Wondering where the lions are

I had another dream about lions at the door;
They weren’t half as frightening as they were before. -Bruce Cockburn

The American lion was twice as large as the modern-day African lion.

The American lion was twice as large as the modern-day African lion. From tumblr @owoodsga.

I’m working on a presentation about restoration for a guest lecture at UC Berkeley. I’m trying to put the vast trajectory of restoration science into some kind of narrative that this class of students can meaningfully internalize. My main focus so far is the fact that our ecosystems are in the middle of a massive trophic cascade, and that this must be considered in restoration. (More on that later.) Essentially, our ecosystems, on account of a series of human and non-human stressors, have lost an astonishing amount of function and diversity over the past several thousand years, and been massively restructured. We no longer have mammoths, giant ground sloths, or North American lions. The only place we see mammals of even near comparable size is in the oceans, and these are very rare. Most people probably feel relief that there are no longer huge browsers and mesopredators wandering around our landscapes, but for myself, this knowledge triggers nothing but unease. And sadness.

This exercise has got me thinking about what we really mean when we intend to do restoration; what, when, are we restoring to? how do we compensate for the huge loss of ecosystem function since the extinction of the North American megafauna? really, how do we compensate for our societal incompatibility with large apex predators? Typically, when a mountain lion enters an urban area here in California, the reaction is one of semi-organized panic. Police officers mount watches; it’s all over the evening news; parents and pet-owners go stone-cold nuts on social media. Most of the time the cat has either been spooked and wants to hide or is looking for a place to sleep. The frantic vigil continues until, usually, the cat stalks off into the semi-wilderness from whence it came. We hardly ever hear about attacks, let alone fatalities attributable to these animals. Yet we are absolutely terrified of them. For a people who claim to be fascinated by nature, we sure have a lot of problems accepting it into our lives.

I remember watching the first season of Weeds and getting so angry about the scene where the child shoots the mountain lion in the face with a BB gun and it is seen prowling about their yard with blood streaming down its face. As if it was stalking the house, waiting for the children to come out in order to strike with tooth and claw. I believe that is how most people think of our lions, and it’s a shame.

When a mountain lion wandered into the moderately wooded city of Berkeley from nearby parklands in the middle of the night, it was promptly shot and killed by police officers who deemed it too dangerous to wait for a trained wildlife officer to arrive from Sacramento to tranquilize and relocate her. None of the officers present were trained in wildlife management measures. In all probability, the cat would have sniffed around a few yards, searching for the deer it had tracked down the quiet streets from the hills, and silently gone on its way, causing no harm. The chances of that lion harming a human were so minuscule as to be meaningless. Luckier cats likely make this short round-trip (1-2 miles from the parklands to the city) several dozen a times a year without anyone noticing.

I wonder what we’re so afraid of. An average of 1200 American children are killed in car crashes per year. How many children are killed by mountain lions per year?

Want to guess?

It’s fewer than one per year. In fact, only fifteen child fatalities have been attributed to mountain lion predation in the entire 20th century. Yet, we center our lives around our cars and we banish lions from our cities on pain of death.

I believe this dissonance comes from a place of imagined control; we believe we have enough control over our vehicles, and over the behavior of the other vehicles on the road, that it is safe enough to subject our children to the perils of passenger cars. Predators aren’t predictable. And they’re alien forms of life most
people haven’t been taught to understand. So we fear them. And we kill them.


Mountain lion cubs “treed” on a fence. A pack of coyotes is nearby. (c) Lori Iverson/USFWS Creative Commons.

I urge everyone who has any sort of admiration for lions- for nature in general- not to increase their fear of car trips- fear does nothing but harm- but to work on decreasing their fear of the things that are so unlikely to harm them. Lions, for instance, want nothing more than to avoid people. We frighten them, which is why hardly anyone ever sees one, even those of us who work in semiwild parks nearly every day. In my entire 35 years in the Bay Area, I’ve never seen one alive.

Human populations continue to increase, and increasingly there is nowhere for our native lions to go. They require vast amounts of open space that is swiftly vanishing, especially in California. Most importantly, we can’t pick and choose our palette of wildlife. When large predators are removed from an ecosystem, their loss triggers a cascade that is staggering to contemplate. To think that when wolves were extirpated from Yosemite, a process was triggered that resulted in destruction of the rivers. We cannot love rivers yet not love wolves. They are connected.

Let’s not destroy everything we love about nature out of fear.

Up among the firs where it smells so sweet, or down in the valley where the river used to be, I’ve got my mind on eternity. And I’m wondering where the lions are.


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