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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Bess Kennedy
the lady lion hunter

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Decades before women would have career options beyond the classroom, secretarial pool or hospital nursing station, Bess Kennedy proved that a Texas women can do just about anything she has a mind to.

In the 1930s, Kennedy made her living trapping, trailing and killing mountain lions in South Texas. Along with the big cats, she worked to eliminate coyotes and other predators from the brush country. While she was a diminutive woman, properly placed and baited traps or high powered rifle rounds know no gender.

Bess and husband Bob worked for the U.S. Biological Survey, a branch of the Department of Agriculture. They plied their trade as hired guns moving from ranch to ranch as a need arose. With their young daughter Betty Bob, the couple lived in trailers or tents out in the mesquite where the big cats prowled and the rattlesnakes crawled. The couple stayed on one ranch until they had trapped the lion or lions depredating livestock or until they could find no further tracks or dead livestock.

Since mountain lions (aka cougars, panthers and pumas--all the same critter) are definitely not home bodies, a lack of fresh sign meant the couple had caught the only offender in the area. If they hadn't found a cat despite initial indications of its presence, it had moved on. Year round, mountain lions go where the "groceries" are and seasonally they travel in search of a mate.

By the early 1940s, Bess had grown so good at her job that she became a celebrity, the lady lion hunter. In the fall of 1942, the New York publisher Whittlesey House brought out a book ostensibly written by her, "The Lady and the Lions: My Adventures as a U.S. Government Hunter." The book does not read the way you'd expect a 30-year-old lacking even a full high school education would write. Likely she had a ghost writer, though the book makes no mention of that. Still, it's engaging and full of action.

Before going on the federal payroll, Bess had helped support her family by trapping raccoons and other fur-bearers while her husband sought predators.

"Every one of the rascals was wearing a pelt worth from 25 cents to a dollar and a half," she (or someone) wrote of the raccoons, "and it irked me to see that money scampering up and down the creek when we needed it badly. Every two bits counted...with our debts."

In deference to his young family, Bob Kennedy took them back to the city for a time, but the Great Depression made it almost impossible to find any work other than what he knew -- trapping. As a reviewer for Kirkus wrote shortly after "The Lady and the Lion" hit the stores, "after a year or so, they decided to go back to the hard life that meant so much to him. Bess, helping, sometimes pinch-hitting, grew to like it, and when offered a job, she took it. She knew fear -- and conquered it; she went after lion, polecat, coyote, wild hog, and the omnipresent rattlers. And she made a success of it."

The reviewer went on to label the book an "interesting and novel approach to rough, dangerous living -- but not literature."

Once, Bess checked one of her traps and found it contained two lion toes. A big cat had managed to free itself, and she knew it would not be in a good mood when she encountered it.

With her dog Blackie, Bess trailed the lion. She found it in a tree, but as Blackie bayed and growled, the cat leaped to the ground and ran with the dog right behind him. Next he jumped onto the low-hanging branch of another tree, barely out of reach of the dog.

"He was nervous, glared first at Blackie, then at me, and my problem was to shoot him and miss the dog, whose frenzied jumps brought him almost in line with the lion," Bess wrote. (Bess' other problem was the possibility that the wounded animal would attack her first.) "I took slow, careful aim and Blackie was at his throat when he touched the ground. Luckily, I had got in a death shot through the heart, which killed him instantly, else even in death throes he would have hurt my...dog."

For a woman who spent years tracking mountain lions in South Texas, following publication of her book, Bess Kennedy did not leave an easy trail to follow.

She was born around 1912 in Frio County, where her grandfather settled in the 1870s. Eloping at 16, she married Bob Kennedy. A few years later, they had a little girl, but that was about all that was traditional about their lives. Other than a couple of reviews of her book, despite her one-time renown, there's no mention of Bess Kennedy online. Findagrave.com, which lists more than 170 million grave sites, is silent on the lady lion hunter's final resting place.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 17, 2017 column

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