Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Beast in the Garden

By David Baron

Most people enjoy wildlife. They put out bird feeders for the little birds, ears of corn for squirrels, they feed the ducks and geese in the parks, some even put out food for raccoons. In Boulder County, Colorado, deer were thriving, much to the delight of most citizens in the area. True, deer are very destructive to ornamental plants, munching on expense bushes and flowers and stripping the bark off young trees. But people figured it was worth it, being repaid by the enjoyment of sighting a mother deer and her sweet little fawn or a majestic buck with antlers on full display. But as the urbanized deer herd grew, it attracted the attention of a formidable predator: the mountain lion.
Mountain lions used to be pretty rare. They were hunted as vermin in the past. Ranchers and farmers didn't like them because they sometimes killed livestock. Hunters didn't like them because they killed deer. So to protect livestock and game animals, the big cats were routinely hunted down, usually with the help of dogs, and killed. This persecution made the animals shy and cautious, giving them the reputation of being cowardly and frightened of dogs and humans. It was said that mountain lions wouldn't attack people because of their timid and fearful natures.
This is true when the lions are faced with the pressure of being hunted by humans. But the lions that where now appearing in Boulder County had never experienced that pressure. Not only were these animals not fearful of dogs, they were also amazingly unfazed by humans. They didn't know that dogs and humans hunt and kill mountain lions. And in their ignorance, these lions began preying on people's pets, eating house cats and even killing and eating people's dogs, and not just small, yappy dogs. These lions were busting into dog pens and taking large dogs like huskies and spaniels and retrievers.
Wildlife experts warned that it was only a matter of time before the lions turned their sights on humans. It had happened in California and in Arizona. But other experts declared those attacks aberrations and that the lions in those cases were either injured, sick or old and unable to hunt their normal prey, deer, and had just turned to humans out of desperation. But as it became clear, the healthy, vigorous Boulder County mountain lions were not fearful of humans and were turning their baleful gaze on a prey animal that may look like a nice snack in running shoes, but which actually has the ability to target an animal species and wipe it off the face of the earth.

This book gave me the shivers. Mountain lions are reestablishing their ancient ranges in the United States and those ranges were every where. Mountain lions have been sighted now in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and even farther east in places like Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Deer are doing tremendously well in our country and the mountain lion's main prey is deer. So wherever deer are extensive, mountain lions will eventually show up. The problem is that many deer live in close proximity to humans. As the book points out, it lion/people conflicts may become a growing problem throughout the United States. Hopefully, though, our society will not, as we did in the past, declare these beautiful, awesome, magnificent and terrifying predators to be vermin and seek to wipe them out. Some how we will hopefully learn to live in a kind of detente with mountain lions, enabling them to fulfill their ancient role as a check on deer populations and yet trying to limit their harm they may do to our animals and ourselves. Let's hope it works out better for our mountain lions than it has for another awesome, terrifying and magnificent predator, the tiger, which will probably be extinct in the wild before much longer.
If you are at all curious about mountain lions, also called pumas, panthers, catamounts, painters and wild cats, and how they can come into conflict with humans, this book is a must read. Not only is it informative, it is also very readable, interesting and scary.

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