Big cats on the block

  In The Beast in the Garden, David Baron weaves a compelling parable of man and animal, of the Old West and the New West, of wildlife that is no longer wild. Looking back at the history of mountain lions in Boulder County, Colo., over the past 150 years, he writes about our changing relationship with these predators.

Beginning with Isabella Bird’s 19th century comments about "cowardly, bloodthirsty" cougars, the author shows how mountain lions, once enemies to be exterminated, have become revered symbols of a wilderness that no longer truly exists.

Though he frames the story around the death of a young Idaho Springs man from a mountain lion attack, Baron tells the larger tale of ever-growing conflicts between humans and predators. In Boulder County, as in other places where the urban and the wild come together, the numbers of deer and other prey have increased dramatically. These animals flourish in an artificial environment of protected open space, man-made lakes and lush gardens.

This abundant prey attracts cougars, and inevitably, the cats become more and more accustomed to humans, moving around during the day instead of at night, lounging on decks, and eating dogs. From here, Baron argues, it is a natural next step for lions to confront, chase and even devour people. Sadly, his predictions have been borne out by recent cougar attacks in Southern California.

The theme is all too familiar around the West: We move into the foothills and forests to be closer to the wild. Then bears get into our garbage, our dogs are eaten by mountain lions, and we feel betrayed by nature. Baron offers a common-sense prescription for making peace with these great beasts in our gardens: Keep the pets inside, stop feeding the deer, and learn to give our wild neighbors as much respect as our human neighbors.

The Beast in the Garden by David Baron
274 pages, hardcover, $24.95
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004