The Beast in the Garden
In the late 1980s the cougar population near Boulder, Colorado grew so large and so accustomed to people that the wild animals started hanging out in neighborhoods and occasionally attacking pets. Eventually, and some would say inevitably, mountain lions went after people. Host Steve Curwood talks with former NPR science reporter David Baron about his new book "The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature."
CURWOOD: In the late 1980’s the cougar population near Boulder, Colorado grew so large and so accustomed to people that the wild animals started hanging out in neighborhoods and occasionally attacking pets. Eventually, and some would say inevitably, mountain lions went after people. Yet, few people took the threat seriously. That was until a mountain lion killed an eighteen-year-old high school student in nearby Idaho Springs. That tragedy is a jumping off point for former NPR science reporter David Baron’s first book “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature.” David joins me now to talk about how people in the “garden” of Boulder reacted to this natural predator and how it changed their town. Welcome.
BARON: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: Tell me what a mountain lion looks like. How big is it?
BARON: Imagine a cat the size of a German shepherd – and that is a small mountain lion. Mountain lions routinely get over a hundred pounds. Male mountain lions occasionally get over 200 pounds. They can, supposedly, jump vertically 18 feet. They can easily get over a 10-foot fence in your backyard.
CURWOOD: What’s the difference between a cougar and a mountain lion and a puma and all these things?
BARON: Well, they’re all exactly the same thing. Mountain lions go by many different names. They are called cougars, pumas, catamounts, panthers. In Florida they’re called the Florida panther, but it’s all the exact same species.
CURWOOD: David, your book opens with, I’ve got to say it’s a gruesome description of the scene after a mountain lion attacked and killed 18 year old Scott Lancaster who’d been out jogging through the woods. Can you read your description of what the searchers discovered?
BARON: Sure. “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, crumpling after falling from cliffs. But this site 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 form the front of the sweatshirt and the turquoise tee-shirt beneath, slice 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 murdered 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. “
CURWOOD: And that animal was?
BARON: It was a mountain lion.
CURWOOD: Back for his kill.
BARON: Right. The reason I wrote about the discovery of Scott’s body in such detail was it really is central to the story. Because what happened to Scott was typical in every way of what a mountain lion will do to its prey, except that in this case the prey was human. Mountain lions will kill with a bite to the neck. They will then drag the body to a secluded location. They will open the chest cavity. They’ll eat the organs first. And then they’ll cover the body with twigs and moss and other debris, and wait around and come back when they’re hungry again.
CURWOOD: So, this goes right to the central question that your book raises, and answers. That is, how an attack like this could ever happen. I mean, what should we know about mountain lions, and humans, that can help us answer this question?
BARON: Well, until the attack on Scott Lancaster, if you asked a naturalist about mountain lion behavior you would pretty much hear the same thing from everyone. Which is that mountain lions are timid, elusive, nocturnal creatures. They would hunt at night or at dusk and dawn. They were though to be a wilderness species that basically needed vast, undeveloped areas to survive. But what we learned in the case of Scott Lancaster, and what, unfortunately, has been true more and more since, is that mountain lions have very well adapted to suburbia. And as they’ve moved into what is essentially an artificial environment, their behavior is changing. And so my argument is that Scott Lancaster’s death, even though he was killed by a mountain lion, that was not a natural death. That mountain lion that killed him, I believe, had its behavior altered in some very unnatural ways, because of the landscape it was living in.
CURWOOD: David, you have some tape of a 9-11 call made by leaders of a group hike who were being stalked by some mountain lions. Let’s take a listen to some of this.
MALE: Okay you guys, stay calm.
FEMALE: Yeah, try to keep them calm.
MALE: You guys should stay calm. Remain calm please.
FEMALE: How many adults do you have there?
MALE: We have five adults.
FEMALE: Okay. Have you tried anything at all, like scaring them? What have you tried?
MALE: We’ve all got sticks. We’ve all made a lot of noise. We’re all sticking together in a tight group.
MALE: We’ve all got these sticks and we’re raising our hands.
[SOUNDS OF CRYING AND SCREAMING]
FEMALE: Try to keep them calm. They’re doing good.
MALE: You guys are doing great. Stay calm please.
CURWOOD: So what happened?
BARON: Well, this tape comes from Missoula, Montana, which is actually a city a lot like Boulder. A college town filled with a lot of folks who love the natural world, who moved to a place like that because they love to hike. The tape we’re listening to, I’m glad to point out no one was hurt in this incident. This was a group of about two dozen young hikers out for the day. They hikers ranged in age from about nine years old to 17 years old. And they were out with five adult counselors. And they were just finishing their lunch when two cougars came in from the woods. And at first they were thrilled to see the cats because you don’t get to see mountain lions very often in the wild. But very soon it became clear that these cats were stalking them. And so the counselors had everyone gather together in a tight group. They put the little kids into the middle. And the cougars, for about 20 to 25 minutes, were circling, pretty clearly eyeing the group trying to pick out someone that they could drag off, as they were looking for the littlest one to get. And after about 20 to 25 minutes, the cougars went away.
CURWOOD: Now, what in particular caused the population of mountain lions in the Boulder area to explode, to be so many?
BARON: Well, you have to go back to the, really the 19th and early 20th centuries. When all across the country mountain lions were a bountied predator. That changed in the mid-60s to late 60s. So by the 1970s and 80s, mountain lion populations were growing, in Colorado, as elsewhere, which was the point. Part of what explains the wildlife in downtown Boulder is the physical landscape, and part of it is the attitudes of people. So in terms of the physical landscape, Boulder, like a lot of urban and suburban communities today, is really a garden. People have irrigated beautiful gardens and lawns. Boulder has a dense urban forest – all of which is there because of human hands. But also Boulder is populated by a lot of people who moved there because they love the outdoors. So when there are deer in peoples’ yards, people love it. When black bears wander into town, people feel a little nervous, but also enjoy having the animals around. And that was the attitude, at first, towards mountain lions as well.
CURWOOD: As this issue emerged in Boulder, what did it do to local politics?
BARON: It really fractured the community. Because when the lions started to attack dogs, particularly parents with young children got very worried. And then you had a whole other group of people who felt that we humans were the problem, if you can’t live with wildlife you should move out, you don’t belong here in the Boulder foothills. And things got very heated. You had these community meetings going on at the time where people were shouting at each other.
CURWOOD: What exactly happened?
BARON: Well, the biggest part was about a year before Scott Lancaster was killed, in February of 1990, when things were starting to get heated, and people were starting to realize maybe we have a lion problem on our hands. There were some ranchers who were actually raising some exotic deer in the foothills outside Boulder. And one of their deer was killed by a lion. And it was probably the same lion that was attacking dogs in this neighborhood. And they decided to just go out and kill the lion themselves. And that just caused a firestorm of protest, and really caused the community to split. But in the end, virtually everyone agrees that their killing that cat was a good thing. Because once that lion was dead, there were no more dogs killed in that neighborhood.
CURWOOD: In your book, you describe a change in attitude in the folks in Boulder towards these big cats. What do you think caused that change and how has it affected the way that people regard mountain lions today?
BARON: I would say there’s more realism, and people are willing to accept that, okay, if a mountain lion is hanging around too much, it’s okay for the wildlife authorities to come in, shoot it with some rubber buckshot, give it a very unpleasant experience, and try to break that cycle of the lion seeing humans and human yards as a place to hunt.
CURWOOD: David Baron is author of the new book “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature.” David, thanks for taking this time with me today.
BARON: My pleasure, Steve.
[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Hasty Boom Alert” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks – 1997) ]
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