Too Many Lions: a Blessing or a Curse?

Posted by on 08.09.08 | 2 Comments
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 “We have a lion problem in Spring Canyon,” my neighbor Keri says to anyone who will listen — neighbors, strangers, wildlife officers. We do not have a lion problem. We are blessed with the presence of mountain lions in the canyon behind our houses. It’s a fairly deep canyon, 200 feet, and two miles long. There are plenty of deer in the canyon, the forest, the farmland around the canyon, for the lions to eat. I’ve hoped to see a mountain lion each day of the fifteen years I’ve lived here, but, though I’ve seen a few tracks and some scat, an occasional kill along the driveway or in the woods, the blessing of seeing an actual lion has been denied me. Until recently.

 

ritas lion

zoom photo of ‘my’ lion

 

The problem with telling people you’ve seen a lion is that the news spreads; before you know it the state bounty hunters will come running with their dogs to tree the lion, and their guns to take it out. I saw two lions last month, but I haven’t told many people. Meanwhile, holding my joy close, I’ve heard four accounts of different sightings since then. A neighbor to the south, Pete, drove a young lion out of the field when he was cutting hay. I heard about this one first from the ditch rider, Tom, who also told me the same neighbor accidently mowed over two spotted fawns while cutting Tom’s hay. 

It was awful. Tom had seen the doe get up from the field when Pete started cutting at the top, and he’d walked down to see if there was a fawn, but he missed them. The first few days they’re hardwired to stay put no matter what the threat. The mower decapitated one and mangled the other. “The only bad thing about haying season,” Tom said. He found them later in the day when he saw the doe sitting back out there, grieving. He moved them down to the edge of the canyon, knowing something would come take them. The next day one was gone, the other a few days later. 

I heard about the same lion sighting from Dave at the Post Office, who lives up here too. “It was a big one,” he said, his eyes wide. “Our neighbor called to let us know, so the kids don’t go playing in the woods alone.” “That’s a good idea anyway,” I said, “you never know when they might be around.” Then I added something about how it really makes you feel alive to live where there are lions, but he got a dark look on his face and moved on to the next customer.

Tom told me a couple of weeks later that a woman across the canyon had called a rancher down the road in a panic because a lion had killed a doe in her field and “What should I do?” The rancher told her to stay away and let the lion finish eating its kill. That was a relief, not something you expect to hear from a person who routinely complains that any deer a lion takes is one less for the hunters. 

A few nights ago at a dinner party the hostess told us she’d seen two lions on her road in the past week. Her response was mixed between awe, delight, and fear that they’d get into her husband’s herd and take a cow. By any standard since I’ve lived here that is a lot of lion sightings in one month. Then I heard just this morning that Albert, who lives up canyon, saw a lion a couple of weeks ago. Albert was sitting on his patio in the morning drinking coffee, with his dog lying beside him. All of a sudden the dog was on point, and a lion came up over the rim and stood looking at them. Albert stood up, the lion lingered, then turned and sauntered off. Casual and calm as could be. 

During this month, I had been watching a nest of redtail hawks fledging in the canyon. I’d tried shooting a few videos but they were always on the other side of the canyon, always a little too far away for the camera not to shake on full zoom. That morning my cousin Melinda, visiting from Kentucky, suggested “Don’t you have a tripod?” I do have a tripod. I was just too lazy to dust it off and carry it down to the canyon. So she carried it. 

At the rim, I spotted one of the young hawks, set up the camera on the tripod, and lost the bird when it flew across and into some brush. I was searching with my binoculars for a long while, then lowered them and rested my eyes by scanning back to the north along the canyon. There on a big rock ledge I saw two figures walking side by side, one just slightly ahead of the other. “Dogs? Coyotes? Lions!” went my mind, and I whispered “There’s two lions,” to Melinda just as they disappeared into the oaks. She got up from the bench where she sat with her binoculars and strode to the edge — “sssshhhh! Don’t move!” I hissed. She froze. I turned on the camera though I could no longer see the lions, and stood to join her a few feet away. Somehow the lions crossed an open expanse without our seeing them, but the dog uttered a low guttural noise unlike anything I’d ever heard from him. “Sssshh,” I whispered to him, “it’s okay.”

Then another noise, a mewing cawing yowlish chirping noise, and we saw the second lion, rounding the far edge of a bunch of oaks, heading downhill, talking. I moved back to the camera. They saw us. They were both under the oaks near the edge of the creek, looking up at us. The talking lion stood frozen, looking up; the other lion already lay behind, in dappled shade, looking up. I found them in the camera. Here, after fifteen years of longing, were not one, but two lions, and I had a camera, and I had a tripod. The standing lion stood for awhile then lay down, never taking its eyes from us. Everyone who has seen the video agrees, this front lion is a young lion. The back lion’s age and gender remain in dispute. Some “experts” believe it is a sibling to the first, some argue based on possible differences in appearance that it is the mother. The truth is, it’s hard to tell. Being there, in the moment, I’d say they were identical. In the video, the rear lion looks a little heavier, a little darker, and could be an adult. At the time, I told Melinda they were last year’s cubs, striking out on their own.

Melinda, the dog, and I watched (and filmed) the two lions for about twelve minutes. Then, it seemed, we had mutually evaluated each other and concluded there was no threat. Honestly, I was hungry. I suggested to Melinda that we move along and get breakfast. At that same moment the young lion turned its head, then shifted its weight, got up, turned, and walked away through the oaks, as if in agreement. 

I wasn’t only hungry. Melinda had said, about halfway into this experience, “My question is, where’s mama?” I replied with unwarranted confidence, “Oh, she’s over there somewhere. She’s not over here stalking us, I’m sure of that.” For the next six minutes or so, I mulled that over. I wasn’t sure of anything. Perhaps she was over here stalking us. The uncanny calm of the two lions below got me wondering, where is mama? 

“And later,” Melinda added a minute or so after asking about mama, “we need to talk about mountain lion etiquette.” “Yes,” I replied. And we did, later. I told her, “Whatever you do, don’t run. Make yourself big, pull your shirt up around your shoulders, make noise, shoo it away. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK. Do not run. Call the dogs.” Mountain lions tend to attack from behind, with wild speed and silence. Their teeth and jaws are perfectly adapted to separate the vertebrae of their prey, severing the spinal cord swiftly. 

It’s one thing to know, theoretically, that you live where there are lions. I have known this since I moved onto this rugged land. It is quite another thing to have seen them, calmly watching you from 150 feet away. “Too calm,” said one friend when she saw the video. After hearing of all the other lion sightings in the area this summer I know what she means. Those lions we saw were too calm. All these lions are misbehaving. If they do not develop a reasonable fear of humans, they are done for.

Can you believe there are actually still bounty hunters in the American West? Is this an archaic concept or what? Humans have encroached so mercilessly on the habitat of our planet’s top predators it’s a wonder you don’t read about it every day: “jogger attacked by mountain lion,” “hiker mauled by grizzly,” “man loses arm to alligator,” “toddler bitten by fox,” or wolf, or tiger, or shark. Come to think of it, you do hear about a fair number of such unfortunate encounters, unfortunate for both participants, as whatever the outcome for the human, the wild animal usually gets killed one way or another. Whence derives the mentality that presumes humans matter more than other species? What entitles us to build and pave, build and pave, over acres, miles, of territory that’s been wild for untold generations of other species?

It’s bad enough that we encroach, destroy, gobble up. Then we send the big guns, the bounty hunters, after the new keystone species, when they cross the line. (The old keystone species had other criteria, primarily of sensitivity to our handiworks.) Now our science has finally figured it out: if you protect the large predators in an ecosystem, to the point that they (appear to) have genetic viability as a species, i.e., they won’t interbreed or otherwise drive themselves to extinction, you also de facto protect all species upon which they depend, plant and animal. 

If these lions that are gracing our neighborhood this summer do get out of hand, if they actually attack a human, I might concede that “we have a lion problem.” I can see both sides. Would I sacrifice myself or my dog to a lion if it would ensure survival of their species? Absolutely. Would I sacrifice my child, if I had one? Doubtful. We know there is not just one lion at large, for I saw two at once. There could be three, or four, even more. It feels as though they’re all around. As I said, it’s one thing to know, theoretically, and it’s another to have seen them, to feel them in a visceral way, to know you are potential prey. 

The next morning Melinda and I walked the dogs as usual, and the next. She was leaving in a few more days. She said, when we talked about the lions the next day, that because we’d been out looking for birds, because we’d been looking at and for and talking about birds since she’d arrived a week before, when I said “there are two lions” she thought I must be using some shorthand for “lion hawk,” or “lion sparrow,” or “lion wren.” (I especially like the last one, lion wren. The idea delights me.) So she stood up and walked to the rim with her binoculars expecting some new bird. While the significance of the encounter enveloped me in the first second, it took minutes and then hours to really dawn on her. 

I could not shut up about it. “Lions…” I’d breathe every so often for the next few days, “mountain lions… two of them…,” and so on. I was high as a kite, high as a soaring redtail, high as a lion wren. Still am, weeks later. Whatever the outcome, this was the gift of a lifetime for me: not one, but two, and the camera, and the tripod. And we were all so calm, so present, so connected in the moment. While my cousin was beginning to wonder “where’s mama?” i.e., what is the threat to me?, I was still simply breathless at their beauty, and utterly focused on them, on watching them, and keeping them in the camera. 

The third morning after, Melinda slept late. I had to face the canyon, walk the dogs, alone. I could have waited for her, but I wanted to get back on the horse. In a few days she’d be gone. If I didn’t go back to my usual routine, my fifteen year long routine, going out alone every morning with the dogs, I thought I might get yard-bound, stay in the fence, think too much about those powerful paws. Though I doubt I’ll see them again. Why should today be different from any other day of the past fifteen years, when I have known, theoretically, lions live here, and I have not seen hide nor hair of one.  

When I saw those lions last month I had not heard of any of these other sightings. Now I am sore afraid for the lions. Is our young lion in Spring Canyon the same one that Pete spooked out of the hayfield a couple of miles south? The same one that panicked the rancher’s wife, that greeted Albert over coffee? Are these the same two lions Sam and Betty saw ten miles away? Certainly they could be; lions can have a home range of more than 30 square miles. Or, they could be seven different lions, all moving through, all miles away by now. But my question is, why are we seeing so many lions this summer?

Human trespass was rare in this canyon until all those new houses were built three years ago. Lion sightings were rare until this summer. Did our reverent observation that morning, our communion with the two lions, deceive them about human nature? Were they already that bold, or did our calm encourage them to be unwary? Or is this a case of self-fulfilling prophecy? Has Keri, walking, stalking up and down the canyon now for three years with her pack of dogs, slashing and burning native cover, cutting trail wherever she pleases without regard to people’s boundaries, or lions’, acclimated them to humans and dogs, so that now we do have a lion problem? Or is it simply that it is a good year for deer, and therefore a good year for lions?    

I did not tell the dinner party about our two lions, or Dave at the Post Office, or Keri.
Since our sighting I have shown the video to a handful of people, all sworn to secrecy. “Lives are at stake,” I said. Despite my utmost precautions, however, these lions might do themselves in through being too bold, too fearless, too calm. It’s out of my hands. All I can do is watch and wait, keep my secret from my neighbors, and count my blessings.

 

 

to share the excitement, go to this YouTube video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6y4PMxwILZo

 

Two Months Later:

 

A month after my cousin and I saw the lions in Spring Canyon, I heard of several more sightings. A neighbor across the canyon lost a chained dog (a lion hunting hound, ironically) to a lion. The dog was pulled out of its collar and partially eaten not far from the other dogs. Another neighbor south of the canyon called to tell me that her next-door-neighbor had been awakened one morning by a lion pacing and hissing outside his dog pen. For 35 minutes they watched as the lion hissed, and drooled, and lunged at the fence. This raised the possibility that the lion was rabid. It happens. For awhile I kept my gun in my garden basket, on the off chance. I heard a really weird noise one day while I was down at the pond, a noise moving through the brush right outside the fence. I was glad I had the gun, just in case, but the noise moved on. It’s also possible that the rancher who lost the dog may have poisoned the carcass, and caused the lion to hiss and drool at the next dogs south. Anyway, another month has passed, with no further accounts of lion sightings. Maybe they’ve moved on, dispersed to the high country. Maybe it’s the end of the Summer of Lions. It was a glorious time. Walking through the woods with the dogs, irrigating the Ranger’s field across the canyon, landscaping in the yard, the knowledge that the woods were full of lions gave every moment outside a delicious, wild edge. There’s nothing like knowing you could be potential prey to heighten your awareness of being alive.

 

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