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clevermag.com

Go directly to: Lion Safety Rules |A question for the author | David's info | Excerpt from the Book


David Baron contacted me awhile back and asked me to read and review his book, Beast in the Garden. It sounded interesting, so I did. It's a page-turner, just like other reviewers have reported.

David argues that mountain lions, which in America were nearly exterminated years ago, are now making a comeback, and as a result, are returning to former hunting grounds which increasingly are in close proximity to suburban America. It's true. We've seen the stories on the news. In the two weeks that it took me to read this book, I cut out three articles from newspapers commenting on mountain lion sightings.

A Jan 31, 2004, San Jose Mercury piece states that "there may be more lions in the neighborhood than you think." Apparently there have been sightings from Gilroy to Alum Rock and Los Gatos to Evergreen. That pretty much encompasses the entire California south bay area. Perhaps this is in response to the Jan. 8th killing of bicyclist in Orange County, a recent tragedy that has received a great deal of publicity. A second Mercury article (Feb. 9, 2004) reported that a mountain lion was spotted on Interstate 80 in the East Bay, in the Contra Costa community of Tara Hills. California's mountain lions are exhibiting exactly the same behaviors that David outlines in his book, which deals with serious lion problems that occurred in the Boulder, Colorado area in the 1980s.

Mountain lions need lots of territory, miles of hilly grassland, which describes much of California, where they can hunt deer, their number one prey item. However, as David explains it, as mountain lions come in contact with foothill suburban communities, their behavior changes. Our pets also become prey items, both small and large dogs are now included on mountain lions' prey lists. We once believed that lions would avoid dogs at all costs, that dogs were a "natural enemy" of mountain lions. That is not true any longer. These cats are changing their behaviors and adapting to this new wilderness/suburban environment.

The third article I collected was from the Desert Sun, Feb. 1, 2004 (I was in Palm Desert at the time), where there have been several sightings from La Quinta to Palm Springs. The Sun listed the rules for keeping safe around lions, and also reminded folks that many times the "sightings" of mountain lions are phony and that people falsely blame lions for injuries that are caused by other animals. This article illustrates the current dilemma: as mountain lion territory comes closer to suburbia, how do humans learn to live with them. Lions are protected by federal and state laws, and we are reluctant to take extreme measures against them. On the other hand, as more lions roam near us and become habituated to human communities and to our behavior, they will increasingly view us and our pets as prey, leading to tragedies like the Orange County incident of Jan. 9th. 

David's fascinating book traces mountain lion social history in America, and then specifically zeros in on Boulder, Colorado, for an in-depth analysis of the community response to mountain lions in their backyards. Boulder is a rather unique and Eden-like place, and we become well acquainted with it as David details how this special group of citizens deal with the beast in their garden. 

As I stated earlier, the book is one that is difficult to put down. I would suggest that anybody who spends any time outdoors should definitely read this book. If you live in the foothills, you should read this book. If you send your kids off to summer camp, you should read this book. If you simply walk the suburban creek-side trails, read this book. And if you do any serious off-road mountain biking, camping or hiking, you should definitely read this book.


Question for the Author: What do you think should be done about the "lion problem"? 
 
Answer:  there are no easy answers. In fact, I would argue that thinking there are easy answers is what has gotten us into trouble in the past. The first easy answer was to kill all the lions, which wasn't very prudent from an ecological (let alone ethical) point of view. The second easy answer was to just leave the cougars alone, but that hasn't worked too well, either.
 
The solution, as I see it, is twofold. First, we need massive public education of homeowners who live in lion country, so people don't do things (like luring deer into their yards) that can start lions down the road toward habituation. 

Second, public officials should be hazing or (if need be) killing individual lions that exhibit threatening behavior. Luckily, most lions remain afraid of people, and those are lions we want to remain in the population. But individual cats that for genetic or environmental reasons appear dangerous should be dealt with. This is the way things work in India and Africa. Conservationists accept that to protect Bengal tigers and African lions as a species, individual cats that have become dangerous must be killed. This is not to judge those animals as "bad" or "evil," but from a pragmatic point of view, the worst thing for the species would be to have too many people killed or injured. That could lead to a backlash against all tigers and lions, not just the few that post a serious risk.

 
I think we need a new cultural mindset about what it means to love wildlife. Many people feed birds and deer and foxes, and they think they're doing the animals a favor. I would argue that if you love wildlife, you should be chasing the animals from your yard at every opportunity. When the animals become too tame, it's not good for them or for us. We need to put the "wild" back in wildlife.
 
Best, David
 

By the way, here are the rules for keeping safe around mountain lions 
(according to the Desert Sun, 2/1/04):

For people who live by lions (also called pumas or cougars)
-
Landscape for safety: remove vegetation that mountain lions could use for cover. Remove plants that prey animals such as deer and raccoons could use for cover.
-Don't leave pet food or pets outside overnight.
-Put livestock in covered pens, sheds or barns.
(Also, don't feed deer or leave salt licks out for them. If you feed deer, you are bound to attract lions.)

If you encounter a mountain lion:
-Don't approach it. Most lions want to avoid humans. Give them time to go away.
-Always hike with a companion.
-Never run from a mountain lion, this could trigger its attack instinct.
-Don't bend down or crouch. Pick up small children, but don't turn your back on it.
-Try to appear larger and more aggressive. Maintain eye contact, open your jacket, raise your arms, throw stone or sticks at it.


 

Here's David Baron's email to the editor: I am a former science and environment correspondent with NPR, and my book is about the growing conflict between people and mountain lions, which are coming back into abundance and moving into the suburbs, while our suburbs sprawl ever outward into wildlife habitat. It is specifically the story of what happened when mountain lions returned to Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1980s, found people living in former lion habitat, followed a burgeoning deer herd into town, came to rely on pets, such as dogs and cats as prey, began chasing joggers, and eventually killed (and consumed) an 18-year-old athlete behind a nearby high school. I contend that this fatal attack, the first by a cougar in Colorado history, was very much a man-made tragedy. In essence, the lions changed their behavior, and became more dangerous, by adapting to the artificial landscape that is suburban area. The same phenomenon is now evident in many parts of the West, where lion attacks -- though still rare -- are far more common than they were a decade ago.

Editor's note: David suggested that if you would like further information on his book, to check out his website. I did and it's loaded with great information, including photos of many of the participants in his story.  David also suggested that you might be interested in reading an excerpt from Beast in the Garden, which follows below.

(excerpt from David's  book)

January 16, 1991

T

he Colorado sun burned through a mantle of winter gloom, dappling the rocks, the trees, the snow with a warm glow, giving an air of spring to the January hillside.  Ponderosa pines, their needles carpeting the ground, shimmered in the silvery light beside a town that owed its existence to gold.  The forest lay open, trees interspersed with grasses and shrubs that could tolerate the heat and low moisture of the south-facing slope, vegetation that provided excellent cover for a creature in hiding.

The sounds of civilization—trucks on the interstate, dogs in backyards, students at the high school—carried up the hill, where half a dozen men had gathered.  Wearing boots, gaiters, and wool hats, the men assembled in a line along a ridge and trudged eastward in unison.  Heads pivoted and necks craned as the search party scanned the terrain for clues: a piece of clothing, a candy wrapper, a footprint, anything that might help explain how a healthy, young athlete had vanished in the middle of an average Monday on the edge of a small Rocky Mountain city.  The men looked behind trees, under bushes, beside rocks and fallen logs, but they found nothing.

Two days had passed since the disappearance.  So many sheriff’s deputies, search dogs, and townsfolk had scoured the hillside that no one expected this piece of earth to yield anything dramatic, yet Steve Shelafo intended to be thorough.  The twenty-eight-year-old emergency medical technician, who wore a small mustache and an air of gravity of purpose, had been assigned to lead the final search of this area.  With the first pass complete, Steve shifted his men south onto an adjacent swath of hillside and started the line moving back upslope.  The team climbed a sunny ridge beneath high-tension power lines and gained a view that stretched from the old cemetery to downtown.  The men lowered their gaze and inspected around their feet.  Pine cones lay in melting snow.  Prickly pear cacti poked through soil of decomposing granite.  Deer droppings littered the ground like piles of Milk Duds.

It was then that one of the searchers pointed beneath a juniper.  “We found him,” the young man said.  Steve Shelafo approached through crunching snow, and as he neared, his eyes widened in disbelief.  “None of us were prepared [for what we found],” he said later.  “Not in the remotest sense.”

During his years in wilderness rescue, Steve had seen plenty of corpses—dismembered in plane crashes, bloated from drowning, crumpled after falling from cliffs.  But this sight was more than gruesome; it was both haunting and indescribably weird.  The body, clothed in athletic gear, wasn’t sloppily mangled; it was carefully carved, hollowed out like a pumpkin.  Someone had cut a circle from the front of the sweatshirt and the turquoise T-shirt beneath, sliced through the skin and bones, exposed the chest cavity, and plucked out the organs.  After conducting this ghoulish backwoods surgery, the killer had removed his victim’s face and then sprinkled moss and twigs on the lower torso as if to signify something profound, as if performing a macabre ritual.  Is the murderer still on the mountain? Steve wondered.  Then, urgently and cryptically, one of the other searchers said, “Hey.  Right behind you.”  Steve turned, fearing a madman with a shotgun.  Instead he saw a wild animal.

The creature was large, its body muscular, its visage unmistakably feline.  It sat sphinxlike in a copse of trees just five yards away and watched the men intently.  The head seemed small for such a massive beast, but its face was mesmerizing: rounded ears that stood erect, whiskers fanning outward, sloping forehead, cherubic cheeks, and determined eyes.  Linnaeus had dubbed the species Felis concolor, “cat of one color,” a description not quite accurate, for the animal’s back was the hue of sand, its belly eggnog, with patches of white around its mouth and black on the sides of its muzzle and the tip of its tail.  In common parlance, the creature was known as cougar, puma, panther, or mountain lion.  (“Mountain lion” was also something of a misnomer.  Although often found in rugged, rocky terrain, cougars were once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Americas, occupying not merely mountains but swamps, grasslands, deserts, and forests from sea level to fourteen thousand feet, California to Maine, British Columbia to Patagonia.)

The mountain lion is by far the largest wild cat in the United States, excepting the occasional jaguar that slinks across the border from Mexico.  A full-grown female weighs as much as a German shepherd.  An adult male may be more massive than a Great Dane and even heftier than Theodore Roosevelt, who, on a Colorado hunting trip while vice president-elect in the winter of 1901, killed a cougar that tipped the scales at 227 pounds.

The lion that faced Steve Shelafo was not exceptionally large.  A young adult male, weighing one hundred pounds, it was normal in most every respect but one.  As authorities soon discovered, after a frantic chase violently ended by a bullet in the cougar’s chest, the cat’s stomach contained fragments of a human heart.

            The grisly scene that Steve Shelafo and his group from Alpine Rescue Team encountered was not the result of a homicide; it was something more bizarre.  They had located the remains of the first adult known to be killed and consumed by a mountain lion in more than a century.  In the following days, newspaper headlines told the disturbing story: “Lion suspected in jogger death,” “Human remains found in cougar,” “Fatal attack believed unprecedented in North America.”  USA Today labeled its report simply “Cougar Mystery.”

The death was especially troubling because, according to experts, it should not have occurred.  Until that time, mountain lions were considered timid creatures of the night that avoided humans and human habitation.  Although nineteenth-century American lore told of bloodthirsty cougars ambushing unsuspecting victims, scientists discounted such tales as the product of active imaginations and dime-store novels.  Authenticated accounts of cougar attacks on people were so rare that Theodore Roosevelt, a great student of the outdoors, once wrote, “There is no more need of being frightened when sleeping in, or wandering after nightfall through, a forest infested by cougars than if they were so many tom-cats.”  And yet in Colorado, in 1991, at midday, a mountain lion slew a young man in sight of an interstate highway and a high school.  Forensic tests would prove that the lion had been the killer.

But no autopsy or bite-mark analysis or examination of the bloody attack site could solve the deeper mystery.  What prompted a cougar to make such an exceptional and discomfiting choice of prey?  The answer was to be found not in the cat’s bullet-pierced body, or in the remains of its human victim, but in the landscape.

This book tells the story of a death that was not supposed to happen and the forces that made it inevitable.  It is a tale of politics and history, and ecology gone awry, all come to life in feline form.  It is the chronicle of a town that loved its own version of nature with such passion that its embrace ultimately altered the natural world.  The comparison may seem far-fetched, but much as the Aztecs hauled prisoners up high pyramids and cut out their beating hearts as an offering to the sun, the human mauled five centuries later on a frozen hill in 1991 was, in effect, a sacrifice, killed by a community embracing a myth: the idea that wilderness, true wilderness, could exist in modern America.

 

[FROM THE PROLOGUE.  2003 David Baron.]

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