'Path of the Puma' by Jim Williams

If you have been reading our news section in recent weeks, then you already know that big cats are living among us and walking down Laguna Street in broad daylight. Big, bad kitty cats that evolution has fine-tuned to be all-but-invisible hunting machines. The ultimate apex predator, if you will.

Depending on where you call home, these cats have a variety of names — puma, mountain lion, panther, cougar, and catamount — but they are all essentially the same form of feline save for a few minor tweaks of DNA. They are ambassadors from the last remaining bits of wild in our paved-over world, and, against near-impossible odds, they are the only big cat on the planet that is currently enjoying not just population stability but an actual resurgence and reclaiming of historical territory. It is a remarkable and important story that is largely unknown by the people who share space with these majestic animals in both North and South America.

Luckily, biologist Jim Williams is working to change that. For the past 30-plus years, Williams, who grew up surfing in San Diego and first got bit by the biology bug while free diving in the Pacific, has been calling the Rocky Mountains of northwestern Montana home while risking life and limb in his efforts to better understand these elusive cats.

From his graduate work at Montana State University studying mountain lion ecology in the late 1980s to his past three decades working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Williams has been on the adventurous front lines of a small global group of scientists and hound handlers who track and tag mountain lions in some of the most remote and rugged terrain imaginable. The goal is not only to better understand the big cats but, more importantly, how to help them and humans coexist.

From the eastern front of the Rockies to the mountains of Chile and Argentina and scores of places in between, Williams’s work has been as much about cats as it has been about conservation of habitat and the various machinations of the human psyche. “The story of the mountain lion should give us all hope,” explained Williams in a recent interview with the Independent. “We are in a historic period of animal extinctions and big cats everywhere are dealing with population decline. However, mountain lions show us — if we tolerate them and give them access to habitat — that these apex predators can and will recover. Not only is that good news for the health of our ecosystems, but it should give us all hope for what is possible in the future.”

What exactly that hope is made of is the subject of Williams’s newest book, Path of the Puma: The Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion. Published by Patagonia Books, Path marks a bit of a departure for the career scientist who authored it. “I’m a scientist. We are trained to write boring drivel,” admitted Williams with his trademark high-energy laugh. “I’ve written books before and authored various research papers, but I’ve never done anything like this.”

It took five years, and though science is a big part of it, the main purpose of Path of the Puma, according to Williams, is to “inspire people about wild things and wild places.” To that end, the book is an absolute page-turning success. It is a truly original hybrid of a book — something that could have only been penned by Williams. Peppered with gorgeous wildlife photography, the book is equal parts high-stakes adventure story, personal memoir, and, of course, mountain lions. You can read the book cover to cover (and you should), but you can also pick it up and dive into a random chapter about habitat conservation in Patagonia or a harrowing account of a midwinter tracking mission gone bad in Glacier National Park without missing a beat. Like the big cats at the heart of it, Path of the Puma is a truly exceptional and important creation.

4•1•1 |Path of the Puma author Jim Williams will be in town Wednesday, May 8, at the Sandbox (414 Olive St.) for a special evening celebrating big cats and wild places. Not your typical book-signing, the event, which is being presented by the Los Padres Forest Watch, will feature slides, videos, a Q&A with the author, beer from Figueroa Mountain Brewing, local wine, and appetizers from Chef Jake O. Frances. The event is free and starts at 7 p.m.


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