I just finished The Beast In the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature by David Baron. This non-fiction book is a quick read and outlines the comeback of the mountain lion, or cougar, along the Front Range, during the late 1980s to early 1990s. The cougar had been nearly wiped out by government bounties in the early part of the twentieth century, but the explosion of deer along the Front Range, along with revocation of that bounty, led to a comeback. In parts of the Denver metro area, mountain lions came to co-exist with human beings. This was especially true in Boulder, where the nature loving Boulderites assured a plentiful meat supply when they wouldn’t cull deer herds. The mountain lions grow familiar with human habits, learn that humans don’t mean danger, and end up mauling a high school student.
I really enjoyed the way the events were outlined, and Baron does a good job of making sure the science and character development are well balanced. He follows a few of the key players for the entire time, while bringing in other interesting characters, like the cougar hunter, as they appear. The science seems reasonable to me, though I haven’t taken a biology class since high school: large animals don’t have a natural aversion to humanity. Rather, this is a learned trait passed from generation to generation. Remove the killing that caused the aversion, and the animals will become more and more comfortable around humanity, to the point of considering humans a food source.
In the larger sense, though, this book is about managing wilderness, and realizing that as soon as you put a house up in a forest, you’ve changed the stakes. Humans love being around nature, but bleat for help as soon as nature threatens. In some ways, we want a Disneyland version of the forest–all of the beauty with none of the danger. You see this all the time with folks who build around national forest; as soon as fires season comes, they need to be protected. This is a thorny problem, and answers aren’t simple. The Beast In the Garden really is a parable, and I’m not sure we’ve learned the lessons.