Photo by Postdlf from w via Wikimedia Commons Panther and Cubs by Edward Kemeys

Still Hunt

From the Spring 2016 issue of The Georgia ReviewExcerpt plus link below.

The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an airy, skylit atrium, the recently remodeled Engelhard Sculpture Court, a place overflowing with marble and curious marvels. In one corner, the Vanderbilts’ humongous hearth. Over there, glowing Tiffany windows. Catty-corner is an annexed Frank Lloyd Wright living room, transplanted entire from Minnesota. But the main draw, anyone can see, is the café. Short of stopping at a fountain, museumgoers head for the line like animals come to drink. A panini, a Vitamin Water. A few minutes in a chair.

Headed in that direction, people circulate around the room’s sculptures, each work an island unto itself. One of them, Edward Kemeys’ bronze Panther and Cubs, rests on a square pedestal in the southwest corner; on the edge, as cats prefer. A lioness is on her side, partially reclined. Two young panthers—less than eight weeks old, by the look of them, when they’ d be about ten pounds—are safe at her chest, between her front and rear legs, in a kind of external womb. Her tongue licks one’s nape, while the other cub, its belly against hers, appears about ready to pummel its sibling. Two strikingly large protuberances, one realizes after a while, could only be nipples. I don’t distrust Kemeys’ eye: no doubt that’s what it takes to nurse a cougar.

I decided to spend time with Panther and Cubs one Saturday afternoon, because several years ago the cougar was declared officially extinct in the eastern U.S. That the animal remains in our homage to ourselves seemed worthy of some exploration. Panther and Cubs was sculpted in 1878, though this particular cast was poured in 1907, the year of the artist’s death. “Kemeys was America’s first animalier (animal sculptor) of significance,” reads the brief placard affixed to its pedestal. “He favored the American panther, depicting the animal in varied emotional states, from fierce combativeness to the maternal tenderness exemplified in this group.”

Ghost cat, catamount, cougar, puma, panther, painter, and mountain lion: Puma concolor is one of the most widely known and variously named animals in the so-called New World, with more than forty monikers. But if you want to see the shape or form of this animal, the Met is perhaps your most solid bet, because although about thirty thousand live in the American West, unsurprisingly they’re reclusive. Crepuscular. Many people who’ve spent a fair amount of time in or near “wilds” have never seen one, myself included. I’ve seen paw prints in the damp sand of an Oregon river, and in the adobe mud tight to a brake of chaparral in California, which would cast a concealing shadow in the moonlight. I’ve found eviscerated, half-eaten deer, and once I heard a female cougar in heat roaring eerily in an oak and buckeye swale. But I’ve never laid eyes on one. Odds are, though, I’ve been seen. In the wilds, it may be we who stand out like sculpture.

Standing before Kemeys’ rendering, one is impressed by the lioness’ size: her hind legs seem impossibly long, but cougars, I’ve learned, have proportionately the longest legs of all felines. Her tail is as thick as my arm, longer (and surely stronger), with a smooth, rounded tip. The cubs are the size of house cats, but lankier, and they are a little less convincing. The statue’s bronze is dark, but in life these catsare tawny all over, concolor, and the cubs have spots. Males are about half again as large as females, reaching 120 to 150 pounds, and as many as 200. From incisor to tail, they’re about eight feet long.

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