There was a mountain lion in the courtyard of a local elementary school playground today.
A mountain lion.
At the elementary school.
A neighbor called the police, who called the Department of Wildlife, who shot the mountain lion. A young male, about 75 pounds, probably recently headed out on its own. Apparently that’s the age they usually are when the DOW kills them for wandering around in town.
I just finished read The Beast in the Garden, this year’s common reading at the college, so the story sounds eerily familiar. The Beast in the Garden is about the mountain lions that began showing up in Boulder in the late 80’s. First there was open space, and people moving to the edge of the mountains to live closer to nature. Then there were deer. And more deer. Deer eating vegetables out of gardens and apples off trees and acting like those chipmunks you see at state parks, only a lot bigger and more damaging to a car when you hit one. And then the cougars started appearing – first sightings in the canyons at the urban-wildland interface, then eating dogs, then braver and braver until they were actually wandering the streets of Boulder’s University district on the first weekend of college.
And then a mountain lion killed and ate a high school kid while he was out for a run.
Durango’s lucky that the Department of Wildlife is aware that cougars can become habituated to humans, can lose their fear. Because Durango is cougar country – a growing community spreading into the pinyons and Ponderosas, with deer that give birth to twin fawns in the middle of campus and lots of rugged terrain where a big cat can hang out and wait for prey. (I like to go on trail runs in that terrain. So do a lot of other people.) For the past few years, there have been sightings of cougars up by the college. Last summer, my neighbor saw one walk through her yard one night, and two cats were killed in town. This year, a cougar was hanging out in an elementary school playground.
Before I read The Beast in the Garden, I read another book about kids and nature: Last Child in the Woods. It argues that we keep our kids inside because of an unreasonable fear of nature, and that kids need to go back to the good old days of the 50’s and 60’s, like when the author was growing up, when kids could build treehouses and wander around woods and fields without worrying.
After I read The Beast in the Garden, I wondered whether that golden age that Last Child recalls was something unnatural – a time that could exist only because the previous few generations had done such a good job of exterminating the predators.
I played in the woods as a kid. I grew up in Maine, with woods on two sides and a lake on the other. I had nightmares about bears and was afraid that the Loch Ness Monster’s evil twin, Nasty Sebasty, would get me. But I barely even saw deer. Maybe at dawn, sneaking apples in the fall, but not in the middle of the day. There were squirrels, and chipmunks, and loons, but no big mammals – at least, not where people lived.
When I lived in Vermont in the 90’s, things were starting to change. There were more deer, though they were still shy. And then there were coyotes. First just rumors of them, then choruses singing through the night. Other animals were coming back, too. I knew someone who claimed to have seen a marten. And people said that there was a catamount, an eastern cougar, somewhere in the Green Mountains.
And now I live in the second biggest town I’ve ever lived in (after Palo Alto), and there are deer moseying down the street in mid-day, and a cougar in the playground of an elementary school.
There’s a part of me that’s on the side of Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, that’s glad that the cougars are back. And then there’s the part of me that says: don’t come near my kid.
I know that we’re encroaching on the cougars’ territory. But I want my kid to go outside, too, so I’m glad the Department of Wildlife is willing to shoot cougars to kill.