Heart of a Lion

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Title: Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat's Walk Across America
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Pages: 256
ISBN13: 978-1620405529


The extraordinary saga of one wild mountain lion’s two-thousand-mile journey from the American West to the Atlantic Coast.

Late one June night in 2011, an SUV collided with a large animal on a Connecticut parkway, a creature appearing as something out of New England’s forgotten past. Beside the road lay a 140-pound mountain lion.

Speculations ran wild, figuring the lion as somebody’s exotic pet turned loose, or perhaps a ghostly survivor from a bygone century when lions last roamed the eastern United States. But facts even more fantastic soon unfolded. The lion was just three years old, a barely weaned teenager with a trail reaching back through two thousand miles of hostile terrain to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the farthest landbound trek ever recorded for a wild animal in America.

Here is the story of the lion’s two-year journey—from his embattled birthplace in the Black Hills, across the Great Plains and the Mississippi River, through Midwest metropolises and remote northern forests, to his tragic finale upon Connecticut’s Gold Coast. Along the way, the lion traverses land with people gunning for his kind, as well as those championing his cause.

Heart of Lion is a romantic tragedy, a hero’s quest, with a background lens focused upon the ambivalent nation of people this lone cat traversed. As to whether the take-home is one of hope or despair, let the reader decide.


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Praise & Reviews

"This is one stirring account of one stirring journey—the trek of a fellow creature through a hostile, manmade world—and through our imaginations."
Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

"Heart of a Lion is a tale of extraordinary achievement and resilience that reads both like an adventure novel and a detective story. This is a story of survival, a tale of how a big cat uses stealth, cunning, and physical prowess to travel thousands of miles seeking others of its kind to settle new lands and seed future generations. I loved this book."
Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, chief executive officer, Panthera

"The journey quest—a hero's voyage. Think of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Odysseus and his homeland...a worthy addition to the narratives of young adventurers in search of riches, love, and meaning."
Laurance A. Marschall, Natural History

"Brilliant! One of the most persuasive and enthralling natural history books I've ever read. A powerful voice for learning to live with our wild neighbors.”
John Davis, co-founder, The Wildlands Network. (Read the full review.)

"A book that may well rewrite our national understanding of Puma concolor. Part demon hunt, part natural history mystery, part unrequited love story, Heart of a Lion keeps tragic adventure company with Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild."
Christopher Spatz, president, Cougar Rewilding Foundation

"A terrific story—best lion book I’ve read."
Don Molde, co-founder, Nevada Wildlife Alliance

"Will Stolzenburg gives a chilling account of the 'rural politics of hatred' that result in persecution of an animal proven to have less impact on human safety than a bolt from the blue. In Heart of a Lion, he documents the 19th century attitudes that subvert 21st century science as well as the human capacity for compassion."
—Chris Bolgiano, author of Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, and co-editor of The Eastern Cougar: Historic Accounts, Scientific Investigations, New Evidence.  

"What a great book. We learn just how awesome these prototype predators really are—predators who need to survive in a human-dominated world. I hope this book will rewild the hearts of people and generate further admiration and protection for this most amazing cat."
Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts, and board member of The Cougar Fund

"An exhilarating book for anyone who yearns after the wild."
Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief

"Don’t let the tragic demise of this amazing wild creature stop you from reading Stolzenburg’s book. He uses his considerable journalistic skills to piece together the fascinating story, enabling readers to become witnesses to the 'remarkable journey of one lone, impassioned cat.'”
Deborah Hopkinson, Bookpage.com. (Read the full review.)

"In weaving together details of the lion’s journey, Stolzenburg illustrates an America far removed from its wild roots and grappling with the reality of hanging on to any of these increasingly remote features of life."
—Ari Phillips, Fusion.net (Read the full review.)

"Poignant and heroic."
John Vaillant, Washington Post (Read the full review.)

"What a journey. What a story. And so beautifully told with so many layers. It is so refreshing to read such well researched investigative journalism yet told and shared in such a compelling, often gripping, and page turning way. I was in tears with the fateful ending of this remarkable lion."
Camilla Fox, founder and executive director, Project Coyote

"The heartbreaking story of a mountain lion's journey across America."
—Alternet (Read the excerpt.)

"A story that’s sad and heartening at the same time: We regret the animal’s demise; we admire its strength, tenacity and determination; and we find a spark of hope that the apex predators native to our continent may be making a comeback to their former haunts."
Hudson Valley Almanac Weekly (Read the full review.)

"Stolzenburg tells a riveting story that often reads like a thriller."
—Susan Linnee, Minneapolis Star Tribune
(Read the full review.)

"As Mr. Stolzenburg puts it, this remarkable and awe-inspiring wandering lion was 'looking for two honorable things that should evoke empathy in all of us: A hospitable place to live, and a mate.'" 
—Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today
 (Read the full review.)

"One of my favorite children’s books was The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford. This cougar’s odyssey across America was even more incredible."
—Simon Worrall, National Geographic (Read the interview.)

“Heart of a Lion will change your thinking about how we humans treat mountain lions and all animals. A beautiful story, masterfully told.”
—Karen Meyer, Executive Director, Lords of Nature, and Ocean Frontiers

"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. An important book and a compulsive read, it is an urgent call to save these majestic creatures and our environment."
—Caroline Griffin, Esq., AWI Quarterly

"Outdoor enthusiasts and animal lovers can unite together reading this dramatic wilderness tale."
—USA Today Network-Wisconsin (Read the full review.)

"This reverse western reads like parody, except it’s true. The nomad at its center remains a marvel to the end. One very cool cat."
Tony Horwitz, Wall Street Journal (Read the full review.)

"A true story of mystery and hope, and the result is a gripping and wise travelogue for our time."
—Jake Vail, Lawrence Journal-World (Read the full review.)

"This story will inspire you and leave you in awe. Heart of a Lion tells of one lion, who like Odysseus, would find his home only through his wandering….It is a story that had to be told and like all classics, one which we should retell over and over again."
—Penny Maldonado, Executive Director, The Cougar Fund (Read the full review.)

"What a story, beautifully rehearsed in this book, that cougar’s epic trek reveals! A tale of amazing persistence, a suggestion of the feline nobility that we have lost." 
—Phil Terrie, Adirondack Explorer
(Read the full review.)

"A thrilling tale of one young tom's wayfaring from the Black Hills across the US, in what I think is the most thoughtful discussion of our love-hate history with the mountain lion. I also cried at the end--which is about the highest compliment I can give to a writer's talent. As the person who coined the word "rewilding" and author of Rewilding North America, I believe returning the mountain lion to its top predator role in eastern North America is the most important single rewilding goal today. Heart of a Lion is a mighty weapon in that fight."
Dave Foreman, The Rewilding Institute

"This award-worthy book is a highly readable scientific treatise with impeccable documentation and dedicated detective work combined with dogged commitment to unravel the journey of one of many mountain lions across the U.S. from the Black Hills of the Dakotas. For all who care about the 'rewilding' of America, this book is essential reading and a call to action."
—Dr. Michael W. Fox, author of
Animals & Nature First.

"We’ve forgotten what it feels like to share the landscape with top predators; Stolzenburg’s book is a visceral reminder. "
—Ben Goldfarb, Earth Island Journal (Read the full review.)

"Absolutely fascinating. Stolzenburg's underlying message may be one of pervasive hope that this particular window into America's shrinking wilderness has not yet closed."
—Carolyn J. Kelly
, The Mercury (Read the full review.)

"A treat to read. A  solid summary of lion biology and ecology, as well as a peek into the polarized politics that haunt this storied predator. Stolzenburg might be the voice science needs in the natural-resources debate."
—Gary M. Koehler, Ecology


Half past midnight, June 11, 2011, on a highway seventy miles outside New York City, a mountain lion met his death on the fender of a northbound car. He was nearly eight feet long, tip to tail, and a solid 140 pounds. He was the first physical proof of a wild mountain lion in Connecticut in the last century. Soon thereafter he was to become the most famous mountain lion in North America, in any century.

The news of his demise triggered a flurry of national press and gossip. That such an unlikely beast from so deep in the past had so magically materialized in America’s iconic megalopolitan corridor came with a certain irresistible irony, serving as fodder for wild speculations.

He was a drug kingpin’s abandoned pet. He was an escapee from a roadside zoo. To an ardent sect of conspiracy theorists, the Connecticut cat was the smoking gun, proof at last that wildlife authorities had been clandestinely airlifting the big predators into the eastern woods to rein in a runaway population of deer. To the multitudes of citizens who swore they’d long been seeing such lions roaming their streets and backyards and local woods—the same such lions that just three months earlier had been officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—he was vindication in the face of all the authoritarian dismissals. He was undeniable evidence that eastern mountain lions—by the hundreds, maybe thousands!—were in fact still thriving beneath the experts’ condescending noses.

He was in fact none of those things, but far more. Six weeks after scientists sliced and probed and sent bits of the lion’s body to a genetics lab in Montana, his tests came back and his incredible saga emerged from the molecules. He was a three-year-old mountain lion from the Black Hills of South Dakota. And he had wandered under his own power for the better part of two years and more than two thousand miles across the eastern two-thirds of North America. His journey had spanned at least six states and, most likely, Canada’s largest province.

The lion had not simply walked a long distance, in the Guinness Book fashion easily imagined by any human pedestrian with a few months’ spare time and a supply chain of cool beverages and warm lodging along the way. This lone cat had threaded a gauntlet that would have given an elite force of Navy SEALs the night sweats. He had slinked and scampered across five hundred glaring miles of naked prairie and industrial cropland, patrolled by a certain culture of guns and antipredator hatred that had already dropped dozens of his fellow pilgrims in their paths. He had slipped through metropolises of millions, abuzz with four-wheeled predators and guarded by skittish cops armed with orders to shoot. He had forded many of the mightiest rivers east of the Rockies (the Missouri, Mississippi, St. Lawrence, Hudson) and the busiest of eight-lane freeways, some of them rumbling to more than a hundred thousand vehicles a day. Through ferocious heat, cold, rain, and snow, feeding himself on the fly in a foreign land, he made his way as far east as a land-bound animal could go, to be stopped only by the Atlantic Ocean and two tons of speeding steel.

Only after the lion’s headlining tragedy in Connecticut did America come to realize they’d already met this cat more than once along the way. He had made his first public appearance eighteen months earlier, on a December night outside Minneapolis, with a waltz through a suburban neighborhood captured on a police cruiser’s video camera. The video went viral. The lion went east. After swimming the Mississippi and scampering around the north end of the Twin Cities, he stopped for a couple days in an urban nature preserve surrounded by freeways and car dealerships, to eat a deer and—more important, for history’s sake—to leave behind his first fresh samples of urine and scat.

Before his pursuing biologists were through bagging that evidence, the lion was seen crossing a busy town ten miles east, on the icy banks of the St. Croix River, bordering Wisconsin. Every stop of the way, reporters followed. The lion was adopted and named, written up like an outlaw on a cross-country getaway. He became at turns the Champlin cougar, the Twin Cities cougar, the St. Croix cougar. There were cheers, there were fears, there were threats of his demise by police fire should he be caught loitering in town. Citizens were publicly warned and instructed on defending themselves against attack. The lion fled for safer surroundings.

Through his first winter on the run he continued leaving his trail of crumbs eastward across Wisconsin: a line of pancake-size paw prints and a thatch of fur at the wooded edge of a dairy farm; at another farm, another sixteen miles east, more fur, more astonishingly intimate glimpses caught by a hidden video camera. In February 2010, in Wisconsin’s wintry North Country, he treaded within two miles of eight thousand cross-country skiers at that moment gliding through the woods in the continent’s largest ski race.

Late in May he made a couple more cameo appearances on trail cameras, the last one catching him as he passed into the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, eastward bound still. And then his trail went cold. Over the following months the lion went out of sight and out of the public mind.

So when he next made his grandest entrance upon the public stage, more than a year later and another seven hundred sixty miles due east—amid the gated estates and manicured greens of Greenwich, Connecticut, thirty miles from Manhattan—it was just too much to imagine. Nobody could think to connect the dots. So far as anyone knew, here was a lion fifteen hundred miles and nearly two centuries removed from genuine lion country. He could be explained only by less fantastic scenarios, as in the odd pet gone loose or the government’s secret weapon air-dropped from black helicopters.

The big cat’s Greenwich splash played out on TV and YouTube, in the daily papers and social media. The Greenwich Mountain Lion’s Facebook page, which sprang up during the commotion, would soon gather five thousand friends. A blurry photo of him scared a prestigious boys’ school into closing its campus and the American Cancer Society into moving its annual charity walk to an indoor track in another town. Fanciful sightings streamed in from nearby communities caught up in mountain lion mania. It was lively theater while it lasted.

One week later and another forty eastward miles down the highway came the car and the end of his trail, with the DNA bombshell to follow. All those tokens of hair and bowel and bladder meticulously gathered in the wake of his Midwest crossing now revealed the genetic fingerprints linking the Connecticut cat with his South Dakota origins and the improbable chain of sightings between. This was history.

The lion’s trans-American trek had reached more than twice as far as that of any such cat on record, conducted by a barely weaned teenager venturing solo across strange and perilous lands. For students of dispersal biology, the journey was a godsend of data and scientific discovery. Never before had such a secretive creature, untagged and uncollared and so free to wander, left such a revealing chronicle over so wide a terrain.

For conservationists championing the return of his kind, and for public officials fearing the same, he was either emissary or omen of wild things to come. He testified to all that a certain shrinking window into eastern America’s ailing wilderness had not yet closed.

But among those following him from the sidelines, his passing carried the sadness of a lost friend. He was more than a statistic or symbol. He was a mindful creature with untold ambitions and emotions, so many of them hauntingly familiar. The lion at turns had displayed cockiness and fear, aloofness and laser-like focus, recklessness and rashness and tenacious resolve. He had survived on varying parts stealth and dumb luck, over half a continent hiding in plain sight like an Apache scout, then suddenly blundering before cars like a wino and parading across patios in the middle of the day. 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.

His was, by any measure of natural history or emotional gravity, a heroic journey. It was a remarkable odyssey of one lone, impassioned cat that, in keeping to its endless turns of irony, would begin in the most idyllic and dangerous piece of lion habitat for two thousand miles.