WHILE there are many fine examples of nonfiction nature writing, wild animals in fiction tend to be of three types: ``People in fur coats'' (to use the extreme preservationist phrase), dumb killing machines, or literary symbolic devices: Bambi, or Jaws, or Moby Dick. ``The White Puma'' by Canadian naturalist R. D. Lawrence is a fine exception. It is a novel told largely from the point of view of a puma in the wilds of British Columbia. It is gripping without being artificially scary, touching without being maudlin, and it bears its important environmental and political message nearly as lightly as its 200-pound protagonist pads a game trail.
Also known as the cougar or mountain lion, the puma once ranged widely over North and South America. Now, thanks to trophy hunters, poachers, and stockmen, its numbers are vastly diminished. Despite some conservationist efforts, the puma, as the Peterson ``Field Guide to Mammals'' puts it, ``is fast disappearing from the scene.''
Born with a pure white coat, our hero is doubly rare and therefore doubly attractive. Wealthy European hunters lust after his pelt and will pay thousands of dollars for a chance to shoot him. American poachers with Far East connections can make hefty sums from body parts alone.
Unscrupulous wilderness guides are happy to work for whoever pays the most. Government officials lack the resources and political clout to halt such illegal practices.
The story follows the life of the puma from birth and nurturing through the seasons of life on his own (with a spring break for mating). From the time his mother and young litter mate are killed by hunters to the satisfying conclusion, the puma (happily, Lawrence doesn't give him a name) learns to fear and then hunt his human adversaries.
Along the way, we learn a great deal about the puma's way of life and beyond that the nature community and cycles of the North American wilderness. There is a richness of detail and authenticity here, which never lapses into the boring. Most nature novices are aware of the high intelligence of marine mammals. But author and field-biologist Lawrence (who once spent 10 months on his own tracking and observing a puma) makes clear that the endangered big cat not only has incredible senses and strength but also a mental capacity that could never be ascribed to a ``dumb beast.''
Still, these capacities have evolved largely as tools to hunt and eat. (One could argue that the dog-eat-dog, it's-a-jungle-out-there professional life of many humans is no different.) Every few days, the puma must track and kill a deer or mountain goat or occasional domestic animal. Without wallowing in it, Lawrence does not spare us ``nature red in tooth and claw.''
Lawrence is not quite as skillful in presenting conversations and interactions among humans. But his human characters are complete, not stereotypes, and their relationships with animals - the point of the story - are developed and described very well. It is the puma who is able to discriminate friend from foe, prey from fascinating individual, before this revelation comes to the civilized one who has spent a lifetime hunting the ``wild'' animal for sport and income.
Whether it's the northern spotted owl, desert tortoise, or dolphin, animals increasingly are major factors in human commerce and culture. ``The White Puma'' reminds the dominant species that there are other intelligent and worthwhile beings to consider.