In the days following the encounter with the lions, I thought a lot about them, trying to recall every detail. It made me want to learn more about lion behavior, so I went to the library and found a book by David Boran, entitled “The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator’s Deadly Return to Suburban America.” At first, I wasn’t sure it was worth checking out. From a cursory look, it seemed to be another hysterical rant to a society already whacky with fear of terrorists, Avian flu, pit bulls, anthrax, illegal immigrants, etc.
However, the book was thought provoking. His thesis was that naive animal lovers in places like Boulder, Colorado (where I once lived and visit often), were screwing up the natural order of things. By not allowing hunting in the foothills in the open space west of the city, the government was causing a surplus of deer to wander into the suburbs seeking food. The deer were acting like bait and luring lions into the suburbs as well. The lions were becoming habituated to humans. Boran feared it was just a matter of time before a lion ate one of the drunken coeds partying outside a frat house on a warm summer night, or snatched a toddler from a redwood deck at one of the million dollar houses lining the western edge of the city. It would be a horrific reprisal of the movie “Jaws” at altitude.
In fact, in the foothills nearby Boulder, lions had already eaten a few dogs, even large breeds, and there had been a couple of harrowing human encounters, but nothing too serious yet - with one exception. Boran got my attention with his description of an deadly lion attack that occurred in 1992 near Idaho Springs, not far from Boulder as the bird flies. A teenage boy went for an afternoon trail run and never returned. Near sundown that day, a party of law officers and friends went searching for him and found his body, still clad in running shoes, covered with dirt and pine needles, laying under a bush. He had been partially eaten. The lion was standing guard nearby.
After a brief chase, they shot the lion, and sent the carcass to the state university for necoropsy. The results were surprising: the lion was healthy, not sick, and female, not male. Often human-lion conflicts have involved sick lions or young, half-starving males trying to find a territory. And this lion had attacked in broad daylight, though lions are nocturnal hunters, and tend to be spotted at dawn or dusk. This lion had broken all the rules for “normal” attacks.
Then I picked up a copy of Kathy Eting’s “Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind.” A fact crammed book, it details numerous attacks and has very interesting and useful insights from field biologists who spend lots of time observing lion behavior. The book gives you an appropriate respect, tinged with fear, for mountain lions. One clear message you get is to give them their space.
So I decided that while the lions hung around, it was best that I did not. Being nomadic, they wouldn’t be around too long. For the next couple of weeks, I ran on the flat asphalt road that winds through the ranch in the valley. It’s bucolic country, with little traffic, but it wasn’t the same running by herds of cows, standing by their calves and nervously eying us from the other side of a barbed wire fence. I’d look up the side of the hogback where the old road zig-zagged by the abandoned mine. I missed the pull of gravity and smell of sage. One day when my knees ached from pounding the asphalt, I resolved that I’d go back up, lions or not.
I decided it would be pushing my luck to go without a weapon, just in case. I rummaged around in my camping gear and got out my old hunting knife. I removed it from its worn leather scabbard, touched the knife with my fingertip to make sure it was sharp, slid it back in the scabbard, and tucked it in the webbed water bottle pocket on a fanny pack, where it would be readily accessible for a quick draw.
As Zorro and I ascended the first time since the standoff, my anticpation grew with every step. Before coming around the bend to start the uphill section where the lions had crossed the road, I pulled the knife out to be ready, but of course it was a silly gesture because the lions were gone, though as I looked at the spot where they had been, I could imagine every detail of them standing there.
Over the following weeks, the fear gradually receded, then completely vanished. I realized the knife was really just a talisman to ward off imaginary fears, like a crucifix repels vampires, and returned it to storage. Besides, I wouldn’t have the time or reflexes to use it anyway. Mountain lions usually ambush their prey from the back with terrific force. The lion’s long incisors would be slipping between the vertebrae in my neck before I could get the knife out. Besides, the odds of an attack were slim. There have only been two fatal lion attacks in Colorado in the past 100 years. Nationally, on average there are 6 lion attacks a year with 1 fatality. In contrast, 90 people a year are killed by lightening.
I figure that through my years running in backcountry, the lions have often been nearby. No doubt our paths had crossed many times in space, if only that once in time. As evolution would have it, we must keep our distance, and the lions normally see to that. That one time, I was lucky, and they revealed their presence to me.
For several months after the encounter I’d spot a lion track once in a while. But now it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen any there. Running with my eyes down so I don’t trip, I’m always searching for prints. I know the lions are out there somewhere, but I don’t worry. Zorro keeps watch for me.