top of page

Rehoming the Cougar

Memoir by Dakota Parks

Published in The Midwest Review, 2023; Pushcart Prize Nominated.

Tucked in-between corn fields, dilapidated meth labs, and cryptid sightings of the Lockridge Sasquatch along Route 34 was Bob Barker’s Exotic Animal Auction. Freaks, farmers, and big game hunters came from across the country to stalk the stalls, peering in at the two-headed cows, baby bears, monkeys and foxes in cages, zedonks and giraffes, nestled in straw piles. Mom unloaded her collateral from the trailer: a miniature horse, bred between a Shetland pony and Falabella, that sold for a pretty penny. She knew better than to go to an animal auction without a trailer. My sister and I had perfected our puppy-dog-eyed “can we keep it” faces. The same faces won wars against stray puppies– turned-farm-dogs, baby racoons fallen from trees, even the bald eagle that broke its wing in the electric fence that dad risked a felony to mend and nurture until it could fly again.

Walking through the 10-acre auction lot, mom and dad practiced saying no to every animal we asked to adopt. It was the barn full of game animals—bred to be released and killed in canned trophy hunts on fenced-in farms where the animals had no chance of escaping—that sunk my mother’s heart. In wall-to-wall stables were antelope, elk, white-tailed deer, wild boar, and even a few bison that would be hunted down in a controlled frenzy like ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ In the very back corner, we found them—chirping, yipping, and jumping on top of one another like a litter of kittens in a cardboard box—mountain lion cubs. Dad scooped one upside down like a baby, tickling its tummy while the cub wrapped its paws around his forearm and sunk its mini daggers in the tops of his hands. Mom handed the breeder $300, and Charlie came home to our farm of wayward critters.

Charlie’s enclosure ran the length of the house, side-by-side against the basement windows and first-story bedrooms, like a dog run equipped with five-foot-deep tunnels and a rock covered hut on top to create an artificial cave system. Charlie grew from a three-month-old cub swaddled in blankets on our beds, chewing up my Cabbage Patch dolls, to a fully-grown, 200-pound cougar with paws bigger than my dad’s hands. He missed all of the milestones for domesticated cats— Allgood Animal Hospital told us he should have been bottle fed, declawed at birth, and neutered, but he was bred to die in a canned hunt, not meant to live on a farm and play in snowball fights with two young girls, leaping up in the air on his 50-foot staked chain to swat the snowballs down like mourning doves.

That winter, Charlie stalked and killed his fair share of snowballs and destroyed mom’s Christmas tree, climbing up it every time he laid eyes on those shiny colored orbs, taunting him just like they did our normal-sized house cat. Dad fastened the tree from the ceiling with a hook and fishing line to minimize the feline-afflicted destruction. At night, when the coyotes mimicked ambulances, sneaking out of their dens under the railroad tracks to rip apart the chicken coops, I could hear Charlie rubbing his body against his galvanized cage, chuffing a low growl that could scare man and predator alike. I dreamt of him, standing on his hind legs at my bedroom window, yellow, beady eyes watching me as I slept.

At first, no company dared to visit the farm—even the mailman left packages at the end of our half-mile-long driveway. But soon, Charlie was the talk of the town. Word began to spread as mom, a lifelong vegetarian, bought all the soon-to-expire chicken from groceries across the county and began duck and crow hunting alongside my father to placate our growing beast. His stomach was a bottomless pit; the snow by the small gaps in his enclosure was constantly stained merlot red—sometimes innards, and furry pieces of a possum, weasel, or bunny that dared too close to the wire were scattered about like candy wrappers. All the locals knew to call my parents when they found roadkill too mangled for their own dinner table.

One time, outside of hunting season, Uncle Rick found a buck crushed by an eighteen-wheeler and called dad to retrieve the body. In the back of the pickup, the deer resurrected from the dead, flailing its crushed limbs and thrashing antlers against the wheel well. They couldn’t shoot him outside of season, even to spare him from the misery, because of poaching laws that could strip them of their hunting licenses. Dad chose a semblance of humanity and picked up a cinder block from the truck bed and crushed its skull. He quartered it in the garage, showing me how to press the gut hook, with his name engraved in the hilt, into the soft pelvic tissue, separating muscle from bone and severing the tendon to free the leg from its socket. We watched Charlie fiendishly rip into a hindquarter of the deer and a smile of satisfaction swept across dad’s face.

Growing up on a farm, we learned at an early age that animals have shorter lifespans than humans. The horses might break a leg and get put down; a coyote might slaughter a goat or feast upon all 25 of the chickens we’d individually named; the farm dog might crawl under a trailer or hide in the crawl space when the time came. But that never stopped our mother from trying to protect us from the ugly reality of death—the horse on vacation at pawpaw’s, the goat adopted by a neighbor, chickens gone home to roost at Uncle Rick’s, the dog at a slumber party at the vet. When Charlie could not be found in his cage, or on a walk with dad in the woods, scaling trees to snack on squirrels, we be- lieved our mother when she told us he had gone back to Keosauqua to live on a nature preserve.

I didn’t learn the truth for nearly two decades. Strangers had stopped by the farm to see the cougar, and mom had brought Charlie out on his chain leash. When she went to cage him, something flashed in the yellow of his eye, and after two years, his nature overtook him. He jumped onto his hind legs and snarled, wrapping both paws across her shoulders, digging into her neck, cutting her face, and opening his jaws as wide as her skull. Farm life had left scars across Mom’s entire body—surgical incisions traced her spine from a horse kick that broke her back; bite marks pocked the flesh of her palm from saving a farm dog from being killed by a stray; crisscrosses trailed across her shins from headbutting goats and heavy metal gates blowing in the wind. Just as she accepted that she might actually die this time, our old Labrador hunting dog shot across the yard knocking the cougar to the ground, sinking his teeth into its neck.

When dad got home from the factory, he found droplets of blood leading up the porch, a white bra saturated red, and the dog with claw marks down the base of his back. My mom and the dog both walked away with battle scars. Charlie was buried three feet from the base of the white oak tree, standing tall like a headstone above all the animals loved and lost on our farm.
bottom of page