Last Thursday, Jan. 8, at around noon, a mountain lion killed and ate a 35-year-old biker at the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County, Calif., just half a mile from the nearest suburban home.
The competitive cyclist's mauled corpse was found partially buried under sand, cached for later feeding. Another mountain biker riding in the same wilderness area that afternoon barely escaped the 110-pound cougar, when other cyclists fought off the cat as it clutched her head in its jaws. (The terms "mountain lion," "cougar," "puma," "catamount" and "panther" all refer to the same New World feline carnivore, known to biologists as Felis concolor.)
Responding to the gruesome news, wildlife officials stressed that it's extremely rare for a mountain lion to attack full-grown, healthy adult humans in broad daylight for food. Since 1890, there have only been 14 attacks by mountain lions on humans verified in California, according to the state's Department of Fish and Game.
But it's getting less rare. Nine of those 14 mountain lion attacks have taken place since 1992.
Why are more mountain lions coming to see us as just another flavor of meat? With suburban sprawl edging closer to what's left of the ever-shrinking wilderness, it's tempting to cast such attacks as an inevitable, if grisly, consequence. We seek to escape each other by living and playing closer to nature, and nature bites back.
But David Baron's book "The Beast in the Garden" suggests a more disturbing explanation, beyond humans' ever-deeper expansion into prime puma country. In his first book, Baron, a longtime science reporter for National Public Radio, argues that there's nothing natural about the predation of Homo sapiens by cougars. Rather, humans are unwittingly teaching mountain lions to be more of a threat to us.
"The Beast in the Garden" is told like a whodunit, in reverse. From the beginning, we know the identity of the killer: a 100-pound adult male mountain lion spotted near the eviscerated corpse of an 18-year-old jogger in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver in 1991. Baron sets out to uncover how and why an animal known to biologists to be nocturnal and elusive, likely to flee if and when it is seen, came to pounce upon a high school student out for a run during fifth period, just after a lunch of pepperoni pizza at the local 7-Eleven.
In the early 1960s, just 30 years before this attack, the feline predator had been almost entirely eliminated from its historic range throughout the United States, with only 4,000 cougars thought to survive, and as few as 124 estimated to be hanging on in Colorado. Settlers, hunters and ranchers had slaughtered the cats to protect their livestock and game, and the feds aided and abetted the bloodbath, creating a cadre of government-paid killers in the name of predator control.
One early 20th century mountain man, famous for his cougar-tracking skills, was said to eat lion meat to gain the cat's agility and endurance -- all the better to stalk the stalker. Even national parks saw the mountain lions as vermin to be exterminated to make the landscape safer for more "desirable" species.
But as soon as the mountain lion was all but gone, people wanted it back. When the environmental movement took off in the '60s and '70s, "the public came to see humans as humanity's biggest threat and nature as the Earth's savior," Baron writes. And as cougar bounties fell out of fashion and the cat's population rebounded, the mountain lions returned to a tamer, more feline-friendly landscape.
The predator-eradication program that had slaughtered so many lions had been even more successful in wiping out wolves -- the mountain lion's biggest natural enemy. Without wolves around to hunt them, a new generation of big cats was born with less to fear.
Abandoned mines even provided excellent artificial shelter for the big cats, like so many cougar hotels: "The early miners, who killed countless cougars and destroyed wildlife habitat while raping the foothills for gold, had left a legacy that helped the lions upon their homecoming a century later," Baron writes.
And the eradication of wolves and most of the grizzlies had set off a corresponding boom in herbivore populations, like deer -- one of the mountain lion's favorite foods. Near where the mountain lion would later eat the jogging teenager, the fleece and Teva-wearing residents of Boulder, Colo., reveled in living in a city surrounded by acres of open space. They were delighted to find so many Bambis munching on their front lawns, not realizing that as this prey species grew bolder around humans -- feeding all day long, rather than just at dawn and dusk, mountain lions would be drawn in after them. (Boulder was so fond of its deer that when wildlife biologists tried to conduct a study on them, activists staged nocturnal raids to liberate the animals from traps.)
Boulder's nature-loving denizens may represent an extreme, but today's Westerners, in general, are more likely to watch wildlife with binoculars than through a rifle scope. As Baron traces a series of encounters between humans and mountain lions in the area that led up to the 1991 killing of the jogger, the unexpected consequences of that tolerance come into focus. A dog is snatched out of a backyard pen and eaten; a mountain lion wanders downtown near boozing college students on a Thursday night; another jogger is treed by two cats, only to be spared when a deer happens by, distracting the predators with a more familiar menu item.
In trying to "re-create a mythic past -- a time when man and beast lived in harmony," Baron writes, the residents of Boulder had removed the negative reinforcement that had made generations of mountain lions fear humans. A unilateral cease-fire in the war with mountain lions succeeded only in casting humans as the cats' new prey.
Not that Baron is advocating picking up a shotgun and shooting every animal with a demonstrated taste for human flesh. But as he tells the story of the frustrated wildlife biologists who tried to sound the alarm as the lions around Boulder grew bolder, in the period before the jogger's death, he suggests that some more humane aversion-training may be in order.
Call it modern-day predator control. Tagging or radio-collaring mountain lions that are seen by people would help biologists understand which individual cats have learned not to fear humans, and should be re-educated or shipped to a remoter locale. Montana officials, for instance, have had success using packs of trained dogs and beanbag-loaded guns to school grizzlies that spend too much time around humans.
Whether we vilify mountain lions as vermin or revere them as one of the last great predators still roaming the United States, we have to live with the ways that we've reshaped the environment they've returned to -- and the ways that have changed the cougars themselves.
As usual, it turns out to be too late to go back to nature, even in a place that's seemingly as close to it as Boulder. "If nature has grown artificial, then restoring wilderness requires human intervention," Baron puts it. "We must manage nature in order to leave it alone."