Let me set the stage. It was just after dark and three of us were sitting at our kitchen table. The kitchen has a big sliding glass door that faces the hills east toward the mountains. We all had our heads down, reading or working. The dogs were asleep in another room.
We heard three distinct bangs. At first, we thought one of our dogs had gotten out and was banging against the glass to get in.
Then we all simultaneously looked, and there she was, three feet away, banging her head against the glass, clear as day: a mountain lion.
I stood up. My daughter, Sully, bolted out of the kitchen to close the dog door. But in seconds, the lion was gone.
I note here that our dogs never woke during the encounter.
We all looked at each other and let out assorted profanities of excitement and fear.
I will admit that my first reaction came straight from my reptilian brain: Lock all the doors, and no one ever leaves the house again. Second, wasn’t it Toby’s (our Great Pyrenees mix) job to warn us about just this situation instead of snoring away on the couch?
I was a little crazed. This, I thought, is why my California cowboy grandfather always carried a gun.
My ecological-minded daughter, Sully, immediately shot down that line of thought. She said we were intruding on the lion’s territory and had to learn to live with them, and that it was actually cool to see one.
Briefly, I thought she had lost her mind.
So I called the New Mexico Game & Fish Department because what do I know about mountain lions? Was our lion saying hello? Did he accidentally bump into our glass door? Or was he thinking, “Hey, dinner!”?
The Game and Fish officer was as calm as my daughter. He just reiterated that we are in lion country, they are rarely seen, we need to be aware, watch our pets and get on with our lives.
I wanted to tell him that there was something different between seeing a lion and having one do headers against your glass door.
But since everyone else seemed to be taking this all in stride, I decided to do research. I went online to the California Mountain Lion Project.
Right off the bat, I learned that we (and by that, I mean me) are terrible at risk assessment, especially when that reptilian brain is activated. Case in point, according to sources, there have been 125 recorded cases of lion attacks and 27 deaths in the last 100 years. In comparison, on average, 20 people are killed by cows every year (who knew?). Instead of worrying about mountain lion attacks, we should obsess about driving: Over 10,000 people are killed each year by impaired drivers.
But my nonrational mind kept telling me, “It was a mountain lion!”
Time for more research. As more and more of us encroach into lion territory, I wanted to know what we can do to reduce chance encounters around our homes. According to the project, since mountain lions are primarily nocturnal predators, they recommended three strategies. First, be alert, especially around dawn and dusk. (I am so alert!) Second, keep your pets in at night. Third, shelter vulnerable livestock (chickens, goats, etc.) — think enclosed pens with a top. Lions can quickly clear a 5-foot-high fence.
Yet this episode reminded me of two thoughts. First, we must remember that safety is a myth, and absolute safety isn’t possible. We need to accept that in life, mountain lions exist — both the real and the metaphorical — and get on with living with courage.
Next is Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildness. You see it in the eyes of the coyotes, the alertness of rabbits and the gaze of a lion.
If you stop and think about it, it is a primal experience. It reminds us that we were wild a mere few thousand generations ago. Then, just like the rabbit and the lion, we were prey and predator.
Now, we live with a glass wall between us and wildness, and we forget how connected we are. We imagine that we are separate from the natural world, and yet our existence depends on it. To live in wildness and close to wilderness is a daily reminder that we too are animals; we too, owe our lives to the planet’s health.