the book, Butz attends the 2nd Eastern Cougar Conference this past April in Morgantown, WV. Before that, he had spent a lot of time on various listservs and online bulletin boards for eastern cougarmaniacs. He gives us his honest impression of people he meets in person and on the Internet, including representatives of EPRN, ECF and CN (formerly ECN). Many of you on this listserv are mentioned. He has unmitigated praise for few of us. He thinks we really are doing little if anything to help pumas in the East or Midwest. (See paragraph 2 above.) BTW, Butz recommends that you read his book in sequence. He is building up to the chapter on the conference.
By the end of the book, driving back home to Michigan with Pat Rusz, he’s pretty fed up with the whole eastern cougar thing and with eastern cougar advocates. But I thank him for giving us the opportunity to assess our personal goals and to consider if we are achieving them.