A Plague of Puma?


The Beast in the Garden: a Modern Parable of Man and Nature . Baron, D. 2004 . W.W. Norton , New York . 277 pp . $37.50 ( hardcover ). ISBN 0-393-05807-7 .

We have been inundated recently with reports of cougars (Puma concolor) in strange places: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Lincoln, Nebraska; Harlan, Iowa; Kansas City, Missouri; Kent County, Delaware, to name just a few. What is strange is that the species has been virtually absent from the eastern United States as a breeding population for well over 100 years. Then there was the big cat struck by a train in southern Illinois (Heist et al. 2001), the wandering Florida panther outside Orlando (Maehr et al. 2002), and a slew of other sightings from Michigan to Kentucky. If the Eastern Cougar Network's maps are correct, mountain lions have overrun Arkansas (http://www.easterncougarnet.org/southeast.htm). The year 2004 was ushered in by a fatal cougar attack on a mountain biker in Orange County, California (at an outdoor playground just outside of Los Angeles, a stone's throw from Ralph's Shopping Center; http://www.biketrails.com/whiting.html), which occurred shortly before another cyclist was literally pulled from the jaws of a cougar by her companions. Unless some sneaky activists have hauled in and released them, these cougar sightings suggest that North America's largest feline seems poised for a comeback.

How unexpected are these events and might they be related? Earlier collections of accounts of carnivory on humans barely mention the cougar as an agent of death, though, certainly, a handful of fatalities had occurred in the preceding decades. The sensationalized collections of Jenkins (1980) and Capstick (1981) conclude that the cougar is a questionable killer of people and that reports of most modern attacks are fictional or exaggerated. Deurbrouck and Miller (2001) note a rise in attacks during the 1990s, even more so than was observed by Beier (1991) for the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, Quammen (2003) suggested that the cougar is an up-and-coming “man-eater,” but that it pales in comparison to the Nile crocodile, brown bear, great white shark, and Komodo dragon, among others. Something seems to have changed in the last two decades in the probability of a human encountering a cougar. Might emboldened cougars at the urban-wilderness interface be related to high-density deer herds in previously predator-free suburbs? Could their presence be the result of more folks moving into cougar country in the West and the recovery of forests and deer populations in the East? Has the cougar itself begun a behavioral transformation that has increased the likelihood of human flesh in the diet?

Nature writer David Baron suggests that a new era in human-wildlife relations began with the 1991 case of a Boulder, Colorado, high school athlete who was attacked, killed, and consumed within sight of campus. Although he acknowledges that such attacks are still very uncommon—Baron notes that “residents are far likelier to die from a lightning strike, avalanche, or skiing mishap than from a puma attack” (p. 234)—in western North America “the cats have killed more humans since 1991 than in the preceding half century” (p. 234). Baron, in a gripping account of the events that lead to the tragic death of senior Scott Lancaster, ultimately blames the spread of humanity and its artifice—the inexorable spread of ecotones—as a contributing factor to this and other carnivore attacks on people. Unlike the nameless victims of the man-eaters of Tsavo (Patterson 1925) and Kumaon (Corbett 1946) in the Old World, Baron lets us get to know Lancaster. He puts a name and a face on a phenomenon that is inextricably a part of our evolutionary history but has become mostly a modern sensation. Baron calls for the active management of this developing situation, in response to which state wildlife agencies must seize the upper hand over marauding pumas in populated areas. But he acknowledges that this is not enough. Humans who live in areas inhabited by cougars must modify their day-to-day activities to avoid making the situation worse.

The book is well supported with interviews, newspaper accounts, videos, press releases, and a panoply of references from seemingly hundreds of people. It also contains interesting reading on human-cougar relations during the settlement of the United States and how this era shaped modern attitudes toward predators; the mindset of the nineteenth century universally precluded pro-predator sentiments. The book takes an in-depth look at a few key events such as attacks on a captive red deer herd, the loss of a neighborhood dog, a rash of backyard cat sightings, and the close call of a woman who scaled a tree to wait out a pair of cougars. It also suggests that cougar behavior near human settlement around Boulder changed from a pattern of predominantly nocturnal activity to one whereby more diurnal sightings suggested a different, more aggressive, and less fearful animal. Interestingly, an intensive radio-telemetry study in Orange County, California, has yet to uncover empirical data to support a trend in increased aggression and unusual daytime activity among cougars living at the urban fringe and among a lot of people playing in the woods (K. Crooks, personal communication). Baron contends that the local, post-Beatles culture of Boulder, in love with nature and tolerant of deer in the garden, is responsible for the tragedy.

But it seems that other answers are possible. I suggest that people and cougars are more likely to meet these days simply because there are more of them and (many) more of us, and we continue to usurp the land they live in for housing, skiing, and bike riding. It should be no surprise that there were fewer attacks in the 1800s: human densities were low and human activities in cougar country were anything but recreational. There are a lot of ways to present statistics, and in this case it might have been equally accurate to say that the per capita risk of an attack by a cougar (anywhere in North America) is lower now than it has ever been simply because there are so many more people.

Still, it is hard to disagree that something has to change in the way humans and cougars interact in and around developed areas. Tension between the state wildlife agency, which took a hands-off approach toward proliferating mountain lion sightings, and a local crusader and county employee, who advocated early intervention, is an underlying theme of the book. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but the government agencies responsible for managing wildlife populations wherever Puma concolor occurs should have a plan in place to deal not only with the concerns of the public but with individual cougars that show up in neighborhoods. On the other hand, it is easy to see that less development in cougar country would not only help maintain the quality of life that attracted so many people to places like Boulder but would also reduce the likelihood of attacks on pets, children, and unsuspecting recreationists. If nothing else, Baron recommends aggressive education campaigns designed to promote responsible pet management, better livestock husbandry, and smart human behavior in the urban-wilderness interface. Perhaps this should also extend to reigning in the spread of people across the landscape.

What challenges await the managers of the expanding eastern cougar populations? Are the states of Arkansas and Missouri ready for the implications of a cougar population in the Ozarks? Will Florida panther recovery be affected by the anxiety caused by the events in Colorado and California, or will agencies successfully establish additional self-sustaining populations—as called for in the Recovery Plan for the Florida Panther—in vacant range without mishap? If they succeed, I suspect that an aggressive public protection plan will be required as a part of any restocking effort. What about the genetically fortified and expanding panther population in south Florida? Will the more aggressive animal that appears to be emerging from the hybridization of local cats and Texas cougars (E.D. Land, personal communication, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission) be the much-hoped-for cure or the downfall of recovery? Are state and federal agencies in Florida prepared to respond aggressively to a panther that shows up in suburban Daytona Beach or Jacksonville? In the recent past, a handful of dispersing panthers have entered urban areas either to leave without a trace or to become roadkill—their travels unnoticed by anyone except the researchers (Maehr et al. 2002).

Should a preventive approach be adopted to avert possible tragedy that might otherwise result from a hands-off policy? What if cougars reestablish populations without direct human intervention? Should such situations be less encumbered by management control? If a cougar can live outside Boulder, then why not also near Carbondale, Illinois; Ocala, Florida; and State College, Pennsylvania?

Baron's book might be viewed by some wildlife and wilderness advocates not only as an overly sensational account that will hinder the restoration of large predators such as the wolf and cougar but also as an impediment to the restoration of the landscapes needed to support expanding populations. To others it might be no more than a wake-up call to get ready for the inevitable. I tend to take a less worrisome view. Unlike fatalities associated with random car crashes, avalanches, and drive-by shootings, people can all but guarantee safety from cougar attack in occupied range just by using their heads. If we all avoided solitary hiking, running, or biking in these areas, tragedies might be totally eliminated. Of course there are those of us who welcome the “rush of adrenaline” that comes from confronting “a beast far bigger, stronger, and single-minded than” us (Noss 2001). For these stalwart souls there is little to be done except provide them unlimited opportunities to replay the evolutionary tug-of-war between tool-wielding primate and stealthy predator. Baron's book is unlikely to detract from efforts to manage or restore cougar populations in remote areas including parks and other protected areas—let the recreationist beware. On the other hand it is clearly an important account for those who are concerned with urban sprawl and wildlife management at the urban-wilderness interface. If one can look past the aspects of this account that are made sensational simply by its in-depth narration, The Beast in the Garden makes clear the need to prepare for the challenges and benefits of resurgent cougar populations. This book should be read by field biologists and administrators of natural resource agencies and by activists who promote the return of large carnivores in their native ranges. Restoring large carnivores is not as simple as just wanting them back. Baron reminds us of this in exquisite detail.