Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Living with mountain lions

Okay, this is as close as I’ve gotten so far: I saw the chewed off forelimb of a deer in a driveway today, on my way back from preschool with Kadin. I’ve seen jaw bones of cats and smaller prey before, prey that could be done in by coyotes or foxes, but now I think it’s time to do the mountain lion post.

One thing that struck me about the natural environment in England is how benign it seems. There are very few natural disasters, no hurricanes, no tornados, no volcanoes, and no earthquakes. And though they have floods, it is not like they have flash floods; it is more like, big, soggy, swampy floods, generally slow moving and grand. Even the weeds in England seem benign. There is no poison ivy and few of the prickly, obnoxious types of plants. There are lots of stinging nettles, but they at least have the benefit of being delicious and nutritious (when picked in early spring and steamed). And in England there certainly are no large predators left. People have exterminated them long ago. The only place you will see an English lion these days is on plaques, coats of arms, and statuary. People have lived on the landscape there and managed it intensively for centuries. It is a tamed landscape where there is no wilderness left, but it seems happy, harmonious, and in a state of equilibrium.

Colorado is a different story. On the one hand there is still wilderness in Colorado, vast tracks of untamed wilderness. On the other hand, people here seem to use resources with abandon. I don’t know if there is a connection, but it is not a stable situation. When we were planning to move to Colorado, many things about the real estate ads surprised me. First, there was the "five car garage." It is difficult to imagine such a thing in England and it seems incredibly wasteful and hedonistic. Another house in Colorado listed amongst its amenities "full chain link fencing." That sounded like an eyesore not an amenity until I realized that the fencing could be to keep wildlife out. No more English garden for us. Not only was there not enough rain, there were also foraging deer, and not far behind the deer, their predator, the mountain lion.

We had lived with bears before in Pennsylvania, and there are black bears in Colorado (not Grizzlies), but it was the mountain lion that seemed new and dramatic to us. Such a predator is almost unthinkable in an English meadow where your biggest worry is the stinging nettles.

Our first weekend in Boulder, we went for a hike and saw the warnings about mountain lions. This is their home too. As I watched my son flit about in the woods, I could only imagine what he looked like through the eyes of a mountain lion. He looked like fun! He looked good!

Still, I was determined not to be worried about mountain lions. It is such a rare and special privilege to live in their habitat. They are the largest cats in the Americas and they live here. Wow, there was some wilderness left and a piece of it right here in Boulder. I decided to put any fear of mountain lions out of my head. As risks go, it is a very very small one. Driving in a car is much more risky. In the past century, there have been three deaths from mountain lions in Colorado. I was more in awe of the knowledge that we shared our land with mountain lions than I was worried about the risk.

Until we bought our house. When we chose our house, we chose one where we had access to open space but also where Greg could bike to work and the children could walk to school. Whatever the risk of predators, we reasoned it less than the risk of getting in a car every day. The healthy, outdoor lifestyle was for us. We chose not to live up a canyon where we would worry about wildfires and floods and have to drive everywhere. We wanted a slightly more tamed environment with a little bit of retail, bike paths, a bus line, schools nearby, and that is what we got.

But we found out from our neighbor that it is not as tame as we thought, we also share our property with mountain lions. The adjacent neighbors have several times heard and one time seen, a mountain lion eating prey in their backyard, which is really not too different from our backyard. It is one thing to evaluate the risk of predators in a generalized way—three deaths in the state in a hundred years—and quite another when you know that mountain lions are coming to your backyard to look for good things to eat.

At the Boulder Farmer’s Market one day I spoke to a woman at the wildlife booth. First I asked her whether we could have a compost pile. “Of course you can,” she said, and then she added, “As long as you don’t put any food in it,” so it wouldn’t attract bears and other wildlife. Then I asked her about mountain lions and she gave me a pamphlet titled “Living with Wildlife in Lion Country.” It had some helpful suggestions that started “we urge you to follow these simple precautions” followed by five bullet points. One bullet was “Closely supervise children whenever they play outdoors.” Another was, “Remove vegetation to eliminate hiding places for lions, especially around children’s play areas.” These precautions did not seem simple to me at all. And why had I just put the sandbox under that Spruce tree?

The first summer we were here, friends visited Rocky Mountain National Park and heard a lecture about mountain lions. They came back with helpful information such as all mountain lions attacks have been on either children or solitary people who were running. They said the Ranger showed a photo that a family had taken of their daughter in their backyard. Only after the photo was developed did they see the mountain lion in the background. There’s a nice image for you!

The next time I was at Rocky Mountain National Park, I did a little research of my own at the bookstore there. I looked in the index of a book about mountain lions under “attacks, human.” The author told about how the mountain lion was a misunderstood creature, that it was not aggressive, but shy, secretive, and solitary. There was really no reason to worry, he felt, because “mountain lions rarely attack people who are older than 10 years old.” How reassuring. That is exactly what I am worried about!

Then there was the time we went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where they have an exhibit of animals native to Colorado and good places to see these animals. When we pushed the button for where to see mountain lions, a light came on on the map in…our neighborhood! Just a few blocks away, the Mesa Trail is known for mountain lion sign.

On the one hand, I worry about the children, but on the other hand, I am determined to give them their freedom, and I feel I understand mountain lions better. They are shy, they tend to ambush, not chase their prey. Though large and deadly, they are not super aggressive and have been successfully fought off with sticks, backpacks, or even pieces of paper. They prefer deer but are curious and stimulated by running. At first I thought the “supervise children” line was odd because what did that mean? That you should watch the lion attack your children? But now I understand that the presence of an adult (larger body size) could well be a deterrent. I have my own imagined “lion’s eye view” of the world and have purchased a bright orange fleece for when I go jogging, to replace the deer-like dark brown fleece I used to wear. My hope is that I look less appetizing, more like a poison arrow frog than a meal. I have trimmed the trees and shrubs in the yard from the ground up to about 3ft, so there are no good hiding places near the sandbox and the swingset. The children know what to do if they encounter a lion. Instead of being irrationally afraid of mountain lions, I wonder now if I am irrationally unafraid of them.

But I just saw the chewed forelimb of a deer, in broad daylight. This is not normal. Was there a kill nearby? Did a dog bring it from the hills beyond? I don’t know, but I do know lions are here, even if I can’t see them. When I think of them watching me, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s wild.

1 comment:

Greg said...

To Jennifer's evidence of lion activity, I should add my own observation from a couple of months back: the front half of a domestic cat, lying on a lawn several blocks downhill from our house.

In this neighborhood, there is no sharp demarcation between the wild and the domestic. Herds of mule deer roam the neighborhoods along the foothills -- it is as much their home as ours. And of course, their main predator is not far away.

I worry too. But the statistics are reassuring to some degree. Let's suppose that all lion attacks on humans happened in our neighborhood, and that our neighborhood had only 100 houses, each with 2 children. Suppose the odds of a deadly attack are 3% per year. The odds of any one person being the victim are 0.5% (1 in 200). So, each year, the risk of being mauled to death by a lion would be 0.015%, or 1.5 in 10,000. This is surely an overestimate -- the number of children living in neighborhoods abutting lion territory in Colorado must be much bigger than 200. Figures in the thousands or tens of thousands are more likely.

I've long felt that someone should publish a book that evaluates the relative risk of various routine American activities (not to be parochial, but it will certainly vary by country or region). Driving must be way up there. Mountain lion attacks, for residents of, say, Connecticut, is probably rather low. Then let's hear some estimates of the degree to which one can control the risk (e.g., by wearing seatbelts). The result should be a table listing the top ten (say) things we can do to meaningfully reduce risk. Any takers??