Wild Encounters

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Let the lions live

A few years ago, I read an article in the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner about a hunter who’d shot an “angry” mountain lion while hunting mule deer. Investigators from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources determined that the hunter had acted in self-defense against the lion, a nursing mother.

I had trouble understanding why the animal had to die. While I never faulted the hunter who apparently thought his life was threatened, I also believed that his quick-to-shoot mentality was unnecessary. My opinion stems from two sightings of mountain lions while hiking and some of the books I’ve read, including The Beast in the Garden by David Baron.

Some would call my point of view idealistic and impractical. Besides, they might tell me, you’ve never been prey and pursued by 150 pounds of hungry cat. Until last fall.

It was early morning in late September, at the fifth camp of a nine-day float trip down Utah’s Green River through Desolation and Gray canyons. The stars were fading into sunrise as I walked through a stand of willows some 30 feet from where river ranger Jim Wright slept on his raft, and from where my wife, Diane, slept above the beach on a terrace ringed with driftwood. Padding through the cool sand in my bare feet, the possibility of more sleep conflicted with my desire for a hot cup of tea.

Then a twig snapped off to my right, I saw a flash of buckskin and wondered why a deer would come so close to camp. But the movement through the shadows came from a crouched mountain lion crawling through the brush to intercept my path. Fear shot through my body like a lightning bolt, electrifying nerve endings from my scalp to my toes. My brain seemed to buzz.

I turned to run. One step, and I realized the lion was preparing to pounce. Pivoting on one foot, I took a step toward the poised lion, which froze in its tracks 15 feet away. We stared at each other for a half second before I realized that it wasn’t backing away but intent on my next move. I didn’t know what to do: Should I act as if I posed a greater threat or should I back away slowly?

I screamed. Loud as I could, I screamed and raised my arms to appear larger and unafraid, then screamed again and yelled “Bear spray! Bring the bear spray!” Meanwhile, the lion showed no sign of alarm; it just kept staring deep into my eyes, almost in contemplation. There was never a twitch from its whiskers.

My screams woke up Diane and Jim, and when they both screamed, the lion’s concentration faltered. Within moments, Jim triggered an emergency air horn, and to my relief, I watched a long tail disappear in the cottonwoods. Back home, I revisited the article about the hunter who’d shot the “angry” mountain lion and found this advice from the investigating officer, Lt. Scott Davis: “The last thing you want to do is run. Stand tall, make noise, grab sticks, rocks, do anything you can to scare it. If it does get ahold of you, do anything you can to inflict pain — hit, kick, poke eyes, anything.”

His advice must have been lodged in my memory and probably saved both our lives. Yes, I feared the lion, but I also admired it. I’ve come to think of lions as symbols of all things wild and beautiful, and if I were killed by an attacking lion in one of the wildest places on earth, it would have been — though I’d rather it didn’t happen — an honor.

Unfortunately, society would have found this unacceptable and likely would have destroyed this lion, which was doing what comes naturally. We like to worry more about atypical dangers — such as a mountain lion attack — than about more likely threats to life such as car accidents, which kill some 40,000 people every year. I know others might disagree because they accept the risks of driving a car but find a lion attack a totally unacceptable risk.

For my part, I believe that we need wild places and wild animals in our world; it’s up to us to accept some danger while learning how to make coexistence possible.

~ by Dan Miller, Western Wildlife Conservancy board member

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