Peter Shelton

Saber Tooth

Posted in Animal Dreams, Watch columns by pshelton on September 26, 2009

Hiking alone in the dark timber a couple of weeks ago, I came across a skull. (Earlier, I’d run into a bow hunter who used the term “dark timber,” referring to the spruce-fir zone above Buckhorn Lakes.) It was dark in there. The spruce especially were huge and old. Their vanilla-scented bark soared up into a canopy that almost completely shut out the sky.

I was skirting the base of one of those giant rock falls off the north side of Storm King. Even without the skull the place had an ominous quality. Rocks the size of horse trailers lay about incongruously in the forest having crashed down a thousand vertical feet some decades or centuries or millennia before. The momentum they must have carried—from the cliff face clattering down the chute spinning and bouncing out across acres of settled scree—to have made it so far down and out across the flat into the trees. The tremendous sound of it!

It could happen again any time, I was thinking, cocking an ear to the heights. In the shadows on the needle-thick carpet I saw the skull. You see skulls—deer skulls, elk skulls, raven-gnawed, bleached white. This one was different. The canines were probably three inches long, like the tips of Soviet missiles on parade.

The eye sockets were huge, the face flatter than a bear’s would be. A little meat-colored sinew remained on the back of the head. This was a mountain lion skull, and it was still relatively fresh.

Involuntarily, I straightened, all senses on alert. Where was the rest of the skeleton? How had it got here? How had it died? And what might still be around, watching, in this trail-less place beyond shouting distance to anywhere?

In August, that unfortunate woman, Donna Munson, was killed and eaten in Ouray. Extraordinary circumstances, yes. She had been feeding bears for years from a cage-like enclosure beneath her deck. Then one day one of the bears apparently reached through and smacked her in the head knocking her unconscious. From there the creature managed to drag her body out under the wire where she was partially devoured.

Wildlife officials rightly turned the gruesome details into a cautionary tale. We live on the edge, some of us well inside, real wilderness. Encounters with predators are going to happen. And feeding big furry creatures inevitably leads to death. Usually the animal’s death, but not always.

Cougars almost always ambush their victims from behind. Their massive canines are designed to break their prey’s neck or pierce its skull. I thought about the Boulder jogger who was killed by a big cat a few years ago. And the two mountain bikers attacked on a remote trail in southern California in 2004. The cougar knocked the first woman off her bike, took her head, helmet and all, in its jaws and started dragging her down the hill. The second woman grabbed her friend’s feet and pulled back in a desperate tug-of-war until another rider came along and beat the lion off with rocks to the head.

I know the details of this story because a cousin of mine made a low-budget television film about it. They didn’t have enough money for a real stunt cat, so they dressed a man up in a mountain lion suit and slowed the camera speed down to blur the re-enactment. It worked surprisingly well, said my cousin the director.

It’s funny in the retelling. But not, of course, to someone fighting for his life. Soon after Munson’s death, Watch publisher Seth Cagin wrote a controversial column in which he said of us, “Being at the top of the food chain is not natural.” Cagin argued that without grizzlies and wolves (long eliminated from Colorado; he didn’t mention lions or black bears) we are “missing something essential. . . Without them and the squeamishness they inspire, we are less fully human.”

He likened the exposure to risk—should the big predators be reintroduced—to the risk taken by backcountry skiers and mountaineers. They manage the risk, he wrote. “And it contributes to the reward of their sport.” We know what he means, but I’m not sure that analogy holds up perfectly. Avalanches don’t hunt.

We used to compete with the big cats for game. We were fellow predators, and competitors, with our spear-point claws. Now Homo sapiens, so fantastically successful a species, has won. Almost totally won.

In the already dark timber without my noticing it had begun to rain. Not hard but steadily out of a lowering ceiling. It was not yet cold. Not cold enough anyway to explain my shivering.

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  1. pshelton said, on October 2, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Cousin Chris, the filmmaker, sent this: some added details about the lion attack.

    — you mention that it happened in a remote area of SoCal. Actually, it wasn’t very remote, which was part of the bizarreness. It was in a rugged area, but it wasn’t too far east of the 5 freeway, around Aliso Parkway (I think it’s a county park, although its name escapes me). The well-traveled bike trail started about a fifty yards from a paved road and went steeply down a knife ridge with clear views on three sides of housing developments less than a mile away. In fact, the fire station that sent a rapid response rescue was probably a half mile a way on an adjacent ridge. So, it was a wild and savage incident almost in the middle of civilization.

    — another creepy element was the other, partially eaten human body (male) found by the sheriff’s hunters when they went after the lion. Our lady bikers passed the poor guy’s abandoned bike on the trail just before their attack. The first kill was less than 12 hours old and the remains of that guy were in the lion’s stomach. It looked like the lion was trying to drag the woman down to that same cache site. The experts were quite baffled by the lion’s behavior, especially since the second attack didn’t seem driven by hunger.

    I reinterviewed the survivor a couple of years ago. Her once very beautiful face is still a mess, but, to her great credit, in my view, she feels no animosity toward the lion. She was being a human and it was being a lion and the two vectors intersected in an unfortunate way.

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