I haven’t seen a mountain lion since that evening, but the experience remains shining in my memory.  I want my children to have the opportunity for that kinds of experience.  I want my friends to have it.  I want even our enemies to have it — they need it the most.”     Edward Abbey

As reported in The New York times, strange things are going on in Atherton, California, considered the nation’s second-wealthiest community.  It is almost as if aliens have put crazy thoughts into some peoples’ heads.  “I won’t let my children go to the tennis court by themselves anymore,” a worried Mrs. Prouix vowed.  Mrs. Prouix’s parents, next door neighbors, also “never go outside.”  Another Atherton inhabitant, Mr. Thomas has placed letters in scores of mailboxes describing what he said was a spike in sightings.  He warned his neighbors to keep “closer watch over their children:

Another resident’s response is to simply “take them out.”

What has caused these owners of multimillion dollar homes to barricade themselves indoors against the fearsome unknown?  Thieves, ghosts, or maybe a cat.

Some wild animals give us ample time to enjoy their presence: deer grazing in the meadow, a woodpecker patiently excavating its tree house, a robin hunting the lawn for worms.  Others, like mountain lions, are elusive as darting shadows, yet if you are fortunate to meet North America’s largest feline, it’ll most likely be a fleeting as a shooting star bursting across the heavens.

If you have that rare chance to take a closer look at a large mammal staring at you in your car’s headlights, you may not be really sure what you’re seeing until your eyes connect with the cougar’s enormous tail.  With the cat in your sights, other characteristics come into view, the black golf ball sized eyes, broom-bristle whiskers, paws in flight and a feline’s intense glare.  Pure muscle, pure hunter, this is an animal having to live and adjust to traditional habitats now overflowing with humans.

Here in south-central Washington State, we’ve long shared our wooded homeland with mountain lions.  We know they are in the vicinity because this area is prime deer wintering range; an adjacent 1,000-acre State forest provides an oasis of wildness and///we’ve all seen them. I’ve raise three children and four foster children and they all have greatly benefited from growing up outdoors in a rural landscape where deer, cougars, porcupines, and even snakes make their home.

Washington State is home to an estimated 2,500 cougars.  Seven feet from head to tail and weighing up to 200 pounds, this creature wins the gold medal for jumping ability, leaping 30 feet from a standstill or bounding 20 feet straight up a cliff.  Mountain lions can take down deer as well as prey much larger than themselves such as elk and even moose.  This all said, should be we afraid of these big cats?

Close Encounters

Too many people fear having cougars in their mist, yet cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare.  During the last 100 years, fewer than 20 fatalities are known in all of North America.  Compare that figure to the thousands of people who are injured or killed each year as a result of automobile collisions with deer, the mountain lion’s main food.  Here are some sobering figures from around the country:  According to the National Highway Safety Administration, there are 1.5 million crashes involving deer and motor vehicles each year causing 1.1 billion dollars in vehicle damages.  While 500,000 deer die from the accidents, 150 human lives are lost and 10,000 persons are injured.  National Safety Council insurance claims statistics show an average of $2,000 for repairs and injuries, running as high as $8,000.  In one community north of San Francisco, county deputies were called out nine times to dispatch a wounded deer or remove a deer deer from the road.  Twice in the last month, deputies themselves struck deer that darted in front of their patrol cars.  Lori Gibson, a principle wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management stated, “Efforts tor educe auto/deer collisions are a challenge because many occur in urban/suburban areas with limited deer management options.  The deer populations in those settings could be increasing because such neighborhoods act as a refuge for deer.

And finally, from the Valvoline Oil web sites we learn that deer kill more people in the United States than do all commercial airlines, train and bus accidents combined in a typical year.

Few people think about these deer safety issues when a mountain lion is sighted, but they had better, especially during hunting seasons.  Even deer hunters are not immune, sometimes becoming the hunted.  Last November, a 69-year-old bow hunter was treated for injuries he suffered during a wrestling match with an angry buck.  The hunter said the deer attacked him while he was hunting alone in south-central Indiana, stating, “He came out of the tall grass and briars.”

Back in Atherton, California, I’m pleased to report that some local officials and other citizens are taking a more reasoned, more sensible stand.  The local police chief says he has seen no evidence of a proliferation of mountain lions.  Yet no one is talking about the proliferation of deer.  The biological equation is clear: More deer, more mountain lions.  More, more car crashes and loss of almost any ornamental vegetation planted around one’s home.  Fear the deer (especially if you have children learning how to drive), forget worrying about the mountain lions.

If our society is ever going to start caring for the natural world, then one of the first steps must be to stop being afraid of creatures who need not be feared.  We must replace fabled myths with enthralling true stories such as Edward Abbey’s sunset meeting with a mountain lion in Arizona.  We must replace temerity in walking through the woods with one of excited hope, an expectation that our lives will be enriched, that we too will have a wonderful story to tell about the time we saw a mountain lion in the wild. ~

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