Commentary: What Our Primal Fear Might Sound Like

  • Was the animal known as the puma, cougar, and mountain lion what woke writer Seamus McGraw one night? This image was photographed at the Belgrade Zoo. Photo: Bas Lammers

October 24, 2014

It was a full two hours before dawn on a morning in late summer when my wife, a woman not easily spooked, brusquely elbowed me out of a deep slumber.

I could tell by the look in her eyes that something had rattled her. That look rattled me.

That’s when I heard it, too—rolling up through the dense woods from the creek a couple of hundred yards below our home. A guttural, primal, urgent sound. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, at least not in the forests of eastern Pennsylvania. It didn’t sound like the clipped bellow of a bear or the howl of a coyote or the shriek of a bobcat—all of them familiar sounds in these woods.

This was different. Terrifying and at the same time alluring. If the seven deadly sins had a sound, this could have passed for six of them—lust, greed, envy, gluttony, you name it. Any one of them but sloth. There was nothing slothful about this animalistic howl. It went on for a full 20 minutes. My wife recorded it on her smartphone before it at last drifted off deeper into the woods and out of earshot.

“You know what I think that sounded like?” I said, finally. “A mountain lion.”

For the next few weeks, I made it my mission to figure out what it was that had evoked such primal feelings in my wife and me that morning. I contacted animal biologists, experts on mountain lions, and backwoods adventurers who had spent decades in the woods. All of them were baffled.

Perhaps it was some other creature—a bear in distress, a wild pig, maybe even the deer itself.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t the possibility, however remote, that it was a mountain lion.

No, the experts and the others all told me, they could not rule out the idea that what I heard was a mountain lion. It dawned on me that they didn’t want to—that, instead, they fervently hoped the beast in the woods that morning had been one of those big cats.

It’s been 140 years since the last Eastern cougar was taken in Pennsylvania, and though there have been literally thousands of reports since, not once has anyone been able to produce a shred of evidence to prove that the cats have returned.

And yet, the apex predator that once stalked these woods remains very fresh in our imaginations. It’s not just that we were once their prey.

Perhaps it’s because they became ours, that the regal predators became victims of the eighth deadly sin—fear. Wasn’t it fear of the wilderness and its handmaiden, greed, that led us to hack away at the forests of Pennsylvania until there was no place left for the cat to hide? And isn’t it still just fear that leads us to want to believe, that maybe, just maybe, the big cats are coming back? Because if that’s the case, if they really are stronger than all of the fearsome things we have done to them, then maybe we can be absolved of our original sin?

Could it be that we desperately want to believe that there is something terrifying in the deep woods because the thought that there might not be is too terrifying to imagine?