Mountain Lions and the Witte Museum

William A. Burns was the Director of the Witte Museum from 1962 to 1970. Being an eminent East Coast scholar with a doctorate from Columbia University, he nevertheless had gained an appreciation for the wildlife of Texas. In January of 1965 he wrote to Alice Gertrudis Kleberg East.

January 11, 1965

Dear Mrs. East:

We are engaged in building a new and wonderful Hall of Texas Wildlife and Ecology which will be one of the finest natural history halls not only in the state of Texas but also in the United States.

[Dr. Burns goes on to describe the exhibit, and then makes his request.]

My question is this: Can you furnish us with either a pair of mountain lions, male and female, or the female and cubs? I am having the larger mammals mounted by Jonas in Denver, the finest taxidermist in the United States and would send the lions to him. We would need them as killed since Jonas prefers to do his own skinning. We would, therefore, need them sent under refrigeration with only the entrails removed through a single cut in the belly. If you could make available these mountain lions, it would add immeasurably to the drama, appeal, and educational value of what will be, when it is completed, the leading Hall of Wildlife in any regional museum in the world.

Very truly yours,

William A. Burns

The “Lone Star Hall of Wildlife and Ecology” opened to the public in March of 1971 and quickly became one of the most important exhibits of the museum. And the exhibit included a mountain lion carrying a deer. That exhibit was part of the Witte for many years and served to remind thousands of what is important about our state’s wild land and wildlife.

But the question is this: How – after being raised in Manhattan, after having studied at Columbia University, and after working as a curator for the American Museum of Natural History – how did William Burns know to approach Mrs. East for such a contribution to the Witte Museum? Was it because the Easts had developed a reputation for having a few spare mountain lions? Or, was it because the Easts were interested in doing what they could to help people understand the importance of wildlife, because it was important to them? We can be sure it was a little of both.

Because of the East family’s attachment to remote and wild places, the East Ranches were well known as some of the last great habitats for wild creatures that were disappearing from other parts of Texas. The San Antonio Viejo ranch had long been known as an area heavy with mountain lions. Hunting with Luther Snow in the spring of 1931, Tom and Robert East had taken what the local newspaper claimed as the largest mountain lion known for that region1. Mrs. East was also known to have enjoyed her photo being taken with impressive lions taken by hunters on the ranch. Mrs. East’s photos remind us of the unashamed photos of hunter-conservationist Theodore Roosevelt – justly seeing no contradiction between wildlife conservation and the honorable hunting of wild animals.

As the East Foundation's partnership with the Witte Museum grows, we will be proud to continue what was started 50 years ago.

1 Luther Snow, who was Sherriff of Willacy County, had in the previous July headed a posse with his bloodhounds in the capture of the “Raymondville Axe Killer.” Although this does not have much to do with the point here, it seems like something we ought to know.