One of the most misunderstood, mysterious and mythologized animals in the American West will be celebrated - and demystified - for the next year at Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.
"Mountain Lion!" is the center's new exhibit, which fills 2,800 square feet in the gallery with dioramas, fine art and educational stations to teach and entertain visitors. A collaboration of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, San Juan Mountains Association, The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Sorrel Sky Gallery and the college, the exhibit succeeds on both fronts.
"It's a growing issue in western communities because of the growing urban-wildlife interface, not just around our homes but for anyone hiking, biking or just enjoying the outdoors - so we created an exhibit to educate people about the animal itself," said Kevin Britz, director of the Center of Southwest Studies.
"Mountain Lion!" begins 10,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era, when prehistoric man first coexisted with saber-toothed tigers and great American lions, the ancestors of the modern-day felines. Although the dangerous reputation of mountain lions generally is exaggerated - 13 people have been killed by the cats in the last 100 years while bees have killed an estimated 4,000 - DOW Area Manager Patt Dorsey said their increasing population and interaction with humans and other animals is a never-ending subject for her agency.
"This covers it in a much broader way than if we did it ourselves," Dorsey said.
"We're involved in the modern wildlife-management issues, and we're good at that, but this brings things like pop culture and history to the table. People often underplay our interaction with these animals, and whether we think so or not, we impact them - and it's not always bad, either."
The cats have immersed themselves into countless facets of American life: Puma sneakers, sports teams such as the Carolina Panthers and Washington State University Cougars, the Mercury Cougar and even a new reality show that plays on the use of the word "cougar" to describe an overly amorous 40-something woman with an eye for younger men.
The pop culture aspect is well-represented in the FLC exhibit. It also features stunning photography by Robert Winslow, Claude Steelman and John Ninnemann as well as sculpture, paintings and jewelry from artists Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Gerald Balciar, Michael Tatom and Star Liana York. That's where Sorrel Sky comes in.
"It's great to be involved in this," said Shanan Wells, who owns the Main Avenue gallery and loaned many of the fine-art pieces for the exhibit.
"This is the Southwest. This is our heritage," she said.
Wells said the organizers expect the exhibit to triple the Center of Southwest Studies' number of visitors from 5,000 to 15,000 in the coming year. "Mountain Lion" will be in the center's gallery until October 2010.