TCS Daily

Loving Monsters

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 5, 2003 12:00 AM

NPR science reporter David Baron has a new book out, called The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature. Baron's book is about the return of cougars to the Boulder, Colorado area after decades of hunting-induced absence, and their eventual taste for eating human beings -- along with the various fantasy ideologies regarding wildlife and nature that this chain of events revealed.


But, in light of the book's subtitle, I don't think it will be terribly unfair if I use this story as a, er, parable. For the story it tells is, at core, an old one: Monsters are loose, and some people know it, while others pretend not to.


It's a standard theme, from old tales to modern stories like Harry Potter and Buffy. The modern twist is that some people see it as moral to take the side of the people-eaters. One suspects that this isn't so much in spite of the people-eating, but because of it.


Cougars were once regarded as timid, fearful of humans, and far more likely to flee at the sight of people than to regard us as food. Of course, there was a reason for that: for millennia, humans had attacked Cougars whenever possible, regarding them as a menace to safety and as competitors for valuable game. Showing one's face around Indians produced arrows, spears, and torches; later on, appearing around European settlers produced a faceful of lead. Aggressive cougars tended to die young, or to receive sufficient aversive conditioning to learn to leave humans alone.


Later on, a generalized revulsion against predators set in. As Baron notes (it's the source of his title, in fact), meat-eating was supposed by some to have begun with Original Sin -- "carnivores" in the Garden of Eden were said to have eaten fruits. In the post-lapsarian world, however, hunting was long seen as something manly, championed by those, like Teddy Roosevelt, who feared that excessive urbanization and industrialization would cause Americans to become too distanced from the reality of nature. But as that distancing took place in spite of Roosevelt's efforts, what is now called "fluffy bunny" syndrome appeared, and predators were regarded as inherently evil. Coupled with stockmen's continuing aversion to having their cattle and sheep eaten by predators, this produced programs of predator eradication that led to the near-extinction of cougars' only natural enemy, the gray wolf, and the removal of cougars from all but the most remote areas.


But then "fluffy bunny" syndrome extended itself to become "fluffy mountain lion syndrome." Government-sponsored cougar hunting ended, bounties were removed, and cougars started to make a comeback. Boulder's inhabitants disliked hunters, and liked the idea of living with wildlife, causing populations of deer in residential areas to explode. Meanwhile low-density housing meant that more and more people were living along the boundary between settled and unsettled areas. As cougars, their fear of humans having dissipated after years of not being hunted, moved into semiurban areas bursting with deer, they acclimated to human beings. People were no longer scary and, after a while, started to look like food.


It's at this point that Baron's book -- which is very much nonfiction -- starts to read like a thriller novel. Scientists and outdoorsmen began to warn of danger, but they were ignored by both the Boulder public -- which was sentimentally attached to the idea of free-roaming wildlife -- and state wildlife-protection bureaucrats, who downplayed first the presence, and then the danger, posed by the cougars. Dogs and cats started being eaten, cougars started threatening people, and yet meetings on the subject were dominated by people who "came to speak for the cougars."


In the end, of course, people started to be eaten, and the bureaucracy woke up to a degree. There's lots of interesting stuff in Baron's book about ecological change, and the folly of seeking "wilderness" without recognizing humanity's role in nature, but to me the most interesting behavior isn't the predatory nature of the cougars -- which are, after all, predators -- but the willful ignorance of human beings. So many were so invested in the notion that by thinking peaceful thoughts they could will into existence a state of peaceful affairs that they ignored the evidence right in front of them, which tended to suggest that cougars were quite happy to eat anything that was juicy, delicious, and unlikely to fight back.


This is, as Baron notes, something of a parable -- and not merely a parable of man and "nature." One need only look at the treatment of such other topics as crime, terrorism, and warfare to see examples of the same sort of misplaced sentimentality and willful ignorance. Tolerance of criminality leads to more crime; tolerance of terrorism leads to more terrorism; efforts to appear defenseless lead to war.

Nonetheless, the same strand of wishful thinking appears: perhaps this time, the cougars won't want to eat us. Some people, apparently, would rather be dinner than face up to the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that -- in this fallen world, at least -- the lion lies down with the lamb only after the lamb's neck is broken. (Worse yet is the noxious strand of liberalism that suggests we somehow deserve to be dinner.)


In the United States, such silliness seems to have diminished in recent years, though it is still ongoing in Britain, where aggressive efforts to ban hunting (believed by some observers to be politically motivated) have produced promises of civil disobedience.


The effort to remake the world so that it is safe for predators seems rather odd to me. What sort of person would rather be prey? The sort who lives in upscale neighborhoods, and campaigns against hunting, apparently. I suspect that over the long term this isn't a viable evolutionary strategy in a world where predators abound.


Cougar sightings
If we were to admit that there were mountain lions in an area we would have to admit that there may be justification for carrying a firearm. That's a big no no in Illinois.

We certainly don't want the citizenry to think that they may have to defend themselves from a beastie.

More Monsters
TO: All
RE: Bus Stop Snacks

I recall hearing a report of the alligators in Florida. Currently protected by the same sort of let-us-protect-all-the-killers mentality Glenn describes for Colorado's lions and bears, these carnivorous reptiles have flourished.

The report that comes to mind everytime I see an article like this is of one gator that showed up at school bus stops in the afternoon....

.....looking for a mid-day snack....


[Here there be monsters!]

P.S. I can see the signage now.

A pole with three signs on it. From the top down:

Bus Stop; with the picture of children
Wild Life Refuge; with the picture of a gator.
Don't Feed the Animals.

And some graffiti artist will draw a gator chasing children and scrawl, "Much" on the last one.

Loving Monsters: "Cougars and Lions and Lambs; Oh my."
Heinlein addresses this question repeatedly.

Two examples:

1) The Lion and the Lamb Sideshow exhibit

at the Carnival has two rules for success:

1) Keep the Lion well fed.

2) Keep a spare Lamb handy.

2) The "Speaks for Cougars" analysis, summarized:

1) Animals are people with fur, a beautiful

part of Nature, except for Humans.

2) Hate Humanity, hate myself; Want to die.

Humanity: UNintelligent design at its finest;

Well, that may be a bit harsh.

We came out of the caves yesterday, we came down

from the trees last week; Give us a month or so

to get used to being conscious beings, and we'll

be right - if we survive that long.

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