Last Monday, in a small community about 15 miles southwest of Denver, a man and wife left the French doors to their master bedroom slightly ajar with their two dogs sleeping on the floor beside them.
At about 4:30 in the morning, a mountain lion walked into the bedroom. The woman woke at the sound, got out of bed, and in the darkness made out a shape. "There's an animal in here," she said to her husband, and she didn't mean the dogs.
But the lion already had the couple's 12-year-old yellow Labrador in its jaws. Predator and prey disappeared into the grey dusk. The next day, wildlife officers found the partially eaten remains of the dog buried beneath some pine needles. With the couple's permission, a trap was set. When the cougar returned to finish the meal, the cougar was caught, then euthanized.
I found this story, about a mountain lion who had lost its fear of humans, buried on page 10 of the newspaper next to an ad for a climate-control company and below an ad advertising replacement windows. On the flip side of the page was a brief story about a teen-age boy charged with animal cruelty after allegedly running over a raven with his car.
A month ago, the first night my new horse Farside spent out with the herd on 300 acres of mountain pasture in the rustic community where I live, a predator attacked Farside, leaving four distinct but superficial claw marks on the left hip and four minor wounds on the right hip. None of the rake marks cut deeply. The animal, most likely a cougar, must have leaped from a tree, but missed its mark on this newest, and thus most vulnerable, member of the horse herd.
Last year, a mountain lion wandered into the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe and leaped through a jewelry store's plate glass window, setting off the burglar alarm. (The journalist who reported the story resisted the temptation to call him a Cat Burglar.) The animal was anesthetized, then relocated to a more remote mountain range in New Mexico. The jewelry store owner had to replace the safety glass, which had fallen like crystal webbing to the floor beneath the display cases.
Three years ago, driving down the dirt road near home about 10:00 o'clock at night, a mountain lion disappeared across the road and into the trees between the rustic mountain houses. A few days earlier, a neighbor had been walking at the bottom of this same road when two mountain lion cubs tumbled down the steep hill above the road, landing at her feet.
Four years ago, I spent a month on a solo-retreat near the Cloud Peak Wilderness area in Wyoming. I hiked the elk trails through the forest, watched for bear sign, inspected cougar scat, and listened to the cooing of blue grouse. I watched my back trail, keeping my gaze both ahead and above. If I had any trepidation, it was more about encountering two-legged predators, than four-legged ones. Luckily, I walked the trails unharmed.
My heart goes out to the couple who lost their beloved yellow Lab. We once had a black Lab named Hondo whose death came less dramatically, yet it still took me over a year to muster the courage to write about the weekend he died, and how we buried him beside the oak draw he loved to explore. My son, grown now, has a yellow Lab named Durango who, until a few weeks ago, did not know how to swim. Matt had to teach him.
Nature is not flawless. There are water dogs who can't swim. Trees that grow sideways. Cougar cubs who can't quite learn how to negotiate the trails. Adult mountain lions who forget their shyness. Humans who hunt for fun but not food, and humans who prey on their own kind.
I don't know what the lesson is in all of this, except that perhaps we should be more concerned about our place in the scheme of things, than controlling the climate within that place. But like the lions who roam the lands where we build our houses, we are predators, walking that fine line between loving and fearing nature. Perhaps that line, if we had to name it as we do our streets, would be called Respect.