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There is an exotic new species prowling my social circles. She is a playful feline, often mistaken as feral, with well-manicured claws and a tastefully appointed den. Accomplished at both hunting and gathering, she chooses a solitary existence. But that certainly doesn't preclude her from prowling in packs, preferably at loud dance clubs.

Her one distinguishing characteristic is a taste for young, hard-bodied, trainable prey. Her name is Cougar. She is in her early 30s. And man, you should hear her roar.

Cougar? Yes, the once-derisive term, invariably employed with loud snorts and snickers to describe the fearsome tribe of fake-tanned, bottle-blonde, spandex-wearing, bar-crawling, cradle-robbing, 40-something divorcees, has somewhat shockingly been reclaimed by women a decade below desperate.

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Take Gabrielle, for instance. This 35-year-old musician recently rebounded out of a long-term, almost paternalistic, relationship with a 22-year-old pup. The fling was entirely sexual, she admits, but Gabby is now wearing her cougar badge with pride. "I love the word. It's so empowering."

Not everyone feels the same way. Charlotte, a very successful 32-year-old software consultant, also has a thing for younger men. "They're fun, more attentive and there's no game playing." But she distinguishes herself from those "hilarious old ladies who want to look like young girls, with rhinestone tattoos and crop tops and bra straps." She believes her life is more fulfilled. "Prowling is just a phase I'm going through. I get the impression that young men are all those older cougars live for."

Here in Vancouver, cougars have become very au courant. They're being discussed on TV talk shows, dissected in the papers and pawed over in every bar. We like to think it's because we're the cutting edge, but the credit must be granted to that older pack of cats. Five weeks ago, Elspeth Sage and Elizabeth Vander Zaag, two first-generation cougars from the West Coast, launched an Internet dating service at http://www.cougardate.com, for cougars and prey of all ages. And it has obviously been very successful, given the thousands of profiles, primarily from young men between the ages of 19 and 40 in Vancouver, that have already been posted.

The site was originally created three years ago when, according to the Vancouver Sun, Sage's nephew called the pair a couple of stereotypical cougars. Until the dating service, it was the cougar manifesto they composed that drew the most attention -- a wickedly tongue-in-cheek document that, nevertheless, exposes a generational fault line.

"The most successful cougars are those that married well and got huge divorce settlements," assert the older gals at cougardate.com. "Lesser cougars were feminists who clawed their way to the top and made their own money."

Charlotte takes great offence to that statement. But she should probe it a little further. Vander Zaag belongs to the first generation of women who thought they could have it all, but in reality, men still brought home the biggest slice of bacon and women were dependent on divorce settlements for freedom. Today's young cougar landed on the other side of the divorce -- we were sitting in the back seat when the marriage crashed and burned.

We are the daughters of that first generation of feminists -- who, despite their ideologies, still got married young, put off their careers to have us, tried to juggle it all and then watched it collapse. We are the ones who are actually doing it. There were, of course, long-term relationships to help us through the insecurities of our career climb. But the idea of children got pushed aside. And now we're flushed with the freedom that comes with success. Without the burden of children, we're free to flee those relationships our mothers couldn't. And we're doing it in droves.

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I was out on the town recently with a girl named Carolyn, who is 30. Early in the night she met a very charming fellow, about 45, handsome, funny and wealthy. But he had a bum knee and couldn't come dancing, so he left. She later met another man who was 23 years old, handsome, funny and poor. He didn't have any problems dancing and she ended up taking him home.

"I've just escaped a bad relationship," explains Carolyn. "I'm happy with my independence. That doesn't mean I don't have sexual urges, but I don't want someone to tell me what to do."

And why should she, when she can be a cougar and apparently have it all? But the next time you crazy young cats spot the bottle-blonde den mother jiving away with her toy boy, show her a little respect and remember that without her, you would never have clawed your way here. Leah McLaren's column will return in two weeks.

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