Book Report: The Beast in the Garden, Part Two

Part one is here.

As mentioned in the part one post I am doing more of a book report rather than the typical ChicagoBoyz book review. The reason for this is that I am just in the beginning stages of learning about cougars, their habitat and their ways. IMHO you can’t really review a book if you don’t know the subject. Recently a cougar was shot dead in Roscoe Village, just outside of Chicago. As of this writing it appears that this cougar was wild, not a released pet.

This last part of my book report will concentrate on the last two sections of the book, Borrowed Time and Plague.

Borrowed Time begins by dedicating a portion to proving that the newly expanded cougar population were beginning to consider humans as prey. Scientists began to collect data on cougar sightings and what they did – how they acted, and noted their locations. Eventually some conclusions were made. P. 92:

“These traits indicate predatory, rather than defensive behavior”, Fitzhugh said. In other words, the bold actions of the cougars in Casper Park could not be explained as the simple result of curiosity or fear or territoriality; the lions were sizing up park visitors as potential meals.

A few meetings to discuss the more frequent lion sightings were called.

Unfortunately most of the biologists and citizens at these meetings weren’t buying it (that the cats were indicating predatory behavior) and demanded a hands off approach to the cougars. Well, cats and dogs began disappearing in the neighborhood. Deer carcasses were beginning to be found in people’s yards, with the telltale signs of a kill by a cougar – mainly covering up the carcass for later dining. Most disturbing was the fact that dogs were getting taken – canines are the millenia old enemy of the cougar and now the cougars were not only getting used to them, but considering them prey. More than likely this fear of dogs by the cougar stemmed from the wolf hunting the cougar long ago in the wild. But p. 100 sums up the new situation:

The stage had been set for Boulder’s cougars to view dogs differently.

Not only were they viewing the dogs differently, they began to view humans and their surroundings differently as well.

There is an interesting story that lasts for a whole chapter about some gentlemen who started a deer farm to raise meat for restaurants. Eventually a cougar began making those deer into meals and they had to eliminate it. Information is given about how cougars operate in the wild, and how to track them and to eliminate them. I had no idea that the best (only?) way to do this is with a pack of hounds. It was fascinating to me to understand how the dogs eventually treed the cougar and then the humans eliminated it.

Eventually the sightings of cougars got enough attention to warrant another meeting of citizens. The people in the book who had been pounding the table on trying to prevent the cougars from naturalizing themselves to the outskirts of the towns were shocked to find out that most of the people of the meeting did not fear for human safety (still!), but cared more about the lions. The officials (who were proven right in the end) were stunned and saddened. P. 158:

The meeting’s protectionist direction stunned Rick and Teresa Overmeyer. They and other worried parents and pet owners had hoped this gathering would persuade the Division of Wildlife to take stronger action against pet-killing cougars, but just the opposite was happening. The pro-lion contingent grilled wildlife officials… The division was now pledging to do less in the future and yet, for all anyone knew…, the dog eating lion remained at large.

And this from p. 166 is a bit scary:

Michael Sanders feared that, in Boulder, dogs could be the “gateway drug” that turned cougars on to humans.

Part 3, Plague, describes cougar attacks and it is chilling. Humans were being actively stalked, and even super liberal Boulder had had enough. The Division of Wildlife and even the office of the Governor of Colorado was getting many calls. But Boulder County’s request for help was largely ignored. The state officials had pleaded with the citizens of Boulder not to feed and welcome a herd of deer into their town and felt offended that now they are called in to clean up the mess. P. 180:

“Boulder had pretty much created their problem, with the vast amount of open space they had and the fact that it made managing the numbers of deer so problematic that we couldn’t do a thing with it”, recalls former division director Olson. “All the hunting was cut off; the deer numbers went up through the roof. Boulder County’s general attitude was, ‘Screw management. We don’t care about that. We’ll just protect everything.’ And the same people that are preaching that kind of bullshit are sitting around and whining, then, when the consequences don’t turn out exactly like they wanted them to.”

A whole chapter is dedicated to the story of a high school boy who was killed by a cougar while out running – and the next chapter to the investigation. Now, unfortunately much too late, everything was set in motion. The game wardens who had been trying to get people to do something before a human got killed were proven right – and the city mobilized to try to take action against the cougars.

In the Epilogue, I was taken by this quote on p. 237:

Whether guided by a divine hand or biological imperative, the mountain lions are sending a message; they are signaling a change of era, not just to those few who have had direct encounters with them but to America as a whole. The cats, emboldened and proliferating, are heralds of a new stage in the nation’s evolution, a changed relationship between man and nature that will require an attendant adjustment in cultural attitudes. (Bold and italics mind – Dan)

The reason I was taken aback by this quote is that I read many accounts on the cougar shooting in Chicago just a few days ago. Many of the comments indicated furor with the Chicago police for shooting the cougar rather than darting and transporting it away. These people simply did not understand how cougars operate and that a city is no place for them to be. Waiting around for a darter to show up vs. the chance that the cat could escape and menace the neighborhood is, to me, a no brainer.

The Beast in the Garden is written very well and is easy to understand for people with no training on the subject of wild animals and ecology. The book is pretty hard to put down. If you are queasy about blood, this book may not be for you as lion attacks are described in gory detail, and information on how lions eat their prey (including humans) is ample in the book. For those who are interested in the subject I cannot recommend this book enough. I would like to thank the commenter who suggested I read it a few weeks ago. I usually don’t take up homework assignments from strangers, but I am glad that I bought this book. I think we will be hearing more and more about cougars in the coming months and years and hope that people will be educated on the subject and that cougars will be controlled. Or else, one day, that shadow in your backyard might not be the raccoon that you are used to seeing.

27 thoughts on “Book Report: The Beast in the Garden, Part Two”

  1. Intelligence isn’t simply a matter of IQ,it is also a moral matter. It is an issue of willingness to put ones reasoning ability over stupid sentimentality. Now if we could arrange for cougars to eat those who hold sentimentalise wild animals and leave proper human beings alone it would be win-win situation for everyone-cougars included.
    I have read enough of the book to be very angry.

  2. Dan – I’m a little ways behind you, maybe 40% finished. Impressions:

    Any population will contain a few whackos like this; the problem is when an entire community becomes dominated by people hosting nutty peaceable-kingdom memes. Mountain lion penetration throughout North America is inevitable; they reached KC (in that part of the metro north and east of the Missouri River) by ’02 and, as we now know, Chicago in ’08, suggesting that they will be in the Boston-DC corridor by 2012 or so.

    Unless they’re there already; see S.D. cougar found dead in Oklahoma about a lion that traveled 700 miles in 9 months.

    Habituation to humans will follow very quickly unless enough people are encouraged to frighten away any lion they see.

    One of the early chapters in the book recounts a couple of lion attacks in Big Bend NP. Having hiked in that park several times a few years later, I can testify that visitors are quite specifically instructed to shout, wave their arms, throw rocks, etc upon spotting a lion. Don’t just stand there and stare at it. Cats are plenty smart enough to figure out that humans aren’t a threat if they don’t act threatening, and it’s a short step from there to wondering if we taste as good as venison.

  3. Jay Manifold wrote:

    Unless they’re there already; see S.D. cougar found dead in Oklahoma about a lion that traveled 700 miles in 9 months.

    They’ve probably been there the whole time; there have been large numbers of sightings in the Appalachian states, and they’ve been more or less constant since people have actually been paying attention.

    (A quick google search on “Eastern Puma” turned up this book on the subject: Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma
    by Bob Butz).

    This shouldn’t be a surprise, I suspect the only real way to have wiped them out would have been to kill all of their baseload prey animals, which basically would mean anything rabbit sized or larger.

  4. Jay – Jonathan emailed me today and basically said the same thing as you – there will always be people who want to pet the pretty kitty and will die. That said, I agree that it is inevitable that the lions will make it all the way to the east. Each community will have to deal with this and if they don’t in a proper manner people and pets will get attacked.

    Phil – I disagree a bit with the way to eliminate the cougars. The cougars for all pracital purposes were wiped out/pushed west due to ferocious hunting in the early part of the 20th century. It can be done again if we want, but I don’t think I will see it in my lifetime unless attacks on humans happen again with regularity.

  5. My cousin and I spent a night camping way out in the sticks back in the seventies. The next morning we found cougar tracks on small mound overlooking our campsite. We couldn’t tell how old the tracks were but we couldn’t discount the possibility that a cougar had looked us over while we slept. It was a bit chilling.

    I think that a lot of people have trouble accepting the reality of dealing with wild animals because they live their lives completely isolated from nature. People who grow up in urban environments experience nature only through TV. They simply have no intuitive understanding of the violence inherent in nature.

  6. Shannon – “They simply have no intuitive understanding of the violence inherent in nature.” And this is one of the problems that the book addresses. The incident in Chicago underlines it. I am no defender of the super corrupt CPD, but they did everyone a favor by shooting the cougar in Roscoe Village. Many people are bagging on the cops for shooting it, but those people don’t understand the vicious nature of these animals.

  7. I live in a mountain development just outside Colorado Springs, where lions are “common”, and I’ve been researching this subject for several years (I’m the person who recommended the book to Dan and who supplied the earlier photos to him). I became interested when a neighbor and her 2 year old were stalked by a lion in broad daylight about a quarter mile down the road from my house. Luckily, they were walking near their home and the lion was run off by the woman’s St. Bernard, but she was badly shaken. Since then, we have had a number of incidents here of dogs (including a 125 pound Malamute) being attacked by lions, deer killed in daylight right near homes and a busy road, lions hanging around houses, etc. I’ve made presentations to our HOA, many residents, talked to wildlife people, etc., but I’ve basically been unable to generate much interest in even starting a local database of sightings and incidents so as to at least have an awareness of what the situation is. People are supposed to report sightings to the Dept. of Wildlife, but they rarely do. There is a lot of apathy when it comes to lions. People don’t truly believe that they pose a threat to humans, plus they think it’s “cool” to be able to say that there are lions where they live. Those whom I’ve persuaded to read the book have in most instances at least been willing to concede that we MIGHT have a problem. As for me, I don’t go for a hike without bear spray (which works well on lions, I understand) and a revolver.

  8. Compare the number of children killed in school shootings or by dogs to those killed by mountain lions. I take great comfort knowing that there are places where the top predator hasn’t been displaced by humans.

  9. I lived for some years in the mountains southwest of Denver, not far from Idaho Springs where the runner was killed. I was in a subdivision where the homes were built on 1-2 acre tracts in an open Ponderosa forest. There was lots of natural prey for the big cats-deer and elk were plentiful. Longtime residents knew about the cats that lived in the area. We would hear them occasionally but rarely see them.

    A newer group of homes was built above us, farther back in the mountains. Many families moved in that were either indifferent to life with wildlife or completely oblivious. Dogs would be tied out in the yards or put in runs that weren’t covered. One dog at the end of my road was badly mauled by a big cat very close to its owners’ home(it survived). Yet even after this, people weren’t really modifying their behavior. You’d still see dogs tied out and young children left to play unattended. Scary.

    Don’t even get me started on bears and coyotes. . .

  10. “Roscoe Village, just outside of Chicago”

    One minor point. Roscoe Village is a neighborhood in the middle of Chicago. It’s part of the city of Chicago, not a separate city or village.

    The earlier cougar sightings were outside of the city, to the north: Wilmette, a suburb, and Waukegan, a small city.

  11. Quoth Oclarki: “I take great comfort knowing that there are places where the top predator hasn’t been displaced by humans.”

    Are you insane? You WANT human beings to be prey animals? I am an apex predator. Anything that is looking to eat me must be extirpated. Mountain lions in inhabited areas should be shot on sight, without exception and without mercy.

  12. Interestingly, the initial story in the Tribune contained none of criticism of the CPD for shooting the cougar. In fact, the residents of that neighborhood–and I must echo Jim C by saying this is very much IN the city–roundly applauded the police. It wasn’t until the follow-up story that we saw criticism. Methinks that the media, in it’s usual fashion, went out of its way to find controversy where there really was none.

  13. Re your observations about the travels of the eastern puma, There have been sightings of puma or cougar or mountain lion, throughout the Northeast. My daughter, a trained ecologist, spotted one in lower Dutchess County, NY over 12 years ago. There have been anecdotal tales of spottings from Maine south to Virginia, this from an animal that is supposedly extinct in the Northeast. The various state DEPs don’t want to openly acknowledge the problem because they don’t have the money or staff to do anything about the puma. They can’t even agree on what to do about packs of feral dogs. Not coyote, or coy-dog crosses, but feral dog packs, created when city-dwellers abandon dogs in the country because the dogs are too much work, or too big or whatever. Such a dog has three options, die of starvation, die by the pack or become part of the pack.
    Now, in the area of eastern NY, western CT and MA, we have black bear, puma, coyotes and feral dogs as large predators and none of them are particularly impressed by humans, ergo danger to people and their kids & dogs & cats.
    The problem will only get worse until some little kid is killed by one of the above but until then the dominant meme is “They’re so cute, they won’t hurt us”, the fools.

  14. Chuck – interesting stuff. I have seen confirmed cougar reports about to a Lake Michigan line going south, but nothing east of there. I had never heard of feral dogs. We have a lot of feral cats around Southern Wisconsin. It does seem inevitable that the cougars will spread over the entire continent within ten or twenty years.

  15. I’ve heard lots of people explain the rise in larger wild animals as being a result of urbanization and humans encroachment upon ‘their’ [the animals] habitat. However, the trend in North America has not been encroachment, but just the opposite. As our cities have grown larger, more and more people are leaving the countryside, leaving it to the animals and removing the one limiting factor on large animals. My home county in NW Missouri is a good example (this area of the state was the last to be settled). At it’s population height, in the 1920’s before the depression, the county had 15,000 to 20,000 people, although interestingly enough, the towns in the county weren’t much larger than they are now. The majority of the people lived on small holdings in the country side. These are people that would have both seen and killed large predators when they were seen. Now, my county has barely 6,500 people. This has happened all over North America and many cities have suburbs made up of people didn’t move out from the inner city, but moved in from the suburbs. In effect, we’ve been abandoning the countryside to the animals, thus bringing their boundries closer to the metro areas. The result is that larger and larger areas will be required to be treated as true wilderness, hiker beware, beyond places such as the Appalachians. We will also have to re-learn some of the norms that our country living ancestors lived by when dealing with wildlife.

  16. This sounds like a good thing. I’ve been in Denver for the past 10 years, but my family in Wisconsin has had great deer hunting without me. I remember the days when you had to have a doe permit, not a buck permit.

    While I’m saddened by the cost (no one like dead kids), if that’s what it takes to get environmentalist wackos to realize that civilization is a good thing, so be it.

    Perhaps the next great wave of progress is upon us. Now where are those nuclear power plants to save us from global warming without skyrocketing electricity bills…

    We (as a society) are horribly spoiled and, of course, the most spoiled are those who are the loudest and have no clue how lucky they are.

  17. Something Dan left out of the review — I’ve just finished the book — is that one of the wildlife experts interviewed by the author now believes that wolves are next in line for habituation and attacks on humans. They will, if anything, be even more dangerous than mountain lions. Also the trend is pretty much exponentiating, with as many lion attacks in the 1990s as in the entire previous century.

  18. Interesting you mention this Jay – there is a big debate about opening a wolf hunting season for northern Wisconsin. They have made a great comeback (I can’t remember if they were introduced or walked there from Minnesota) and there are about 750 of them now, so the DNR says. I am all for it. I think it is great to have them around, but with the plentiful deer here we need to keep that wolf herd manageable or the same thing will happen with them as happened with the cougars in Colorado.

  19. I live in Northwest Connecticut, and the stories of cougar sightings are now commonplace. If anyone brings up the subject in a group of people, at least one person will open up with their story of when they saw a cougar. The DEP does insist that cougars don’t exist here, but there are just too many reports of sightings by farmers, hunters, landscapers, all people who spend much time outdoors and have seen much wildlife. I read Baron’s book, The Beast in The Garden, a year ago after hearing about the cougar sightings in my area, and unfortunately this state is headed for the same situation that happened in Colorado, and now Chicago. I saw a cougar myself, about a week ago, at night, in my headlights as it crossed the road. I had a clear look at it, and saw the long tail. These animals do not look like bobcats when viewed from the side. I have seen bobcats, as well, from 15 feet away on my property, and the animal I saw was not a bobcat. It was a cougar. I wish the DEP would start educating the public about these animals instead of ignoring it.

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