Roosevelt insisted his hunting expedition was in the name of science. After all, he was collecting cougar and bobcat specimens for Dr. C. Hart Merriam, head of the Biological Survey, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To be fair, Roosevelt did turn over the spoils of his hunt to the Biological Survey, including 14 cougar specimens. Dr. Merriam was pleased. “Your series of skulls from Colorado is incomparably the largest, most complete, and most valuable series ever brought together from any single locality and will be of inestimable value in determining the amount of individual variation,” Merriam wrote.
For his Colorado hunt, Roosevelt chose local hunter and houndsman Peter Goff to guide him. Goff and his dogs were well-known in the tracking business. After 16 years of chasing cougars, Goff had roughly 300 lions to his name. “This was always Roosevelt’s secret as an outdoorsman; he had a genius (and the money) for finding the best hunt guides available for every expedition,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley.
While riding through the pinyons and canyons by horseback, Roosevelt enjoyed watching the hounds work. In writing about his hunt in With the Cougar Hounds, he describes the dogs as he would an old hunting buddy, enamored with the quality of their training, unique personalities—and, of course, their ability to climb trees and latch onto their quarry.
One of the first set of tracks ended when Roosevelt thrust his knife behind the shoulder of the smallest cougar of the hunt. The dogs had subdued an older female cougar that weighed just 47 pounds. As the dogs latched onto the lion with their powerful jaws, Roosevelt finished it. He writes that shooting “would have been quite as dangerous for the dogs as for their quarry.” Roosevelt and Goff took measurements and weighed it. They did this for every specimen, with Roosevelt dispatching several cougars with a jab to the heart.
On February 14, the final day of the hunt, the dogs picked up a fresh scent and ran a huge cougar for at least three hours. It would run up a tree to catch its breath, then climb down to take a few swipes at the dogs and take off with hounds in pursuit. Eventually, they treed it in a pinyon, and Roosevelt broke the cat’s back with a bullet. The cougar fell to the ground and began knocking out dogs as they came within striking distance. One of the dogs grabbed the cougar’s ear and stretched out the cougar’s head. At that point, Roosevelt “drove the knife home.”
At 227 pounds, the cougar was the largest of the expedition. Local ranchhands claimed this was the same cougar that prowled the area for a few years, dining on cattle and a workhorse. Roosevelt was happy. “It would be impossible to wish a better ending to a hunt,” he wrote. Not everyone was impressed.
The Press Attacks, Then Relents
When the press learned of Roosevelt’s rather grisly exploits, they fabricated stories about the vice-president-elect, replacing cougars with bears and wolves. Political cartoons and even a minute-long film were created with a spectacled Roosevelt impaling wolves with a massive hunting knife. “Stung by caricatures of him in the press as an opportunist and worse, as a conniving, wanton killer, Roosevelt increasingly shied from public view when it came to his hunting…,” writes Ronald Tobias. It appeared that Roosevelt got his feelings hurt. His hunting wouldn’t stay out of the spotlight for long.
In November 1902, the press would have a change of heart thanks to his hunt for black bears in Mississippi. By this point, Roosevelt had been president for more than a year. He enlisted Holt Collier and his hounds, which eventually tracked a black bear to utter exhaustion. Once the hounds subdued and wounded the bear, Collier tied it to a tree and sent for Roosevelt. Upon arriving, the president took one look and the bear and refused to kill it. He ordered the men to put it out of its misery.
The next morning, the press went nuts. The Washington Post ran a front-page story with the headline, “One Bear Bagged. But It Did Not Fall a Trophy to President’s Winchester.” Then followed a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, which triggered a Brooklyn shopkeeper to ask his wife to make two stuffed bears to display in his shop’s window. The bears were a hit. Roosevelt agreed to the shopkeeper’s request to call it Teddy’s Bear. Today, millions of teddy bears are sold every year, and the hunt also sparked the origins of a fair chase hunt ethic.
As for that massive last-day cougar, it remained the World’s Record for 60 years until it was dethroned in 1964 by a hunter in Utah. Roosevelt’s record still sits in the top 20, perched at number 15 of All-time and tied for second in Colorado. Dr. Merriam was happy, yet again. “The big [cougar] skull is certainly a giant,” he wrote to Roosevelt. “I have compared it with the largest in our collection from British Columbia and Wyoming, and find it larger than either. It is in fact the largest skull of any member of the Felis concolor group I have seen.”