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Wild in the suburbs

By David Baron

Few people have ever seen a mountain lion up close in the wild. In that sense, you could call Andy Peterson a very lucky man.

Peterson met Felis concolor on a warm April afternoon in Roxborough State Park, near Denver. Peterson had just hiked to the top of Carpenter Peak - a small mountain with a stunning view of the high Rockies to the west, the Great Plains to the east. On the way down, Peterson spied the large cat lounging beneath a ponderosa pine.

Despite the animal's Latin name, this was not a "cat of one color." Its body was the color of sand, its belly that of eggnog, and there was black on the sides of its muzzle and the tip of its long, ropy tail. The cat's face, with its high cheekbones, was misleadingly cherubic.

If one were to size up the two creatures, Peterson had a slight weight advantage. The cat was small for a mountain lion - perhaps 80 pounds, about the size of a German shepherd. Peterson was small for a man - a slim 130 pounds, standing 5 feet 6. But the lion was built like a linebacker: thick neck, broad shoulders, massive thighs. The lion also had the advantage of claws sharp as ice picks and teeth that can shear deerhide. Peterson took out his Swiss Army knife and extended the 2-inch blade in a feeble attempt to match the cat's weaponry.

Peterson did not want to fight the lion, and he thought he knew how to avoid a confrontation. He made himself look as big and menacing as possible. He shouted.

He waved his arms and jumped up and down. Wildlife biologists say these actions will almost always scare a mountain lion away.

But the lion didn't move. It stared at him, its ears up and alert.

So Peterson backed up. The lion advanced. Peterson kept shouting. The cat bared its teeth, squinted, and flared its nostrils. Then the ears flattened. And it pounced.

Peterson survived the first attack relatively unscathed. The cat slashed his chest and knocked him to the ground, but he was quickly on his feet again, trotting backward down the trail, trying to swat the lion with his fanny pack.

About 100 yards later, the lion pounced again. This time, the cat knocked Peterson 10 feet into the trees and shrubs. He found himself on his knees, the top of his head in the mountain lion's mouth, his neck gripped by its claws. He could hear the sounds of teeth ripping scalp, of claws puncturing skin.

Peterson tried to push the lion away, but the creature was immovable. So he began slashing at the cat with his knife. He aimed for the throat and the back of the head, but the lion's fur and skin were so thick that the blade couldn't penetrate. Instead, the knife closed on his index finger, almost slicing it off. The cat continued to chew on Peterson's skull. Blood spilled from his forehead.

Not knowing what else to do, Peterson reached up with his right hand and felt the mountain lion's face. He found two lumps: the cat's eyes. He placed his thumb over the lion's right eye and plunged it in. The cat made a tiny chirp, retracted its claws, opened its jaws, and backed up. Peterson picked up a rock the size of a volleyball, heaved it into the lion's side, and ran.

Wildlife officers would later find Peterson's blood-covered water bottle and knife, along with his T-shirt and clumps of the lion's hair, beside the trail.

In America today, mountain lions exist almost exclusively in the West, but the creatures - also called cougars, pumas, panthers, or catamounts - once roamed the wilds of New England. In 1738, The Boston Gazette reported that a cougar had been captured 80 miles west of town and was on display at a tavern in Roxbury. "It has a Tail like a Lyon, its Leggs are like a Bears, its Claws like an Eagle, its eyes like a Tyger, its countenance is a mixture of every Thing that is Fierce and Savage," the paper exclaimed.

Despite this fearsome description, early settlers and explorers in the New World viewed the mountain lion as no more of a man-eater than a house cat. Father Zenobius Membre, who traveled the Mississippi River with the French explorer La Salle in 1682, wrote that the cougar "never attacks man, although it devours the strongest beasts."

In truth, cougars were never harmless to humans. Two and a half centuries ago, millwright Philip Tanner died at the paws of a mountain lion in Colonial Pennsylvania. But unprovoked attacks on humans were once extremely rare. That's changing.

Cougars have killed 15 people in North America this century - not a large number, but most of those deaths have occurred in just the past 11 years. (All occurred in the western United States or Canada.) Nonfatal attacks since 1900 total more than 60; again, most have occurred within the past two decades. The trend is upward and exponential.

And the change in behavior transcends the numbers.

Until recently, scientists described mountain lions as crepuscular - active at dusk and dawn - or nocturnal. They considered mountain lions far too wary of humans ever to stalk groups of people or to wander into urban areas. They claimed that mountain lions posed almost no danger to adults, only to small children. But consider events of the past year.

Andy Peterson was 24 years old at the time of his encounter, in April 1998. The lion hunted him at 2 in the afternoon.

That same month, a cougar spent several weeks living in the backyards and alleys of downtown Olympia, Washington. Wildlife officers killed the lion in a vacant lot just four blocks from the state Capitol.

In July 1998, a pair of lions stalked two dozen young hikers and five adult counselors on a trail near Missoula, Montana. The group noticed the cats just after a picnic lunch. The hikers grabbed sticks, gathered in a huddle, and moved down the trail in an amoebalike mass. The cats followed for 45 minutes before retreating into the woods.

Last September, a lion approached two women hiking at Point Mugu State Park, near Los Angeles. They hid in a portable toilet while the cougar circled just 2 to 3 feet away. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.

Three days later, Craig Gebicki was in his office at the Scott Plastics Co. in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. The afternoon was warm, and the door was open. A mountain lion walked in. Gebicki did what most people would do in the same circumstances. He ran from the building shouting, "There's a [expletive] cougar in my office!"

Unusual mountain lion behavior has become almost commonplace across the West. Biologists are now asking: Why? What has caused cougars to become so bold? Why did the lion that attacked Andy Peterson attack Andy Peterson?

Andy Peterson was indeed a lucky man.

He survived his encounter with the lion, although fixing his injuries required 70 staples in his scalp and countless stitches in his body.

Seven months after the attack, Peterson is sitting on a couch in his apartment in suburban Denver. He looks healthy. He has a narrow face with blue eyes and a delicate nose. It's hard to spot his injuries, until he pulls back his hair to expose a large suture where the cat's lower teeth met his forehead. He lifts one pant leg to display a grid of scars. He gestures at a row of small red dots - like the remnants of chicken pox - that arc down either side of his neck. "Claw mark. Claw, claw, claw," he explains while pointing at the scars.

The encounter with the mountain lion has divided Peterson's life into pre- and post-attack. He used to be an avid solo hiker; now, he rarely hikes, and never alone. Even when walking to his car at night from a shopping mall or supermarket, Peterson looks over his shoulder. He has nightmares. In one, he's driving when he notices two Bengal tigers walking into a 7-Eleven gas station. He turns his car around to warn the unsuspecting customers, only to watch helplessly as a tiger tears a man to shreds. Then he wakes up.

But the bigger change in Peterson's life is due not to the cougar attack itself but to what occurred immediately afterward. As Peterson was running from the lion, blood pouring from his head, he looked back to see if the cat was chasing him. First, he saw what he thought was the lion's face staring from the trees. Then, when he looked again, he saw something else. "It was the face of Jesus," Peterson says. Two and a half months later, he was baptized - born again.

Peterson perceives a divine purpose behind his attack. The near-death experience prompted him to reconcile with his father and led him to change careers. Peterson had been studying for a degree in park management; now he wants to be an inspirational speaker - bringing the story of his attack and his vision to churches and youth groups. On May 11, he appeared on Oprah.

Peterson says of the lion attack, "I look at it as an absolute gift." Yet a tinge of vengeance remains. "I tell people, `If you find a lion with one eye, let me know."' He wants the pelt and a tooth as mementos.

Maurice Hornocker does not attribute heavenly motives to Peterson's attack, but he does believe the mountain lion may have been sending a message.

Hornocker lives in southern Idaho - cougar country. He has a generous manner and Paul Newman-esque good looks: eyes the color of robin's eggs, silver hair, and a face that has aged well. He looks like a man who has spent his life out-of-doors, which he has.

Beginning as a graduate student in the 1960s, Hornocker devoted 10 years to tracking cougars through the rugged Idaho wilderness, sleeping in the snow, and discovering details of cougar behavior that had never been documented. Now an internationally renowned wildlife biologist, Hornocker founded and runs an institute dedicated to the study and preservation of large carnivores, especially cats: cougars, Siberian tigers, and Amur leopards. No one knows more about mountain lions than he does.

Today's mountain lions seem different from the ones Hornocker studied three decades ago. "In those days, I would never have dreamed of the number of encounters between lions and people we see now," he says. "They're becoming habituated to people in some areas, and we don't know the reasons why." But Hornocker says there are some clues.

From the time Europeans arrived in North America through most of the 20th century, farmers, ranchers, and the government tried to exterminate cougars because of the threat they posed to livestock and game. The campaign of shooting, trapping, and poisoning met with stunning success east of the Mississippi; biologists believe that there are no wild cougars left in New England or anywhere in the East, except for a small population of panthers in the Florida Everglades (although people occasionally report fleeting, unconfirmed sightings of cougars from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to Tennessee). In the West, cougar numbers were severely reduced, but in many areas the cats survived the killing years.

In the 1960s - thanks in part to Hornocker's efforts - attitudes toward mountain lions began to change. Scientists and the public increasingly saw lions not as destructive predators but as necessary components of healthy ecosystems. One by one, Western states repealed bounties and started to limit lion hunting. Mountain lion populations rebounded to such an extent that the West may contain as many cougars today as it did when Europeans first settled the region.

But today's mountain lion inhabits a very different Western landscape. It's a land with shopping malls and highways and subdivisions engulfing wild terrain.

The mountain lion was once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Americas, found from British Columbia to Patagonia.

"Here we have a very, very adaptable and intelligent animal," says Hornocker. "This is an animal that can live at sea level, it can live in the desert, it can live in alpine regions, it can live in a rain forest." So why shouldn't we expect the mountain lion to adapt to urban sprawl?

That's exactly what Hornocker believes is happening. "We've changed the environment, and if the cougar is to be successful, then it has to change as well."

To reach the site of Andy Peterson's attack, drive 20 miles southwest from Denver to Roxborough State Park, pay the $4 entrance fee, and hike three miles up the Carpenter Peak trail.

As you walk, you'll pass outcrops of rust-red sandstone thrusting skyward in almost vertical sheets, like abstract sculpture. You'll wind through small groves of Douglas fir and broad hillsides of scrub oak. Then you'll ascend the granite summit, look down the other side, and see houses. Hundreds of them.

Peterson was not attacked in the middle of the wilderness. He wrestled his mountain lion on the edge of civilization, where the Rocky Mountains meet the sprawl of Denver. He was almost eaten in plain view of a growing neighborhood of luxury homes known as Roxborough Park - "A Covenant Controlled Community," as the sign by its entrance gate proclaims.

Roxborough Park the community sticks like a downturned thumb into Roxborough Park the park. It looks like many an upscale Western suburb, with cul-de-sacs, sod lawns, and attached garages. In the middle of the development sits a golf course. A couple of years ago, a deer was killed by an errant golf ball to the head. Deer wander the golf links, the streets, the yards. They are tame. The residents like it that way.

"People can walk by deer out here within 30 feet, and the deer will continue to graze," says Ron Deem, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in a Southwestern contemporary home near the golf course. "Cars can pass within 5 feet of them, and they don't care."

You can often find deer loitering in the Deems' yard. The animals drink from the birdbath. They insert their tongues into the bird feeders to extract sunflower seeds. They nibble the dwarf purple plum tree. The Deems' yard provides such rich food and abundant shelter for animlas that it has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.

Up the street, Sue Wareck often sees deer around her home. On a summer evening in 1993, she found a deer carcass in the trees beside her driveway. "The head was gone," she recalls. "The stomach was pulled out and sort of swelling. The entire inside was gone."

As Sue turned toward her front door, she found the culprit. A mountain lion lay in the brush about 10 feet away, its paws splayed on her lawn. She called to her husband, Don, who was practicing his putts. As Sue remembers it, he sauntered over and cooed, "Oh, you bee-oo-tiful puddy-tat." The two laughed. Sue walked into the house, grabbed her camera, and returned to take a picture. Then she made telephone calls to alert her neighbors. By morning, the cat was gone.

Tom Hansch has taken photographs of mountain lions in his yard, too. Tom and his wife, Rhonda, live up a slope from the Warecks, in a home on the side of Carpenter Peak. Their backyard abuts the state park.

Early one morning in 1996, Hansch was in the master bathroom when he heard a thump on the back deck. He looked up and saw two mountain lions peering through the glass door. He ran for his camera and took a couple of frames through the window before one cat ran off and the other jumped down into the backyard. Hansch then walked onto his deck for a better view.

"I didn't sense the animal had any fear of me," Hansch says. "He didn't run away." The cat stared at the man, and the man stared at the cat. Tom took more pictures. Eventually, the lion trotted into the woods.

Many residents of Roxborough Park have an Edenic view of their community. They moved to the neighborhood to live with nature. They cherish seeing the animals. And they don't want the cougars harassed or killed, even if the cougars harm people.

After Andy Peterson was attacked, wildlife officers used trained hounds to sniff the woods for the offending lion. They never found it, but if they had, the officers would have killed the cat.

"Most of us were cheering for the mountain lion," Tom Hansch says of his neighbors. "We hated to see a mountain lion killed for being in its own territory."

The people of Roxborough say they want to coexist with the lions and other animals. But their idea of coexistence may be partly to blame for Peterson's attack.

What's happening in Roxborough is happening across the West. In the suburbs of Seattle, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City, deer have made subdivisions their homes, and mountain lions have followed. One of the first municipalities to experience this trend was Boulder, Colorado - a university town hugging the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver.

In the mid-1980s, cougars began to appear in Boulder's backyards, parking lots, and parks. Michael Sanders and Jim Halfpenny wanted to figure out what was going on.

For five years, Sanders - then a senior biologist with Boulder County's parks department - and Halfpenny - at the time a mammalogist at the University of Colorado - tried to document every human-lion encounter in the Boulder area. They advertised in local media and distributed posters to ski clubs, sporting goods stores, and environmental groups. They urged anyone who had seen a mountain lion or lion signs - tracks or scat - to call in a report, and they followed up reports with detailed interviews. By 1991, the researchers had assembled a database of 398 sightings. Then they looked for trends.

To no one's surprise, the scientists found that the number of mountain lion sightings was rising rapidly. They also discovered that cougars were being seen more frequently near town; the lions were encroaching on Boulder.

The other trends were more subtle and unexpected.

Through 1987, mountain lions were seen almost exclusively in the late evening and early morning. After 1987, "we started to see lions at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, roaming the streets of Boulder," says Sanders. "This just wasn't a natural behavior."

The scientists discovered changes in the cougars' diet as well. "We were finding scat deposits that had Purina Dog Chow in it, Alpo in it," Sanders recalls. The cougars were apparently eating pet food from backyards. Then the lions started eating pets. At the same time, lions were becoming more bold toward humans. In 1990, a woman was jogging outside of town when two lions chased her up a tree.

Sanders explained the findings this way: As Boulder grew, residents of new subdivisions planted lush lawns and gardens, which attracted deer. Suburbanization also brought an end to hunting in many areas. The deer - normally skittish and crepuscular - now had little to fear and began hanging out in yards throughout the day. Mountain lions followed the deer into town and mimicked the deer's habits, becoming active during daylight hours. The mountain lions then discovered pet food, and pets, providing additional incentives for living near people. At the same time, people gave the lions no reason to leave; whereas, in decades past, mountain lions near homes were routinely shot, the residents of Boulder merely stared in awe at the cougars among them.

In other words, Sanders concluded, the physical and social landscape of suburbanization was teaching the lions that humans were not to be feared. Some lions then began to view humans as prey.

Sanders and Halfpenny presented their findings at a symposium in Denver in 1991. The reaction? "There were a lot of skeptics to the stuff that we were saying," Sanders remembers. Critics found the data unconvincing. They argued that the growing number of human-lion encounters near town and during the day might reflect a change in human activity - as more people moved to the area and enjoyed Boulder's parks - rather than a change in cougar behavior. Besides, other cities and towns did not see similar trends.

Almost a decade later, Sanders's and Halfpenny's study appears prescient.

Morgan Wehtje - a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game - sees the dynamics first identified in Boulder now occurring in Ventura County, just outside of Los Angeles. "At first, I was surprised," says Wehtje, "but right now, it seems to me that this is a commonplace behavior, that cougars are not too concerned about people."

Wehtje has received reports of cougars drinking from swimming pools and eating pets in dense neighborhoods in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. Less than 10 miles from where these sightings occurred - an easy one-day stroll for a lion - is Point Mugu State Park, where the two women hid in a toilet last year to escape a cougar.

The situation is similar in Missoula, Montana. New subdivisions sprawl north of town to the boundary of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area - a popular park for hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. Outside the park, deer and lions frequent yards. Just inside the park is where, last year, a pair of lions stalked two dozen young campers and five counselors. Also in that area last year, lions chased three mountain bikers, pursued a family with small children, approached a group of preschoolers, and pounced on 6-year-old Dante Swallow while he was hiking at summer camp. Dante was rescued by a 16-year-old Boy Scout, who punched the cougar until it abandoned its prey.

Wildlife biologist Rex Baker of California State Polytechnic University is researching a recent surge in coyote attacks on humans. Baker says people are training predators to become more dangerous, through tolerance. "You don't stop and look at them and take pictures and say, `My, isn't that beautiful, we're seeing wildlife in our area.' You shouldn't see that wildlife. Whether it was a mountain lion or a coyote, you need to get something out and start making noise and let the authorities know there's something going on in that area." Otherwise, before you know it, you end up with a mountain lion in an office building. Or a mountain lion attacking a man in broad daylight.

Maurice Hornocker does not believe that suburban sprawl alone explains the changes in cougar behavior. Even in some areas far removed from homes - such as Yosemite National Park - cougars have become less afraid of people. But Hornocker is convinced that the sprawl-shrubs-deer-pets-cougars nexus is real and that its implications are profound. Hornocker fears that people are altering not only cougar behavior but cougar evolution.

After all, in decades past, cougars genetically inclined to be fearless around humans were unlikely to reproduce; a lion showing itself in daylight near homes was almost guaranteed to be shot. Today, cougars predisposed to fearlessness may be more likely to reproduce; they thrive in the suburban landscape, benefiting from the abundance of deer and pets.

"We've changed the evolutionary track," says Hornocker. "And this could be - most definitely is - being exhibited by some of this cougar behavior." Thus, suburban sprawl may be breeding more dangerous predators. Literally.

If Hornocker is correct, then the most obvious and oft-proposed method for reducing cougar attacks - increasing hunting - may not be a solution at all. "To me, that's just diverting attention from the problem," says Hornocker. In fact, this remedy could worsen the underlying condition. It may already have.

In the mid-1990s, with cougar attacks on the rise, wildlife officials in Montana eased the state's lion-hunting quotas and doubled the number of cougars harvested. But as more cougars were killed, more cougars were also hurting and threatening people. In 1998, the state recorded 45 cougar-human conflicts - an all-time high, almost twice the previous record.

Hornocker says the problem with hunting is that it usually targets the wrong cats. Hunters tend to shoot large, older lions, leaving a population of mostly young, inexperienced cats - and it's these younger animals that are most likely to experiment with humans as prey.

What, then, is the solution? Is it possible to reduce mountain lion attacks without returning to the days of exterminating cougars altogether? Hornocker believes so, but it won't be easy.

He says wildlife agencies must become much more aggressive at removing aggressive cats from populated areas. "When there's one that shows up in a community more than twice or has attacked pets or poses a threat to people, that animal needs to be humanely removed." In other words, the lion should be relocated to a remote area - if habitat is available - or it should be euthanized.

Next, Hornocker argues, scientists must study the genetics of cougar aggression, to determine if, in fact, a shift in DNA is occurring in some populations. "If there is, what then?" he asks. "Can we engineer these populations? Can we introduce kinder, gentler genes into that population in the form of males from a population that shows no inclination to become habituated or become aggressive toward humans? Would that work?" Hornocker isn't sure, but he'd like to give it a try.

More important than genetic engineering, though, is social engineering, says Hornocker. "We need to learn - just as the people in Siberia have learned to live with two species of dangerous bears, with tigers, with wolves, with other animals that attack them; just as the people in Africa have learned to live with hippos, who kill more people than anything else in Africa - we need to learn what to do and what not to do."

What not to do - in Roxborough Park and Thousand Oaks and Missoula and communities across the West - is plant shrubs that attract deer, encouraging cougars to enter the neighborhood. What not to do is leave pets outside unattended, where cougars can prey on them. What not to do is act kindly toward a cougar if it shows up in a yard; instead, Hornocker says, yell at it, throw rocks at it, try to scare it away.

For centuries, Americans lived with predators and wanted them gone; the public viewed the creatures as evil and destructive. Then, once they were gone, Americans wanted them back; a large segment of society began to see cougars and wolves and bears as noble, cuddly creatures to adorn posters and greeting cards. Now - more than most people realize - predators are back. Black bears have returned to the suburbs of Boston. Alligators patrol the outskirts of Miami. Grizzlies are spreading across Montana and Wyoming. Wolf populations have surged in Minnesota. Coyotes are everywhere. Hornocker is encouraged by these developments, but he fears a backlash is coming.

If Americans don't learn to live safely with large predators, Hornocker believes attacks will continue to rise and public opinion will turn. Then the campaign of extermination will resume.

And in a war between Homo sapiens and Felis concolor, it's clear which side will lose.

On Sunday morning, January 10, 1999, Joe Beckner walked into his kitchen, looked out the sliding glass doors to his patio, and saw a mountain lion in the ponderosa pine beside his barbecue grill. Beckner is an artist who lives in Lakewood, Colorado - a Denver suburb 15 miles north of Roxborough State Park, the site of Andy Peterson's attack.

Before the morning was over, Beckner would call 911, the police would cordon off the street, and neighbors would congregate in his home to watch wildlife officers tranquilize the cat and haul it away.

But first, Joe just watched the animal. He wanted to remember what the cat looked like - the contours of its face, the way it posed in the tree - so he could capture it in watercolor later. He noticed sunlight glinting off the cougar's left eye, which glowed like amber. But something didn't look right. He stared at the cat's face. Then he recognized what was odd.

The mountain lion was missing its right eye.

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