The Beast in the Garden

 

(This column was first published in the July 18, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)

 

In June 1990, Boulder, Colorado jogger Lynda Walters came face to face with a mountain lion. At first she thought, "Cool!": she had always wanted to see one of these big cats in the wild. But then she noticed a second one slinking around behind her. Suddenly she knew how a mouse felt when cornered by a housecat.

 

Lynda was fortunate to be able to scramble up a tree and fend off the two pumas. Her leg was badly torn in one attack but she was able to escape when the lions strayed away after a deer.

 

This is just one episode in David Baron's important new book: "The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature". In others Jake Gardipe, Scott Lancaster and Mark Miedema were not so lucky. All three were killed by pumas recently.

 

Baron tells how delighted the people of Boulder were as they began to see cougars in their neighborhoods in the 1980s. To the public the sightings represented interactions with wilderness and with the earlier history of the region. Warnings about the mounting dangers were countered by environmentalists who pointed out that the cats usually fled from people and that the animals had plenty of deer to eat. More confrontational types sneered, "If you don't like the lions, move to a big city." This puma P.R. continued even when big pet dogs were killed.

 

It took bodies to send the message that something needed to be done.

 

*

 

Well now, at least we don't have mountain lions here in Western New York to worry about.

 

Don't be too sure. John Lutz has collected over 900 sightings in New York State since 1965. I take those with a very large grain of salt but evidence has been more carefully scrutinized by the Eastern Cougar Network and confirmed for 13 cases in the Northeast, including four from the Adirondacks:

 

* a 1991 sighting near Little Tupper Lake by DEC fish and wildlife technician Ray Brown

 

* a 1993 cougar-killed deer in the Keene Valley confirmed by DEC biologist Ed Reed

 

* a 1996 sighting in Harrisville by DEC biologist Ken Kogut

 

* a 1997 sighting in Riverview by DEC research biologist Kurt Armstrong

 

Hunter friends also swear that they have seen mountain lions in Western New York. One caller even claimed second hand knowledge of a Chautauqua County den with cubs to which he hoped to be able to take me. Unfortunately I have not heard from him. (I invite readers to contact me with their observations.)

 

I also visited Mark Jenkins at the Cooper's Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary in West Virginia. He told me that people can easily obtain pet cougar kittens. (A brief search turned up four on just one website.) Too often they simply release them when they are too old to care for.

 

This should surely not prevent anyone from picnicking, hiking or jogging. Instead, please focus on Baron's larger message.

 

*

 

In his final chapter, "The Myth of Wilderness", Baron tells us, "America is engaged in a grand and largely unintentional experiment. As wildlife invades suburbs, and as suburbs invade wildlife habitat, we are changing animal behavior in unexpected and sometimes troubling ways. It is a widespread phenomenon -- applicable to deer, geese, coyotes, raccoons, bears, and many other creatures." And he quotes William Cronon: "The myth of wilderness is that we can somehow leave nature untouched by our passage." Today, Baron says, we pit "conservationists versus preservationists, or...Planet Managers versus Planet Fetishers, those who would meddle with nature against those who would leave it be."

 

What is Baron's solution? "Situations like those in Boulder have shown that in modern America, the only sensible way forward lies in a melding of the two philosophies. If nature has grown artificial, then restoring wilderness requires human intervention. We must manage nature in order to leave it alone." I have trouble with the self-contradiction of that assertion but I believe Baron has an important point.

 

To Baron, management is not for economic gain, it is for our protection and for the protection of the animals. To reduce conflicts, he offers some suggestions for humane animal control and also for us, including "the way we dispose of our trash and house our pets." Boulder is 2500 miles away from Buffalo. Still Baron's messages apply here.

 

We refuse to address our deer problem even though today there is no woodland foliage from the ground to as high as deer can reach and wildflowers like trilliums are disappearing.

 

We "solve" excrement problems by driving birds like starlings, pigeons and geese from one area to another by shooting firecrackers or setting dogs on them.

 

Our feral cats kill thousands of songbirds.

 

Coyotes have begun to take house pets and they have driven foxes into the suburbs.

 

We love our eastern black bears because they are "tamer" than their western cousins.

 

I join Baron in disagreeing with the Animal Rights folks who insist we simply "let nature take its course." Few of us want mountain lions in our backyards; more of us should be willing to see the problems created by geese, cats and deer, phragmites, knotweed and loosestrife addressed by our town boards and our wildlife agencies.-- Gerry Rising