Vail Daily column: Living with lions
February 20, 2016
I want you to imagine the wildest place you can. It doesn't have to be a place you've been, I just want you to create that space, as you understand it, in your mind. What does it look like? Is it hot or cold? What animals are present? Pay close attention to the emotions that arise as you ponder this place. Are you fearful? Curious? Apprehensive? Awed? As a teacher, the responses to this particular exercise always intrigue me. Many of my students are quick to describe something like the African Savannah, a hot place full of elephants, zebras and lions or a tropical jungle with trees full of monkeys! Most of my students are fascinated by the foreignness, learning about these places through books or movies. Almost no one, however, associates the place they live, the place they are most familiar with, as a wild place.
We share this landscape with a plethora of creatures, including the elusive, misunderstood mountain lion. It is humbling to know that such powerful predators have adapted and survived here for thousands of years. Fossil records of the family Felidae show the earliest common ancestors crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas 8 million years ago, about 6 million years before our human ancestors (Smithsonian.com). If you have a pet cat in your home, then you know that these animals, with needle-point retractable claws, sharp carnivorous teeth and lightning fast reflexes, would be a force to be reckoned with if only doubled in size. Adult mountain lions weigh approximately 100 pounds wielding all the same weapons as your house cat, minus the obvious domestication. This fact demands respect. While your cat may be well versed at taking down rodents, the average mountain lion is capable of taking down moose weighing over 1,000 pounds. They are opportunistic, ambush predators, preferring to stalk prey until they are close enough for a fatal bite to the neck. They will then drag their prey from the kill site before eating and often bury the remains for later consumption.
We live in a wild place
The news of local dogs being killed by mountain lions this winter has created quite an uproar in Eagle County. If lions are entering residential areas to take dogs, then what's to stop an attack on a human? Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have stated that moving through residential areas is not novel behavior and lion sightings are reported every year. Although the population of lions in Eagle County has been steadily growing, there has never been a recorded attack here and there hasn't been a fatal attack recorded in Colorado since 1999, when 3-year-old Jaryd Atadero went missing while hiking with family in Poudre Canyon. Hikers found clothing and fragmented remains three years later, which were used to confirm death caused by a lion (The Denver Channel).
Stories such as this are a tragedy, but they also serve as a reminder that we do live in a wild place. We humans are intelligent and capable beings, inevitably linked with the inner workings of the natural world, a world which we find ourselves more disconnected from than ever before. This disconnect can cause us to act too quickly on our fears without attempting to understand our involvement. One theory for the recent attacks and sightings of mountain lions too close for comfort is that many residents are using food to encourage the presence of local wildlife such as fox, deer and elk. Though they do not prompt the risk of attack that mountain lions do, they happen to be prey. It would make sense that if their prey is coming into residential areas, the lions will follow. Small dogs will easily be confused for foxes and are probably easier to catch. In winter, when food is already scarce, this is too good of an opportunity to pass up for a lion. There is no malicious intent on part of the lion, but much of their habitat has been claimed, leaving them with less hunting territory.
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Development of human infrastructure isn't slowing down, so we may be seeing more lions close to home in coming years. Though troubling news to some, I find these encounters exciting, reaffirming my sense of place in this active and untamed natural community. The truth is, these animals do not owe us anything. They do not adhere to our human laws, and they cannot be expected to act in any other way than is their nature, honed by instinct and evolution. We, as the rational animal, must understand this and work to find ways of compromising our desires in order to share this incredible ecosystem responsibly, becoming stewards for protecting all aspects of it, wild predators included.
Nicole Abrams is the Girls in Science coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She loves fostering a sense of place in the natural world with the young ladies she mentors, inspiring them toward science-loving, sustainable lifestyles.
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