Beast in the... elementary school playground?

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.

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I lived in Boulder at that time, and used to think that the big kitty problem was only a problem of encroachment and human behaviors (like leaving your dogs outside at night). Now that I live in a major north-south wildlife corridor, I'm very cautious and circumspect about the kid being in the yard without my being able to see her and/or the dog. We've had mountain lion mamas with kittens in years past, and a neighbor found a bobcat in the back of one of his vehicles. I'm this close to asking the SO to cut down the apple trees as they are a bear attractant, especially in lean years. Like you, I'm happy to live here and give my child the wonder of nature, but I have no problem calling the local game warden when needed.

Nothing is ever perfectly safe. One kid was killed by a cougar, but how many kids are killed by cars, drown, fall off cliffs etc? Nature was never perfectly safe, but perhaps people used to have a more realistic idea of the risks involved, which are actually rather small.

It was I think in 2004 that a cougar killed a mule deer on the south-facing porch of a building at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The hoof marks on the concrete showed where the muley had struggled, and where the blood trail began. No one ever turned up the carcass.

A cougar in Chicago? Wow.

LL: I think that not shooting enough deer is part of the problem. Though it's more complicated. In Durango (unlike in Boulder), there's hunting allowed in the open space around town. (Durango borders BLM and National Forest land.) I've seen hunters on the trails where I run. But in town itself, people don't hunt. (Too many houses, too close together.) So the deer find the town to be the safest place - lots of food (because of irrigation, there's more vegetation in town - non-native trees, aspens that normally would grow higher, grass, flowers, vegetable gardens...), and they aren't hunted in town (by humans or by other animals). The biggest danger in town is getting hit by cars (and I've actually seen deer looking and waiting for cars before crossing the road). So I don't know the solution - hunting in town? Chasing deer whenever we see them (rather than telling everyone not to bother the fawns at the college)?

I've had multiple encounters with wildlife around my house, and I live near the center of town (I'm in New Hampshire). I've seen at least one deer running through my yard (neighbors have reported other sightings at times when I was away at work), and one year a beaver built a dam on the small stream in my back yard. Two or three years ago there were multiple sightings of a bear within a mile of my house.

Development patterns in the last 60 years have basically assured that we will have more of these incidents. Of course deer are going to hang out in populated areas--they are well established in east coast suburbia, which provides plenty of ornamental shrubs to munch on as well as protection from predators and a lack of hunting (suburbia is also prime lawyer habitat, and you don't want to shoot a lawyer's kid, even by accident). We've forgotten in this country why the rest of the world lives in villages--this is one reason.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

Note from Boulder: Just to clarify, the young man killed by the Mt. Lion, 18-yr old Scott Lancaster, met his unfortunate end in rural Idaho Springs, 40 km as the crow flies from urban Boulder. While certainly possible, there is no evidence this cat's home range was the Boulder open space. This fact seems to undermine the central thesis of the book that human encroachment on cat habitat + lots more deer = dead kids. That being said, cat sightings are quite common around here, but thankfully predation on humans much less so. Keefover-Ring wrote a couple of pieces addressing this in much more detail.

Jon - Yes, but Idaho Springs is only about 20 km away from the Eldorado Canyon area, where one set of lion encounters (in which a mountain lion ate a bunch of dogs) occurred. And mountain lion ranges are pretty big, even when the cats are established. Idaho Springs feels far from Boulder (especially if you are getting up in the morning to drive to a trailhead, or to head into the mountains for field work*), but for an animal that doesn't get stuck in traffic, it's not that far.

* I lived in Boulder and worked at the USGS in Lakewood for a summer between college and grad school - in fact, I was doing trail runs in the hills west of Boulder during the time covered in the book. So I know how far the distances feel. (And I know that I was completely unaware of any mountain lions the entire time I was there - it wasn't as if there was a mountain lion hiding behind every bush. And there isn't in Durango now, either.)

These things always make me sad because I'm one of those people that really wants people and nature to get along and this is one of the biggest questions that I just don't have an answer for: how do we live with things like mountain lions?

I grew up in a small farming town in northwestern Connecticut and deer were very common, along with coyotes and raccoons, rabbits, and some fox. We had a bear living in our backyard (still do!) and so we were told to make a lot of noise out in the woods, and be careful, but never to not go out and no one ever got hurt.

But that clearly isn't always the case. It would be amazing if we could both save the cougars and wolves, and be able to go out and enjoy nature without first all getting hunting permits and shotguns.


I guess my main complaint with "Beast in the Garden" was the tone of "ZOMG the cats are coming for the Boulder KIDZ!" I'm aware that cats can easily range the 20 km from Eldorado Canyon to Idaho Springs, and you're right, it's often quicker to make that trip on foot. But there is a thriving cat population in Gilpin and Clear Creek Counties between Boulder and Idaho Springs. This area fits the textbook definition of urban/wildland interface. I'm actually surprised more fatal (for people) conflicts between cats and people haven't happened there or elsewhere.

Best, Jon

Best, Jonathan

There are too many of us and not enough wild space left for the critters and native plants. And too many of the too many of us want to live in big houses on big lots far away from others out on the fringes of suburbia...where we are going to come smack up against the remnants of wildlife struggling to live on the itty bitty bits of land that haven't been paved over yet.

These kinds of stories depress the hell out of me. There's no good solution, not as long as humans are still around in such large numbers, because we are always going to be encroaching on space that the animals don't know isn't theirs anymore.

I'm willing to accept the fact that some creatures eat meat, and humans are made of meat. You don't see many cows killing us because some humans eat cows, I don't think that we should be making a habit of killing cougars because some cougars have been willing to eat some humans. More of us are in danger from being killed by cars than by cougars. Death is a natural part of life, and I'd far rather that when I'm dead some critter got the use of my meat for food than to have my body embalmed and rendered inedible and no longer part of the life cycle. Your mileage may vary.

In this area (and in the areas where the two cougars were killed last summer), it isn't a case of humans recently moving into cougar territory. They were in the middle of town, in the areas that have been occupied by humans for... well, this is Colorado, so the history of Anglos doesn't go back that far, but I would guess that some of the houses in that neighborhood are 100 years old. In this case, the cougars are expanding back into territory from which they had been driven out. (The Beast in the Garden quotes a cougar population in the range of 125 to 1500 in the 1960's-1970's; the CO Division of Wildlife estimates the population is now 3000 to 7000. Difficult animals to count, but the population appears to be growing.)

There's something very cool about animals making an ecosystem of places where humans live. Not just cougars, but deer and bears and coyotes and Canada geese all seem to have adapted in some way or another to places where people live. It's great that the end of the campaigns to exterminate animals like the cougar have allowed the populations to grow and expand. (Especially given that humans are so good at making species go extinct.)

But. I think it's reasonable for social animals like humans to defend the places where they raise their young. We're not the only animals to behave in such a way.

I'll grant the cougars the mountain bike trails, but the elementary school playground? I would prefer to discourage a big cat from claiming that as part of its territory.

I live in Little Britain, Ontario, Canada. Half way between Lindsay and Port Perry, on the north shore of Lake Scugog. We have mountain lions in our community, I have seen one. Valentia, just 4km down the road, celebrated it's 200th Birthday in 2007. Point being, people have lived here for many years - not like we are encroaching on the mountain lion's territory. It was interesting and surprising to read about this case, the department of wildlife official declaring publically (in the newspaper) that "we don't want lions in town." Here in Ontario, officials tend to deny the existance of mountain lions in Ontario, yet at the same time,request funds to study this lion they claim does not exist here? It is my understanding that the North American Mountain Lion (cougar,puma) is in fact the 4th largest lion on the planet, perhaps worth mentioning in conversations surrounding the issue of dangerous wildlife co-existing within populated communities? The most recent and perhaps most relevent example of such would be the recent mountain lion attacks in Vancouver B.C., where several dogs and humans were attcked. Even more interesting would be the recent nuisence lions that were shot and killed by police in central Canada, some of which were tagged and radio collared in the USA some 1200 km to the south of where they were terminated. I think the biggest question that I have about mountain lions is this: If this lion that wildlife officials claims to be endangered(on the endangered species list)and so near to possable extintion, is attacking so frequently, being sighted so frequently, then perhaps officials are possably fudging the statistics? How can a near extinct lion be sighted and attack so frequently? I believe mountain lion experts and wildlife officials are trying to hoodwink the public with respect to their place and numbers in our communities in North America. Protecting and preserving nature is a noble cause, however, lions in our backyards and our children's schoolyards are a predictable and preventable threat that needs to be dealt with by due diligence, transparancy, and in an open public manner. Might all concerned parties carefully consider making public safety the "priority" ? Would it be unreasonable to suggest that the mountain lion issue is not getting the shared, both US and Canadian, attention that it deserves? Thank you for taking the time to carefully consider my comments.

By Frank Docherty (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

People are such cowards. We kill everything that makes us a little nervous. On the other hand we ignore some real threats. Kids are in far greater danger from large dogs and cars than from mountain lions. There are about 7 billion people on this little planet and we are driving many other animals to extinction. Yet we fear nature!!!! Maybe if we were not such cowards we would accept a little risk so that some other animals can exist.

Kim - You might be interested in what the WA state DFW has been doing with respect to cougars and kids. Project Cougars and Teaching (CAT) is part population study/modeling and part environmental ed for the school kids and has the added benefits of getting the kids out there educating their community about how to deal/coexist with cougars in the area. My impression is that people estimated that were orders of magnitude fewer cougars in their immediate environment than there actually are. While they haven't had quite the same problems with cougars on the playgrounds they are hoping that this program will be the first step in preventing cougars from becoming so emboldened as they are in your area.

As a Colorado native, I will say that we don't belong here; they do. I hate Durango as much as any city in the state. We deserve to be eaten.

A couple years ago snomobilers came across a dead deer, dangling over a tree branch, 20 feet off of the ground. Like the stuff you see on Discovery Channel when the Leaperd drags the Impala kill up the tree so he doesn't have to share with the hyheena's. Only this is where our kids wait for the school bus, only a short distance from an elementary school - kinda scarey when you think about it? Statistically our kids our safe, unless your own kid becomes that rare statistic in the belly of a lion that wildlife officials claim are not a threat to public safety??? Could you imagine the search effort that would take place if a mountain lion escaped from a zoo, yet, the wild mountain lions in our communities only manage to create a one time local newspaper type warning, like a "don't feed the bears" campaign? Perhaps the wild mountain lions don't have that "liability concern" attached that gets disguised as concern for public safety all to often?

By Frank Docherty (not verified) on 07 Aug 2009 #permalink

Anchorage (just 30 minutes from Alaska)has bears (black and brown) and moose (killed more people than bears do) nearly everywhere. The approach has been to leave them alone; scare them off; teach people how to behave. Very few have to be shot (bears or people). Out on the tundra, it is the dogs that kill and maim kids.

In Los Alamos, NM was the same-- coyotes, black bears, and deer/elk hop fences and stroll the parking lots. The lions stay off the streets, though.

I was told by NM wildlife folks to leave a lion in the neighborhood because it will keep others out. Losing a few sheep (protection money) meant not losing a whole lot of sheep to new encroachers trying to scope out the new neighborhood.

One possible solution to too many deer in town is archery hunting. I am sure that CO has plenty of hunters who would be willing to perform this service for free. In my experience, however, many urban people do not tolerate the taking of their "pet deer" by hunters.