Close Encounters Of A Lion Kind: Meeting Cougars, Foxes, Bears ... and Bear Poop

We must coexist with animals with whom we share space

Posted Apr 04, 2010

Because my living space encroaches on the terrain of mountain lions and many other carnivores-- including coyotes, red foxes, and black bears--the likelihood of meeting one of these beasts is fairly high. Red foxes entertain me regularly by playing outside of my office or on my deck. I once had a young, male black bear casually stroll onto my deck, try to swat open a screen door that leads to my dining room (where I happened to be eating dinner at the time). He stepped back when he couldn't get the door to open, looked at me, and just hung out until I went to the door and asked him what he thought he was doing. He continued to look at me, sort of shrugged as if he couldn't care less about my being there, and strolled off and rested for about an hour under a hammock near the house below mine.

I've been lucky to have many such unplanned encounters with various animals, for nature doesn't hold court at our convenience. Much happens in the complex lives of our animal kin to which we're not privy, but it's a truly splendid moment when we're fortunate to see animals at work. Mountain lions, like black bears and foxes, also visit my home with little or no hesitation. They seem extremely comfortable sharing my home range with me, having habituated to my presence over the years. And technically I was the one who moved into their home. Somebody redecorated the lions' habitat by building my house smack in the middle of their living room.

It's not surprising, then, that I've had some very close encounters with my feline neighbors, including the time I almost fell over a huge male as I walked backwards to warn some of my neighbors of his presence. On a warm July day years ago, I arrived home thoroughly exhausted after racing my bicycle for three hours in Denver, only to learn that a mountain lion had killed a deer up the road from my house and was still lurking in the neighborhood. Some of my neighbors had small children, so I hiked up the road to tell them what had happened, each step causing my fatigued legs to ache. When I got to the first house a few hundred yards west of mine, I saw my neighbor on his porch and yelled to him that there was a lion around and that it would be a good idea to keep his kids home. Just as I turned to walk toward the next house, I came face to face with a large male lion--so close that we could easily have shaken hands. Of course, I was terrified and ran up the hillside, wearing clogs, yelling all the way "There's a lion here, there's a lion here!" The lion just stood there watching me run, thank goodness.  Later I learned that he had stashed his kill, a large mule deer buck, down below where I'd made his acquaintance. Luckily, I didn't cross the path between him and his catch. I'm sure that's why he didn’t chase me--that and the fact that he had a full belly, having eaten, we later estimated, about 20 pounds of fresh deer.

At a later date, when I told some people what had happened to me, some had the audacity, though they were well intentioned, to tell me that it was stupid of me to run. They informed me that it's best to tell the lion who's boss by yelling and screaming and shaking your fist or some object --like a tree branch--at him. As a field biologist who had studied coyotes for years, of course I knew that it was best to intimidate a lion, not run from him or her. But I must say that when I looked a cougar in the eye from about 2 feet away, instinct took over. Fleeing trumped remaining and trying to convince him that I wasn't scared. I was. I think that if I weren't dehydrated from having been in a bike race earlier that day, I'd have peed my pants. Had I done so, I suppose it would have been interesting to see the lion's reaction. Of course, with his keen sense of smell, there can be no doubt that the lion knew that I was quivering inside, regardless of my serendipitously empty bladder. I remember going to sleep that night imagining a headline in the local paper saying something like "University of Colorado Carnivore Expert Who Ran from a Cougar Gets Maimed--What Was He Thinking?" Now, that would have been hard to live down, wouldn't it?

A few years later I met another lion and discovered much about nature that I'd only read about. There's just so much we don't know! Late on Friday evening I was driving up my road and saw a large tan animal trotting down towards my car. Thinking it was my neighbor's German shepherd, Lolo, I stopped and stepped partly out of my car to say hello, only to hear Lolo barking behind me and, at the same time, coming face-to-face with a male mountain lion. He stared at me and then walked off. I jumped back in my car, slammed the door shut, peeled out, drove home, and walked to my house with all my senses on fire. I was really scared, although on reflection not as frightened as I'd been when I'd met the lion up my road years ago. Lolo made it home safely as well, and the next morning my neighbor told me that she'd found a red fox carcass so I went to look at it. The fox, a very healthy looking male, had clearly been killed by the lion by a bite to his neck, but most of his body was intact and partially covered with branches, dirt, and some of his own fur. It looked as if the lion had tried to cover his prey, perhaps thinking that he'd go back for a meal later on. I checked the carcass the next morning and it was still partially covered and unchanged from the day before. The lion hadn't returned.

Two days later, at about at 6:15 AM I headed out to hike with my canine companion, Jethro, having waited until there was some light so we didn't encounter our lion friend again. I looked down the road and saw a small red female fox trying to cover the carcass. I was fascinated. She was deliberately orienting her body so that when she kicked debris with her hind legs it would cover her friend, perhaps her mate. (There's been a family of foxes near my house for more than a decade and I assume she was related to, or at least a close friend of, the deceased.) She'd kick dirt, stop, look at the carcass, and intentionally kick again. I observed this ritual for about 20 seconds. A few hours later I went to see the carcass and indeed it was now totally buried. I uncovered it and saw that it had been decapitated and partially eaten. I felt incredibly sad, trying to imagine what it was like for the fox as he ran from the lion, got caught, and then killed, most likely with a bite to his neck. Did he think he could outrun this large and tenacious predator? As an ethologist, the questions that motivate my own research are "What is it like to be a given animal?" and "What does it feel like to be that individual?" Because I've spent decades studying animal emotions it was natural for me to empathize with the fox and imagine that he must have felt incredible fear as he tried to out fox the lion, perhaps looking for possible escape routes that the larger animal couldn't follow, or running here and there, cutting small circles that the lion couldn't keep up with.

Three years after this series of fascinating encounters, I heard a scaping noise outside of my bedroom window at about two in the morning. I didn't see anything but as I was peering out I heard a mournful, high-pitched cry. Later, as the sun rose, I went out to see what had happened and discovered a long path laden with deer hair and blood etched into my sandy driveway. I subsequently learned that a lion had dragged a large male mule deer he'd killed about 50 yards up the road down the road, across a grassy field, and then down my driveway, where he cached his victim for a later delight. I again found myself wondering what the deer felt before the kill. While I find it almost impossible to step back and look at events like this with total objectivity, as many a scientist would do, I do see them as reflecting cycles of life "out there in the natural world." So, while I surely feel for the foxor the deer;I also marvel at the predatory skills of mountain lions and other highly evolved "natural born killers." Killing for food is how they make their living, so someone has to pay the price for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nature is not always pretty, nor are lions to be blamed for killing for food. That's the way it is although I wish that this wasn't the case. Having run from a lion myself, though, I have to say that it's certainly easier to put myself in the fox's shoes. No one to whom I have spoken including naturalists, people who live among wild animals, or professional biologists, has ever seen a red fox bury another red fox and very few have seen a mountain lion kill a fox. However, a neighbor of mine told me that he'd seen a red fox "flying across his porch." Seconds later, he saw a mountain lion in serious pursuit of his early morning snack. I'd seen the lion about 30 minutes earlier, just above my friend's home.

What's also interesting is that while I frequently see red foxes around my home they've been very rare this spring. On the other hand, three times in the past few weeks I'd sensed a lion nearby. In the past, whenever I've sensed the presence of a lion I saw one later on. You just know they're there, you can really feel them lurking about. And if we know they're there, so do foxes and other animals who spend far more time and energy avoiding these magnificent predators.

As I discuss in my book The Emotional Lives of Animals, we know that individuals of many species hold rituals for those who have departed, saying their good-byes in their species-specific ways. I've observed a magpie funeral, llamas, turltes, and otters grieve the loss of friends, and gorillas are known to hold wakes. I don't know if the female fox was intentionally trying to bury her friend, but there's no reason to assume she wasn't. Perhaps she was grieving and I was observing a fox funeral. I have no doubt that foxes and other animals have rich and deep emotional lives. Back in 1947 a naturalist on the East Coast saw a male fox lick his mate as she lay dead. He also protected her quite vigorously. Perhaps he too was showing respect for a dead friend.

My personal encounters with animals continue. A few years ago a black bear casually played with a plastic bottle on my deck and I almost missed a plane because he wouldn't leave. When he finally decided to move on I ran to my car and just made the plane. And, when I returned 10 days later, there was a fresh pile of bear poop right at my front door that hadn't been there a few hours earlier according to someone who had been at my house. Clearly he was telling me that this is his home too and it's okay for me to be there as long as we can live together. And, just last week a parade of wild turkeys marched up the hill east of my house, squawking incessantly and paying no attention to me at all. The day before a red fox came to my door, looked at me, turned around and peed on a tree, once again telling me this is his home too and I better not forget it! Lizards too do their infamous push-up displays telling me that this is their land too. 

We need to make every effort to coexist with the animals who visit our homes, and build corridors of compassion and coexistence so that we all can live in harmony. We need to build make sure that urban environments are friendly to animals and animals must be incorporated into urban planning (see for example, books by Timothy Beatley and the video "The Nature of Cities"). When we do we can learn so much about who "they" are and who we are. We are so fortunate that these animal beings allow us to learn about their lives and to live in their homes.