One afternoon in mid-January 1991, students in a high school English class in Idaho Springs, Colo., saw a familiar sight outside their classroom windows: Their schoolmate Scott Lancaster, a dedicated competitive cyclist, was starting his daily training run on the wooded ridge behind Clear Creek High School. The 18-year-old clowned for the class as he passed by, then continued on his circuit. He was never seen alive again.

The Beast in the Garden
By David Baron
W.W. Norton and Company,
277 pages, 2003

Two days later, searchers found Lancaster less than half a mile from the school. The young man’s body had been eviscerated — his heart and a lung were missing — and his face had been torn away. Searchers thought Lancaster had been the victim of a bizarre murder. Then a mountain lion showed up on the scene, and the county sheriff and his colleagues became the first to make the connection: Lancaster, a healthy adult, had been killed by a wild predator.

Because the discovery of Lancaster’s body coincided with the start of the first Gulf War, his death was largely ignored by the national press and the Colorado media alike. More than a decade later, though, longtime National Public Radio science reporter David Baron has given this story some thoughtful attention. In The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature, Baron places Lancaster’s death in context, tracing the long and troubled history of human-cat relations. “What prompted a cougar to make such an exceptional and discomfiting choice of prey?” Baron asks. The answer, he says, is “in the landscape.”

During the past few decades, Baron explains, Colorado towns on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains have sprawled into the forests and plains that surrounded them, dissecting wildlife habitat with neighborhoods and shopping centers. But the university town of Boulder — less than 30 miles from Idaho Springs — has protected its “natural” character with a belt of open space, acreage that has attracted not only joggers and hikers but also a booming, never-hunted deer population. In the late 1980s, the deer drew normally shy mountain lions into the islands of undeveloped land; the lions soon ventured into nearby suburbs, where they learned to prey on family dogs and cats. Most Boulder residents didn’t mind the lions’ presence, and some were even enthusiastic about the “wild” animals’ return to their former habitat. But Michael Sanders, a Boulder County wildlife biologist, worried that the lions were actually losing their wildness and becoming accustomed to suburban morsels. He feared they’d soon begin to prey on people themselves.

Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…

Photo: California Dept. of
Fish and Game.

Sanders teamed up with renowned wildlife biologist and tracker Jim Halfpenny and started collecting reports of local mountain lion sightings. Despite increasingly emphatic warnings by the pair, most Boulder residents remained sanguine, and the state Division of Wildlife declined to act. During the summer before Lancaster’s death, human encounters with mountain lions grew more menacing. Jogger Lynda Walters was treed and wounded in a terrifying run-in with a pair of lions, and a lion was spotted skulking through the frat parties on University Hill. Still, many in Boulder continued to believe that they could live with their lions. Lancaster, Baron says, was effectively “killed by a community embracing a myth: the idea that wilderness, true wilderness, could exist in modern America.”

Baron wasn’t present for these events, so he has reconstructed them through extensive interviews and other research. The details he includes sometimes seem like overkill — we learn, among other things, how many acupuncturists were listed in the Boulder Yellow Pages in 1987 — but the minutiae add up to a vivid, well-told tale. Most of the human-cat encounters read much like firsthand accounts, and their growing frequency and intensity give the book momentum.

With the cool head of an outsider, Baron easily picks out the failings of different factions in the community. The wildlife advocates in Boulder couldn’t see that the cats were losing their usual fear of humans. Some residents of the Boulder outskirts didn’t expect their “wilderness” homes to come equipped with potentially dangerous neighbors. State Division of Wildlife officials, piqued by Boulder residents’ opposition to deer hunting in city open space, couldn’t bring themselves to support further study of mountain lion behavior in the suburbs. Even numerous wildlife biologists — colleagues of Sanders and Halfpenny — didn’t believe that lions could be a serious threat to people. “Many of the scientists saw no reason to rethink basic assumptions of how cougars relate to humans,” Baron writes. “They knew that mountain lions were not man eaters.”

Though the book jacket optimistically compares The Beast in the Garden to Jaws, Baron isn’t trying to scare us off the figurative beach. Colorado residents are far more likely to be killed by a lightning strike, an avalanche, or a skiing accident than a mountain lion, he writes: “In fact, if one considers the actions of serial cannibal Daniel Blue during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859, the state can boast more documented cases of people being eaten by other people than by mountain lions.” Mountain lions, he makes clear, are not the villains here; they’re simply learning to survive in a tremendously altered landscape.

But the lions are learning fast, and not just in Colorado. In 2002, Baron reports, a lion was spotted in a suburban Minneapolis park, and there’s evidence that lions are venturing toward the urbanized East. Other predators — coyotes in particular, but bears and wolves as well — are clearly learning to take advantage of human habits.

The deeper lesson of Baron’s story is that we can no longer escape our profound influence on nature. We’ve bulldozed much of the landscape, introduced invasive species, and even changed the climate. That doesn’t mean that wildlife habitat and open space are not worth protecting, he argues; it means that effective protection has become a much more complicated job. “If nature has grown artificial,” he writes, “then restoring wildness requires human intervention. We must manage nature in order to leave it alone.”

In other words, we can’t just set aside acreage and relax. If we want the places we protect to function anything like natural systems, we may have to control prey populations through hunting or other measures, rebuild wetlands, or actively scour out exotic species. In the Boulder area, for example, residents and wildlife managers have become more savvy in the last few years. Through a few simple measures — keeping domestic dogs in roofed pens and scaring mountain lions out of town with “aversive conditioning” like air horns and rubber bullets — they’re reducing the likelihood of attacks, and helping to maintain a spark of wildness in the lions themselves.

Instead of idealizing intact (or apparently intact) landscapes, The Beast in the Garden untangles our assumptions about those landscapes, helping to clarify the fascinating — and often disturbing — connections between humans and nature. The “parable” of Scott Lancaster’s death could serve us well: It could not only help us avoid future tragedies, but also push us toward a more rational and nuanced relationship with the natural world.