Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Probably because our own lives change so quickly in comparison, it's our tendency to view the rest of nature as a static thing. Many will admit to no more than one period of change in the planet's history. A pair of events in last week's news, though, served to remind us how dynamic nature truly is. Evolutionary biologists can argue about how quickly morphological change occurs, but animal behavior changes constantly, and nowhere does it change more quickly than in the behaviorally complex predatory mammals.

On April 15, 7-year-old Shir Feldman was hiking with friends and family near Boulder, Colorado, when he was attacked by an 80-pound (small) female Mountain Lion (Felis=Puma concolor), some 30 yards from the parking lot. Feldman sustained a broken jaw and lacerations, minor injuries compared to those of the cat, which was killed by a Division of Wildlife officer the following day. Two days before that, 6-year-old Elora Petrasek was killed, and her mother and 2-year-old brother, Susan and Luke Cenkus were injured by a Black Bear (Ursus americanus) in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest. Two male bears were trapped in the vicinity of the attack, and though it's likely that neither was the guilty party, both were euthanized.

These were the most recent of an escalating number of attacks on humans by large North American carnivores. The bear attack was the second recent fatality in eastern Tennessee. In 2000, a Black Bear killed 50-year old Glenda Bradley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the first documented bear fatality in the Southeastern U.S. This coincidence has experts wondering if a behavioral shift is underway among Tennessee bears. As changing human attitudes replaced predator bounties with protective legislation, the large carnivore population in the lower 48 has become larger than in any time in the past century. Of course, the human population is also at an unprecedented high, so it's tempting to chalk the recent spate of attacks up to a redistribution of probability. Of the 12 recorded Black Bear fatalities in the lower 48, and the 45 fatalities in Canada and Alaska, the vast majority occurred where bears have little contact with Man, so habituation to humans can't be blamed—but that's exactly what's being blamed for the Mountain Lion attacks out west.
For several years, a number of experts warned of precisely the kind of incident that happened to Shir Feldman last week. David Baron's 2003 book, The Beast in the Garden was a response to the 1991 mauling death of 18-year old Scott Lancaster in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Barron agreed with biologists Michael Sanders and Jim Halfpenny, who believe that the behavior of Mountain Lions in Colorado's eastern Rockies is changing. The advancing urban/wildland interface and a growing population of Mountain Lions that are rarely threatened by humans add up to a dangerous mix, according to these men. The urban interface creates excellent deer habitat, which attracts the cats, who are losing their fear of man.

The behavior of large predators is indeed plastic. There are no records of North American Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) killing people, yet in Eurasia, a continent populated for 6,000 years by unarmed human shepherds, wolves are fairly aggressive. In the last half of the 20th century, 17 Europeans were killed by wolves. The small Indian subspecies C. l. pallipes is responsible for several human deaths each year.
Here in the Wasatch Mountains, Black Bears are rare. I've seen tracks just once, and when I was in high school an unfortunate bear was struck by a car about a mile from my house. Mountain Lion numbers, on the other hand, have always been healthy throughout most of Utah, and the species was always quite bold here. I can boast of far fewer Bobcat (Felis rufus) than Mountain Lion sightings, though the smaller, shyer cats are far more numerous. I've twice had Mountain Lions follow me, seemingly curious. I'm sure many of the reported “stalking”incidents that have fueled the fear in Colorado were nothing more than this kind of behavior. I'm told that the reverse was true in 20th century California: Bobcats were bold, Mountain Lions shy. British Columbia has the corner on aggressive cats, especially Vancouver Island, which holds more than its share of documented attacks. Mountain Lion behavior changes a lot geographically, and from one individual to the next. Sometimes, their behavior is just plain weird, like the Orange County, California cat that killed bicyclist Mark Reynolds in 2004, fed on and cached his body, then returned to the road and attacked a second cyclist, Anne Hjelle. The problem with trying to analyze predator attacks is not only that they vary so, but that they're still so bloody rare. With such paltry numbers, it's hard to make any meaningful generalizations, but let's give it a try, anyway. I doubt that fear of man is the only thing keeping predators from feeding regularly on us. I've noticed that certain birds, ibises (ibes?) for instance, are completely unattractive to falcons. Whatever it is about those birds, it's quite an asset, and a similar je ne sais quoi has probably been a bigger factor in our own species' survival than our brains and opposable thumbs combined. Another thing that the Cassandras fail to consider is the complete lack of evolutionary benefit to anthropophagy. Once a predator even nips a human, every effort is made to find and kill the animal. Once manifested, the behavior ends its days of reproductive success. I'll continue to roam the wilds of America without worry. If 80,000 automobile deaths every two years is an acceptable price for the benefits of that technology, a single death from large predators in the same period is a small price to pay for having them around—even if that death is yours.
upper: CAUCASIAN LYNX (1994) watercolor 12" x 9"
center: SLOTH BEAR & INDIAN PIED HORNBILLS ( 1998) ink wash 19" x 12"
lower: GOSTOSO!--MANED WOLVES & 3-BANDED ARMADILLO (1997) acrylic 20" X 30"


Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Stellar post, Carel! Of course, this is an issue I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, so of course I find it interesting, but all the same, thanks.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Karmen said...

The Denver news stations had a heyday with the attack. I'd already gotten the full story from CNN, when I noticed our local stations were only half reporting it. I heard something like: "A mountain lion attacked a little boy today. Find out where that lion is, tonight at 10" ..I sat there, thinking, I just saw the dead carcass in the back of a truck on CNN--who are they trying to scare? I agree with you... you have more to fear from ticks in the hills than you do from mountain lions. Oh, and I've never seen a mountain lion either, although I once saw a black bear cub at camp when I was a kid.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Cindy said...

I too will continue to roam the wilds, but I will also respect the needs of wildlife while I do so. We push and push, driving animals out of their habitat until they have none left. Even a mouse will attack when it feels cornered. Cats are plain weird anyways, I've seen housecats kill for the fun of it. As a child I heard many Mountain Lions in Oklahoma, yet the natural resources division refuses to admit they exist.
We have black bears in our area- they've very shy and every one of my black bear encounters was one where the bear ran from me. But there will always be abhorent animals- sick, wounded, not right in the head animals.
While I feel badly for these tragedies, I feel just as bad that the animals are destroyed because they are doing what comes natural to them. Man on the other hand has destroyed and tried to 'tame' the wild, instead of respecting their needs. This has been going on since Europeans landed on the continent, they did the same thing to my ancestors and all 'savage tribes'.
To me this is all fear-based. We destroy what we fear and those that wander into predator territory are pushing their limits and when you do, you have to accept the risks.
I am a Barry Lopez fan, among others and there has never been ONE documented attack on a wolf in North America, yet they were brought to the brink of extinction. Like he said so well "someday we're going to have to look the wolf into their eyes and find a good excuse for killing them'. Now that they are expanding their range into the U.P., they're finding dead wolves everywhere. Run, hide your kids, there's a wolf on the loose! We've seen wolves in the wild, they too wanted nothing to do with us.
Rancher politics- they carry alot of clout. They're poisoning prarie dogs left and right, and that in turn poisons the burrowing owls that feed on them. This is a topic that I could go on forever, but I think I've typed enough for one post ;)

8:51 PM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

HH: Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you read this post.
Karmen: Nice to hear a local perspective. Thanks! Break a leg on your finals.
Cindy: Nice to hear from you. I'm glad this post got your blood going.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Good lord! Killer Cats! Man-eating Bears! I'm never leaving the house again...
Actually, the whole thing reminds me of the 'Carnie Justice' episode of Carnivale. When 'one of ours' dies, 'one of theirs' must die too. It doesn't matter if it's the killer. We demand 'Justice.' It's a lot like the omnipresent Moussaoui case.
Here in Richmond, we recently had a fiasco involving a black bear and a small child. Our bears, however, were captive. The child stuck his hand through a chain-link fence and was bitten by the bear. The bite did no serious damage, yet the two bears in the enclosure where promptly executed. The child's mother initially said that they had come to the park to feed the bears. Why is this a capital offense for the bears and not even a misdemeanor for the mother?
Bears aside, our fear-mongers also have a killer animal puppet with which to scare us. Ours is in the shape of a dog. We do have a problem with underground dog fighting, but the media would have you think that we had packs of killer dogs roaming the city. In fact, a woman recently proposed to City Council that all dogs should be muzzled when not in the house. It's uncomfortable for the dog, the woman said, but 'times have changed.'
As you mentioned, we blithely ignore the carnage on the highway, but rant and cower when faced with sporadic animal attacks. Perhaps the banal terrors of daily life are eating us from the inside, and we use these animals to renew our feelings of control. After all, who doesn't feel better when 'one of theirs' has been put to death?

8:18 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Great comments, Michael--although it would have been more interesting if you'd said something I didn't agree with 100%

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Cindy said...

Michael, you hit the nail on the head!
We had a rottweiler for 11 1/2 years.. we took her everywhere with us, and each time we camped near others, we got "the look". Killer rottweiler, run for your lives! She didn't have an aggressive bone in her body but may have kissed someone to death. The media feeds on tragedies- always has, always will. Ratings mean alot, that's why I read very little news and watch even less television. It's all been watered down or hyped up.
And yeah Carel, my Cherokee/Irish blood tends to get hot at times ;)
Thank you for posting a subject that most would rather not speak about, much less acknowledge.
And regarding the mother who's child got bit? Well, she should have been fined for child endangerment.. how sad that the bears paid the price for her stupidity/ignorance.

9:02 AM  

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