How to Skin a Cougar

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The cat was enormous, 200 pounds easy. It died about 100 miles from Portland, near the Klickitat River. The man who killed it wanted to tan the hide so we would always remember the amazing animal and the fact that he killed it and not the other way around.

It was evening and we were hunting deer in the rugged breaks above the river. So was the cougar. It trotted right up to the man who killed it, looking as big as an African lioness, and when it was 15 yards away he shot it. It whirled and leapt into a draw.

Another hunter joined the first and when the first hunter stopped shaking the two of them triple-checked that their guns were loaded and headed into the draw side by side.

The cat was dead. The first two hunters confirmed this several times, and I confirm it again when I meet up with them an hour later. Claws and teeth and muscle in those proportions make you do such things.

It’s getting dark so we move quickly. We cut a thick straight oak limb and lash the cougar’s massive feet to it and hoist the load to our shoulders. The guy in the downhill position on the pole has almost the entire weight of the cat and log smashing into his shoulder. It takes us two hours to cover a mile to the old road where we had stashed our mountain bikes.

The first hunter guts the cat. He cuts a shallow straight line groin to sternum, then reaches shoulder deep into the rib cage to sever the trachea and esophagus and pull out the organs.

A cougar’s heart and lungs are relatively small, far smaller than a wolf’s, because cougars mostly walk, wait, and sprint short distances to capture prey, whereas wolves lope for hours and often run their prey to death.

The cat’s stomach is huge, capable of holding 20 pounds of meat. Cougars mostly eat deer, though they’ll also eat turkey, grouse, hare, fish, beaver, bear cub, coyote, and elk. The males are extremely territorial and will kill and eat each other, too.

Back at the cabin, the first hunter’s wife shrieks when she sees the cougar. My wife, a scientist, mutters in awe at the many lethal parts. The third wife steals nervous glimpses from a distance.

We hang the cat out in the barn. Its blood drains out all night.

Next morning, we marvel at how soft and clean the animal is; we count only a dozen ticks fleeing the carcass, far fewer than on your average deer.

A cougar is designed for killing. Imagine a Saint Bernard that can go from 0 to 45 miles an hour in an instant, without a sound; can leap 20 feet from a standing position; can change course in midair using its tail as a rudder; and can match a jack­rabbit zig for zag.

Its upper canines are more than an inch long. The jaws are powered by huge, clam-shaped muscles. The cat’s forearms are taut and heavy as bridge cable. The paws are ingeniously designed with retractable claws hidden in sound-deadening hair. The black sole pads are surprisingly soft–again, for quiet. The claws are sharp as fishhooks.

We skin the cat. From the central incision we cut up the inner thighs. Our knives make short, flicking cuts through the spiderwebby material between skin and muscle. We use a saw to cut through ligaments and bone. There is a bone inside the tail, which is nearly four feet long and thick as a baseball bat at the base.

We remove the pelt. Even without its head and tail and skin and paws the cougar looks nothing at all like a skinned something else. There seem to be extra layers and bands of muscle, and the flesh is almost translucent.

We remove the meat and package it for the freezer. Cougar tastes like deer.

Months after the incident I still feel out of sorts. Killing the cat made perfect sense; the hunter who shot it did so because he rightly feared for his life. And I’m partly relieved the big cat won’t be stalking those canyons and cliffs next deer season.

Yet it was deeply disturbing to see so wild and well-made a creature dead. No epitaph seems worthy. What stays with me most, even now? Awe.

Excerpted from Portland(Spring 2009), a spiritual, civic-minded magazine published by the University of Portland; www.up.edu/portland.

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