BOOKS: The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2004:

The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature
by David Baron
W. W. Norton & Company (500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110),
2004. 277 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

This amazing book explains how wild pumas near Boulder,
Colorado came to view humans as prey. The intriguing story,
however, is only the frame that David Baron uses to painstakingly
piece together a gigantic puzzle.
When a puma killed Boulder high school student Scott
Lancaster in 1991, “everyone knew” that healthy pumas did not view
people as prey–but Lancaster’s killer proved to be both wild and
healthy. Baron explains the factors that caused this dramatic change
in puma behavior.
When wild animals came to town in the Old West, they were
shot. If they survived, they learned to avoid people.
Baron relates many sad stories about the wholesale slaughter
of predators in the United States as humans increased in population,
moved out into the wildernesss, and altered the natural landscape.
Baron tells us that author Michael Johnson labeled newcomers
to western cities “New Westers.” “Old Westers believe the West was
won. New Westers are concerned with how it was lost–or will be.”
New Westers passed laws to prevent or limit killing predators.

Meanwhile the populations of many wild creatures, including deer,
have multiplied beyond pre-settlement norms. Deer have moved into
the suburbs to feast on well-maintained yards and neighborhood
handouts. Instead of feeding at dawn or dusk, they graze in broad
daylight. When the Boulder-area pumas noticed that the deer were
moving to town, they followed and changed their hunting hours
New Westers moved to Boulder to be close to nature. Baron
relates many fascinating tales of human/puma encounters in the
Boulder area before Scott Lancaster’s death. Generally, the
inhabitants were thrilled to see pumas in their yards and did not
fear for their own safety. However, Boulder wildlife specialists
Michael Sanders and Jim Halfpenny were concerned about this trend.
They began their own puma study, tracking the activity of the big
cats. Sanders and Halfpenny soon realized that puma urbanization was
changing the rules of the game, and concluded it was a disaster
waiting to happen. Unfortunately, many other wildlife biologists at
the time viewed Sanders and Halfpenny as alarmists and did not take
the threat seriously. So, nothing much was done to discourage the
pumas from moving to the suburbs.
When the Boulder pumas went to town, they carefully observed
the reactions of the humans they saw and decided that the inhabitants
were not to be feared. The lions first started to prey on pets and
then on people. Scott Lancaster was killed while jogging on a path
near his high school in broad daylight.
Lancaster’s tragic death was a wake-up call to everyone. The
Colorado Division of Wildlife began using aversive conditioning to
let mountain lions know they had to stay away from humans and
civilization, blasting the cats with air horns and shooting at them
with rubber bullets, firecrackers, and beanbags. The Division of
Wildlife began capturing and relocating pumas found in urban
settings. Pumas who were considered a real threat were killed. Both
Colorado and Boulder wildlife agencies increased efforts to teach
residents to live safely among potentially dangerous wildlife.
Baron also cites examples of innovative aversive conditioning
programs used by other organizations, agencies, and communities to
keep wildlife and humans at a safe distance from each other. He
points out that the issues involving pumas have important
implications for the Yellowstone region and Mexican gray wolf
recovery programs, as well as other efforts to reintroduce predators
to their former habitats.
Puma-related problems have not disappeared from the Boulder
area, but they have not escalated. The human inhabitants there, as
a rule, still have great love and compassion for all wildlife.
However, when they see a puma in their yard or on their patio, many
no longer reach for their camcorder. Instead, they scare the cat
away with rubber buckshot.
Baron never exaggerates the risks associated with pumas.
Very few people will ever be attacked by pumas. Yet if we do not do
more to educate people about the potential dangers of close contact
with any wild animal, more pumas and people will be killed
The lessons I learned by reading The Beast in the Garden had
many personal applications. We lived on a greenbelt in Austin for
many years. It was fascinating to look out my window and see a real
life version of Animal Planet. However, I was constantly modifying
our backyard habitat after things I did had unforeseen consequences
for the creatures who lived in the woods.
When we first moved to the greenbelt, we would see deer only
at dusk and dawn. After a few years, they appeared during the day.
Does left their fawns in the safety of front yards while they went
off grazing. The deer multiplied and we saw an increasing number of
other animals–fox, raccoons, armadillos, skunks, opossums,
coyotes, even an occasional puma.
Then, pets began to disappear. I loved listening to the
calls of coyotes in the woods. Some of my neighbors, unfortunately,
did not. They had moved out of the city, but they were not willing
to modify their lifestyles. I gave them the standard advice: keep
cats inside, especially at night, don’t leave pet food outside,
lock down your trash cans, and don’t feed any wild animals.
However, when I moved from Austin two years ago, some people were
still feeding deer in their yards, and small pets continued to
We now live in a heavily wooded, hilly area not far from the
center of Atlanta. We thought we had left the wilderness behind us,
so we were pleased and amazed by the variety of birds in our
neighborhood. We added birdbaths, planted berry trees, and hung
birdfeeders in our large backyard habitat. Before we knew it, the
extra birdseed had caused an increase in the squirrel and chipmunk
populations, resulting in an over abundance of snakes, including
huge copperheads. I realized that I had flunked “Backyard Habitat
Management 101″ and have since retired many of the birdfeeders.
Baron concludes that, “The most critical element of wildlife
management in twenty-first century America will be modifying the
behavior of the most pervasive species of all. Reducing conflicts
between people and wild animals will require controls on human
actions: where we build our homes, how we landscape our yards, the
way we dispose of our trash and house our pets. People, especially
those who live along the new frontier between civilization and
wildland, must accept that they are participants in the natural
world, not mere observers.”
–Ann T. Koros

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