“Two Hikers Fend Off Pair Of Mountain Lions,” read the SF Chronicle headline, which turned out to be a misrepresentation; a quick glance at the story revealed that it had in fact been the hikers who were fended off by the lions, who pursued them back to their car and watched as they drove away.
Mountain lion encounters – and occasional attacks, sometimes on humans, more often on pets and livestock – have become more common in California in recent years. The expansion of human activity into what had previously been lion territory is the reason usually given, but this doesn’t explain why lions have become more active in areas – wooded suburbs, for example – where they haven’t been seen in decades. An equally if not more plausible explanation would be the ban on the hunting of mountain lions passed by statewide referendum in 1990.
At the time I had a house in what could reasonably be called mountain lion territory. Although I never personally saw one, neighbors reported having spotted lions on my property, and one girl I knew had a harrowing face-to-face encounter with one. And while this is purely anecdotal evidence, I did notice a major change in the local wildlife population during the 1990s. Until that time, deer were a common sight in the mountains where I lived. Not just individual deer, but vast herds of them. At one point, I counted nearly a hundred grazing on the hillside above my house.
By the mid-90s, the herds had vanished, and when I did spot deer, they were usually on their own or in groups of no more than two or three. At the same time, mountain lion sightings increased dramatically. Connection? My guess is yes, and it was also during this period that lions began showing up more frequently in or on the edges of major urban areas. An attempt was made to rescind the hunting ban in 1996, but voters gave it the thumbs down, and it remains in place today.
There have been ten verified mountain lion attacks on human beings (this doesn’t include encounters, even threatening ones, of which there have been many more) since the hunting ban, which would seem like a minuscule number in a state the size of California, except for the fact that there had been only half that many in the entire century preceding it. Whether you consider it a lot or a few, it was clearly a number that the people of California were willing to live with, though it might be fair to point out that the vast majority of those voting to protect mountains lions live in places where they are extremely unlikely to encounter them.
What I find more intriguing – and this is evident in the comments by readers of the Chronicle article – is how many people seem to find it positively thrilling that they – or preferably their neighbor, I suspect – could be torn limb from limb by a vicious predator. Whether it’s expressed in terms of “It’s the lions’ territory, you should just stay out of it if you don’t want to be attacked,” or “The lions are just being themselves; its natural,” or, as one guy bluntly put it, “I’ll root for the lions,” I can’t help thinking what a strange species we humans are.
Or is it just me that sees a logical disconnect here? For those who argue that it’s the lions’ territory (“their turf, their rules,” as one reader put it), I can’t help noting that this particular attack took place in a park. A park, by almost any definition, is human territory. It wouldn’t exist were it not for human effort and organization. As for “the lions are just acting naturally,” well, true, but isn’t it equally natural for human beings – who in case you’ve forgotten, are also carnivorous predators – to hunt? Yet a large majority of Californians supports natural behavior for one species and outlaws it for another.
As for the guy who is “rooting for the lions,” well, no doubt that was a flippant remark on his part, one which he would most likely be willing to retract if given the choice of having a lion gnawing on his innards while he was still alive (yes, dears, that does happen; surely you’ve seen similar things on the Discovery Channel?). It reminds me of the airy (some might say airheaded) disdain with which some city dwellers (Oaklanders are especially prone to this) attempt to minimize soaring crime rates: rather than admit that their town has a problem, they’ll dismiss you as a sissy or a hysterical suburbanite if you show an unwillingness to be mugged. It’s as though they get a thrill from living “on the edge,” as if deliberately placing themselves in harm’s way makes their lives more “real” or meaningful.
Of course those most likely to hold romanticized views about wildlife, be if of the animal or human variety, are also those most likely to live at a safely removed distance from it. I know my own ideas underwent a transformation when I first moved to the country. It was then that I developed my “Bambi” hypothesis: that kids growing up in urban America had gotten their ideas of nature from watching Disney cartoons, where everything was sweet and harmonious, where all the lovely little woodland creatures were cuddly and cute, and, as the old saw has it, “Only man is vile.”
It came as a shock, then, to find that at every turn there were creatures, as small as ticks and mosquitoes or as large as wildcats and bears, who not only didn’t want to cuddle with me or sit around the campfire whistling Kumbaya, but who in the pursuance of their own particular aims could make my own life unpleasant, difficult or impossible. I don’t mean to overstate the case; it’s not as though I was under constant attack or that I didn’t, for the most part, live in happy harmony with my environment. But when confronted with rattlesnakes or rabid skunks, or the raccoons that took up residence under my house, or the bear that trashed it, brute force proved far more useful than the power of reason and understanding.
The case of the bear was especially illustrative. He’d been tearing things up for around six months, ripping the door off the shed and a wall off the doghouse in search of food before smashing through my window and demolishing my kitchen. My dogs and cats were starving because he took their food as fast as I could put it out for them. Yet when I finally went after him with the shotgun, my city friends were horrified. “It’s his home, not yours,” was the most popular refrain. Wrong. At that time, I’d been living there for 15 bear-free years; he moved onto my land only that year, during a time when the bear population was increasing. Even still, his den was way down the hill from my house and I was happy to leave him in peace there, happy for him to forage and hunt all over my land, in fact. I asked only that he stay out of one little corner of it, the corner where I lived. I didn’t go poking into his den, I reasoned; what gave him the right to come into mine?
Ultimately, my only alternatives were either to move away or to use force to protect my right to stay there. And folks, this is how it works. Human beings do not exist in some sort of bubble outside of “nature,” they are part of it. Granted, they are often guilty of using their wiles and technology to gain an advantage over other creatures, but so is every other creature. I never heard of a mosquito who refrained from biting a sleeping child because it didn’t want to infect it with malaria, never heard of a lion who said to the antelope, well, I’m very hungry, but you’re such a pretty antelope that I’m going to starve myself so you can continue to run free.
True, one of the best things about human beings is that they are capable of being altruistic, and of making sacrifices for the larger benefit. And one of the worst things about them is that they too seldom actually do this. But loving nature and living in harmony with it is one thing; hating oneself and volunteering as a victim is quite another. A few years ago I coined the term (at least I think I did) “anthropophobia” to describe the phenomenon of people who seemed uncomfortable with the fact that they were, well, people. To them I say, please, get over it. It’s neither cute nor clever, and if you really think people are that bad, why not do us all a favor and go feed yourself to an endangered predator? Bengal tigers and polar bears come to mind; if you’re more of a water person, there are always sharks and killer whales. Any and all of these beautiful creatures will happily eviscerate and devour you. I mean, it’s only natural, isn’t it?