A recent lockdown at my daughters' elementary school in Boulder, Colo., brought horrific images to mind. But it was no big deal: merely a bear seen near the playground. Ironically, an outdoors program was under way, complete with kayak pool, climbing wall and mountain-bike course. The Iockdown is typical of how wildlife interactions can so often become over-reactions.
Like many of my fellow citizens in the "Republic of Boulder," I was lured here by the combination of natural beauty, liberal thinking and college-town atmosphere. We take pride in the acres of open space that prevent urban sprawl and provide recreation for our 1 00,000 residents. However, the greenbelt also provides habitat for mountain lions, bears, deer, foxes and prairie dogs.
Every fall, along with the steaming piles of bear poop on the sidewalks, come the almost daily articles in our local paper about wildlife-human strife. My neighbor across the alley got caught in the crossfire after reporting a cougar prowling University Hill. Concerned for the safety of her four kids, two dogs, two cats and numerous chickens, she called 911. The cougar escaped unscathed; my neighbor didn't. The newspaper report sparked a ridiculous volume of on-line comments --86 in all and one 260 words long -- compared with a meager nine comments on a debate about the war in Iraq. One reader called my neighbor's chickens "lion bait;" another said "If you and your family/children are not willing to take the risk of being mauled or killed, then move elsewhere or don't go outside."
It's almost too easy to create a caricature of the soccer mom or dot-com dad who likes a mountain views free of pesky wildlife. But when an 800-pound moose wandered into the suburbs between Boulder and Denver, I was struck by the rancor of one newspaper reader: "He got lost in a city of yuppies. He was more scared than they were. No reason to kill him, folks. If you are paying attention you won't wreck you(r) BMW hitting him. Moose are people, too." After drawing a crowd, the moose was tranquilized and transported into habitat better than an office park on Broomfield's Industrial Lane.
The wildlife debate took a tragic twist in October when Jeremy Kocar shot and killed a 140-pound cougar that was attacking his puppy. Sinapu, an organization dedicated to protecting native predators, called for criminal charges against Kocar for "baiting" a predator. Most locals know that tethering a puppy outdoors overnight in cougar habitat is not a good idea. But Kocar wasn't a local. He and his family were from Wisconsin and living temporarily in Colorado. When Sinapu's director pushed for charges against Kocar for hunting out of season and without a license, I think she did her organization a disservice.
By the end of October, I, for one, was ready for some comic relief. It came, like a script for a bad sitcom, from a miscommunication. Wildlife officers arrived at a home in a small mountain town near Boulder expecting to find an aggressive bear clawing at a screen door. Instead, they found a hungry Abert's squirrel. The resident, who had called 911, was afraid the rodent was rabid and, perhaps in her panic, she Frenchified the tuft-eared squirrel's name. "Abert" became "a bear."
This time, some of the online commentators skewered the animal defenders: "I mean, what kind of ignorant mountain resident keeps food in their house,"wrote one reader. "Clearly she was trying to bait this poor animal. Furthermore she seriously endangered the creature by installing screens that can be chewed and ingested causing serious distress to this noble beast."
Managing wildlife and human safety is a delicate balance. I've come to accept the risk that my children play outside in what was once exclusive bear and cougar territory, just as I accept the more likely risk that they could be hit by a driver talking on a cell phone as they bike to school. I won't keep them locked in the house, but I will teach them to stick together, especially at dusk. And if a cougar attacks me, my dog or my family, I won't think twice about fighting it off -- to the death if necessary.
With our supposedly bigger brains, we humans have the responsibility to control the temptations that lure wildlife into the city - from our scrumptious garbage to free-range chickens. And when predators attack or threaten children and pets, I think people deserve at least as much sympathy as mountain lions and bears. After all, people are animals, too.
Monique Cole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she recently found two raccoons in her pantry. She didn't call 911.