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Tiger Women by Katy Yocom

It’s a frigid January day, and I’m sitting in an open jeep on a tiger reserve in India. This is not a place I ever expected to find myself. Some women my age develop baby lust; at thirty-nine, I’ve come down with a critical case of tiger lust. I’m obsessed. A few months ago, I started writing a novel centered on tigers and quickly realized I had research to do. And so, here I am.

Much about this trip surprises me. But nothing more than the fact that I’m here with my mother.

Katy Yocom in India

When I was young, my mother seemed a force of nature. She piloted airplanes, rescued animals, lunched with the town’s most powerful businessmen. She said what was on her mind, consequences be damned. I adored her.

When my parents divorced, I was a smart and dorky ten-year-old, frequently picked on at school. “Just be yourself,” Mom told me through junior high and high school, but I didn’t know what that meant. Instead, I tried to be her: stout-hearted, confident. We had adventures together: watched whales in Newfoundland, scuba-dived in Cozumel. She taught me to be brave, or at least to act it. If I felt unworthy, if I lived in terror of abandonment, I recognized those fears as shameful and hid them accordingly.

When I imitated her, she was proud of me. When I lapsed into neediness, she told me to quit being ridiculous.

I was a smart kid. I thought I could see what it took to be loved.

Fewer than 3,000 tigers live free anywhere on the planet. Poaching and human encroachment have decimated the species, and unless something radical happens in the next few years, these gorgeous cats will vanish.

But the cold weather is bringing the tigers out of hiding. Patrolling the reserve one afternoon, we come across a regal tigress resting in the forest. Her half-grown cubs lie in a clearing nearby. One of them has caught something. I reach for the binoculars: It’s a chital fawn, three or four days old, delicate as fine porcelain. Unhurt, the fawn rests beneath the paw of its captor.

Hunting and killing are only partly a matter of instinct. The rest, young tigers have to learn, first by watching their mother and then by experimenting.

The cub lifts its paw, releasing its fragile quarry, and the fawn totters away. But the cub pounces again and knocks the fawn off its feet. The tiny deer squawks, confused. It’s too young to understand it is doomed.

Back home, my mother fiercely protects animals. But there is no moral imperative in the scene playing out before us. Fighting back tears, she asks why the world was designed this way, why life depends on death.

I can’t answer her. But in this cub’s life, I see a glimmer of hope. If this cub can learn to hunt, if the Indian government would crack down on poaching, if villagers could escape the poverty that forces them to pillage tiger reserves for water and firewood…. Watching this young tiger fumble toward independence, I think maybe. Just maybe.

The cub lifts the fawn by its neck and carries it into the tall grass.

After college, I moved several states away. And stepping at last out of my mother’s shadow, I found myself stunted. Hidden all these years, my weaknesses and wounds hadn’t disappeared; instead, they’d festered. The years of bravado had gained me nothing.

I found myself suddenly, monumentally angry.

Therapy ensued. I spent years coming to terms with my magnificent mother. Years learning to accept the self I had never loved.

But that battle is over now. We have traveled together halfway around the world to this tiger reserve, and Mom is fighting back tears for an infant fawn she cannot save. My mother is seventy years old. She is tough and tender in equal parts, and decades have passed since I was that vulnerable girl determined to prove I was made of the same stuff. The truth is, I’ve never piloted an airplane. I still struggle sometimes to speak my mind.

But I’ve become a writer. I’ve traveled to India, entered its rich and dusty forests, found myself transfixed in the green-gold gaze of a wild tigress.

I will never be the woman my mother is. But I like the woman I’ve become, tiger obsession and all. And I think I understand something at last: This is what Mom wanted for me all along.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.com.


  1. Wonderful essay and photos. A beautiful reminder that the power and grace of the tiger lives within each of us. Thank you Katie for your reflections.

  2. Love piece, Katy! Congrats!!

  3. Kay Gill says:

    What a lovely essay! It reveals the source of your strength and charm. Thank you. Kay

  4. Idore Anschell says:

    I have a better idea of why you take on tigers, Katy. The taking on of mother seems more difficult. You are doing both.

    I love your writing, Katy. It seems as sure-footed as a tiger is.


  5. Mary Kocher says:

    I love this! I happen to know Katy and I believe she not only brave (she has been a world traveler for years–sometimes, alone), and real, but she has a huge heart as well. I am blessed to know her. (Like me, she likes domestic kitty cats, too!) I will be looking for your novel soon, Katy!

  6. Kimberly Crum says:

    Thank you for publishing Katy Yocom’s essay about her relationship with her mother in the context of their trip to India and Yocom’s love for tigers. I love the metaphor of the mother tiger’s (sometimes tough) love for her cub.. I am glad the human mother lifted Ms. Yocom and placed her gently in the “tall grass,” as a tiger mom would do. Strong women with a passion should be valued by all societies. With essays like this one, we won’t become an endangered species! Thank you Ms. Yocom for an inspirational and touching essay.

  7. Julie Lemerond says:

    I can’t wait to read this book! Is there someplace I can read more before it gets published? Really inspiring, Katy – I’m looking forward to it!

  8. caroline leblanc says:

    Great piece, Katy! Enjoyed it immensely.

  9. eddie lueken says:

    Beautiful essay! Extended metaphor, wild life/clutural education, and a touching mom story rolled into one enjoyable read. Katy, it made my day. I’ll be first in line for a signed copy of the novel. Please keep all of your fans posted on its status. By the way, after meeting your mother, I’d say your description of her is perfect.

  10. Therese L. Broderick says:

    I cried (because your essay was so well-written, and because of motherhood, and because of the fawn).

  11. I reread your essay today, not rushed as I was before. I read it at, to me, an exotic place and thought about the nature of tigers, of mothers, of life. Of instincts. I appreciate your courage, your fierceness in life and now have a better sense of your independence and your joie de vivre. I am beholden to you for a kind and generous friendship and a generosity of artistic spirit, a literary bravery that transcends ego and self, a sharing of a heart of strength for those who need it most, whether feline or human.

    • Well dear Katy…it’s been over a year since I last read your post and it’s more wonderful and inspiring than it was a year ago. I think that’s part of the magic of words…of life…in that the truly inspirational becomes more so as time passes. So many things diminish. But truth and honesty and goodness become greater, not lesser, with the passage of time. Our world is a better place because of you, because of your words. I am beholden. We are beholden because of your love, because of your spirit. Always, Terry

  12. Beautiful! I couldn’t stop reading and was pulled in from the very beginning. You are very brave to study tigers and to tell your story!

  13. Because of you, I have traveled the world. Because of this essay, I have laughed and cried and fallen in love with the strong woman who helped make you, my friend, the tiger woman you are.

  14. Sharon Full says:

    Lovely essay Katy! Thank you for modeling the courage
    it takes to cross thresholds. Very best, Sharon Full

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