Theodore Roosevelt was a force of nature, an accidental leader fitted to his times, a bred-in-the-bone Eastern elite whose heart was in an egalitarian West; a Republican radical feared by his party; perhaps the greatest conservationist to occupy the White House, a hunter of big game and a notorious know-it-all who was fascinated by mountain lions.
In 1898, he raised the cavalry regiment of Rough Riders to fight in Cuba. He and his volunteers spent several months in San Antonio, Texas, and Tampa Bay, Florida, training and waiting to ship out. They were accompanied by a mascot, Josephine, a mountain lion cub. Roosevelt bottle-fed her and adored everything about her, biographer Douglas Brinkley recounts – “her sand-colored coat, dark rounded ears, white muzzle and piercing blue eyes.”
The same year, returning a hero, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. When he pushed for corporations to pay state taxes on franchises such as streetcar lines, he outraged New York GOP boss Tom Platt, who derided it as socialism. Without it, Roosevelt said, angry New Yorkers might just seize the streetcars. This is in part why Platt got Roosevelt on William McKinley’s 1900 presidential ticket, as vice president – to get TR out of his hair.
In 1901, Roosevelt would become president after McKinley’s assassination – but we need to stop here, just after the 1900 election.
That is when, in December 1900, TR became restless and fixated on getting out to the Colorado Rockies. He determined to leave in January and hunt mountain lions for the U.S. Biological Survey, a forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service. He was good at finding scientific rationales for hunting, and he had been involved in a protracted debate in New York about how many types of cougars there were.
Shortly after New Year’s Day, Roosevelt arrived by rail in Colorado Springs. For the next six weeks, he hunted on horseback in the mountains, using Meeker as a base, often sleeping in forest huts or ranchers’ homes. The rock- and tree-clad mountains were a world-class attraction, he told anyone who would listen, which infuriated mining and timber companies.
Now he was going to kill the cats. For science. But he also believed that by killing other predators, humans would help make more big prey like deer and elk – restore them, he believed – for human hunters. A little Darwin went a long way.
He was not alone. Humans evolved at war with big cats. Europeans in the New World paid bounties for dead lions long before there was a United States. In 1881, Colorado became one of the first Western states to pay lion bounty. In 1900, as Roosevelt planned his trip, they mostly had been extirpated east of the Mississippi.
Over four weeks, Roosevelt and his party killed 14. In Denver, he crated their heads, paws and skins and sent them to C.G. Gunther’s, furriers of Fifth Avenue, New York City.
On Sept. 14, 1901, McKinley died of gunshot wounds inflicted by an assassin, whereupon Mark Hanna, McKinley’s GOP boss, said, “Now look, that damned cowboy is president of the United States.”
But the word “cowboy,” Brinkley writes in “The Wilderness Warrior,” would imply “that Roosevelt was a rubber stamp for the stockmen’s associations of the Rocky Mountains, which he clearly wasn’t. The reality, in fact, was far worse than Hanna contemplated. Roosevelt was a pro-forest, pro-buffalo, cougar-infatuated, socialistic land conservationist who had been trained at Harvard as a Darwinian ... and now believed that the moral implications of “On the Origin of Species” needed to be embraced by public policy. The GOP was in trouble.”
Whether it or the lions ever recovered is an open question.