Read This: The Beast in the Garden

I don’t have to contend with deer in my garden, but I fear that day is coming. Living as I do in an older, in-town neighborhood, separated from the greenbelt-banded, hilly neighborhood to the west by a busy highway, I’ve never had plants chomped by deer or worried about planting deer candy like rosebushes. However, the highway is not impenetrable. A bridge across it leads from the deer-populated neighborhood to my west right to the end of my street, and an adjacent, tree-filled cemetery offers plenty of hiding places, as does nearby Shoal Creek. In fact, not long ago my husband spotted a deer in the cemetery, and our neighborhood association reports that coyotes are now living along the creek.

Austin is an environmentally sensitive, wildlife-friendly town. (The largest urban bat colony in the U.S. resides under downtown’s Congress Avenue bridge and is popular with locals and tourists alike.) So when the coyotes showed up in town and began eating pets a couple of years ago, reaction was muted. Then folks began complaining that the coyotes were behaving boldly toward humans (trailing a mother pushing a stroller down a residential street; eying family pets through sliding-glass doors in broad daylight), and the city responded by trapping and killing the most aggressive coyotes.

As a mother of young children, I was glad to hear it. Children have been attacked by coyotes in California and elsewhere. Culling the aggressive coyotes, I figured, would instill a healthy fear of humans in the rest.

The deer remain, however, welcomed and fed by some and despised by others. But now I wonder whether deer and coyotes are the least of our concerns. In an Estes Park (CO) bookstore, I picked up a copy of The Beast in the Garden , by NPR correspondent David Baron. This nonfiction page-turner explores the circumstances in Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s that led to the return of a native—the mountain lion—and an eventual fatal human mauling.

Baron explains that an abundance of urban and suburban deer, ample parks and greenbelts surrounding Boulder, and an attitude of tolerance and protection toward prey and predator alike welcomed the mountain lion to town, habituated them to humans and residential areas, and led, inevitably, to someone being eaten.

And I thought deer eating my roses were enough to worry about.

Ironically, as Baron points out, a hands-off policy toward the lions (and deer) by environmentalists, nature lovers, and the state’s Division of Wildlife, and a city philosophy of living with nature, not managing it, actually altered the animals’ behavior and led to wildlife becoming artificially tame and ultimately dangerous to humans. By trying to foster an Edenic relationship with wildlife, townsfolk created the conditions for an attack.

Baron sensibly acknowledges that even if a person lives in mountain-lion habitat, he or she is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a big cat. But encounters and attacks are on the rise, even in places previously thought not to have mountain lions. Lions, he reports, have been seen (and killed by cars and trains) near St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. Baron predicts they will soon be repopulating the East Coast, if they aren’t there already. “The resilient cats are reclaiming old territory,” he writes, “and as they do, the nation should heed Boulder’s lessons.”

The Beast in the Garden is a thought-provoking book and a good read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in nature and wildlife not to mention some truly frightening anecdotes of humans being stalked by mountain lions.

Where the deer go, the mountain lion will follow, says Baron. It’ll make you think twice about putting out the deer corn.

7 Responses

  1. susan says:

    Fascinating, the concept of nature needing to be managed, not left alone. Reminds me of Michael POllan’s book “Second Nature” wherein he describes our kneejerk notion of wilderness and the back-asswards behavior it can lead to – in his example by the Nature Conservancy. I’m hoping they’ve gotten more sensible since the incident he recounts. Susan

    I’ll have to check out that book next. —Pam

  2. r sorrell says:

    I was unaware of the coyote sightings. While my male coworkers tried to convince me that the possibility of my chihuahua ending up as a coyote snack is a good thing, I’m worried. It never even occured to me that that wild animals in the city could be a result of their moving into our habitat (and NOT vice versa.) So much for running around Town Lake.

    R., so far as I know, the aggressive coyotes have so far been a problem mainly in the western, hillier neighborhoods, just across the highway. However, the Allandale neighborhood reports coyotes along Shoal Creek, to the east of us, so they could definitely be in our neighborhood. I haven’t heard about any pets being eaten on our side of MoPac yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In fact, before our small dog passed away recently, we had several discussions about whether it was safe to leave her outside at night. —Pam

  3. At our previous house we would often hear the coyotes howling in the middle of the night, and I kind of miss that sound! Unlike our neighbors, we didn’t have outdoor pets to worry about. A few neighborhood cats were eaten, supposedly by coyotes and bobcats, and we heard about feral hogs fighting with dogs and tearing up the landscape on Jester Mountain to the South of us. Pam, I hope the deer don’t get up to your area. Having a garden with natives is no defense unfortunately. The deer even went after the bluebonnets, so mine had to grow in a hanging basket on the gated deck. I used to wish that something would eat the deer!

    Annie, I’ll bet it was spine-tingling to hear the coyotes howl. (We enjoy the hooting of a great horned owl now and then, and we feel fond and protective of it—especially knowing that it’s out there hunting rats!) I know several gardeners who have to deal with deer, and I sure can sympathize with people who want predators around to keep the deer population down. Predators are necessary and often beautiful, fascinating creatures in their own right. But when we have tame prey (deer) grazing on our lawns, the predators will come too and learn that we’re not a threat to them. From there it’s a small step toward danger to our children (and to us, with bigger predators). —Pam

  4. r sorrell says:

    My in-laws, who live in Westlake, have terrible problems with the deer. I don’t recall ever seeing any on the east side of Mopac, but I’m sure there are at least a few around the creek. My dogs sleep inside, and the only wild animal they’ve ever had an encounter with was a possum. I’d imagine that the animals who are in the most danger are outdoor cats. Years ago, my husband worked at the Austin Zoo, and coyotes are a very real problem in that part of town.

  5. Rebekah says:

    Living in Georgetown means living among the deer. On an average day we have at least 10 in our yard. We have had several mountain lion sightings within the last year from neighbors in our rural part of Georgetown. I never know whether to believe them or not. I have small children so I try to be cautious and not let down my guard, yet I try to balance that with not being paranoid about predators. We often hear coyotes and have even had one on our back deck — although several years ago.

    My husband’s grandmother, who lives along a ravine in Georgetown (but not far from town), believes that she saw a big cat with a long tail not long ago. I wonder. –Pam

  6. Christine says:


    I live in Trinity Center, California. Mountain lions are on the come-back because the environmentalists are protecting them. They go where the deer go, and the deer come into town to get away from the mountain lions. I’ve recently moved here so don’t know all the things I need to know. I was lying in bed and heard a weird chirping noise. I got up and let the dog in. Later, when talking to a neighbor, she said that was a mountain…they make a chirping noise. Lucky for Buster, my dog, I let him in the house right then, or he may have been attacked and killed. Mountain lions don’t stay in one place, they do ’rounds’. They go miles in their travels, and always come back. There were too many stray cats around here two years ago, but I think the mountain lion has gotten them all. After that they go for small pets. Then they go for small humans. It will take a child being killed before the environmentalists will do anything about it.


    That sounds very similar to what Baron’s book says, though he’s not quite so hard on the environmentalists. He places a share of the blame on lackluster state wildlife management policies. Since you’re definitely in mountain lion country, you might be interested in reading his book. Thanks for commenting. —Pam

  7. […] In July I posted about The Beast in the Garden by David Baron, a nonfictional look at Boulder’s experience with mountain lions moving into suburbia. A real page-turner, the book follows the escalation of lion attacks from pets to humans, as well as the changing perceptions of nature in America. Over the last hundred or so years, our national mood has changed from “mold nature to our will” to “manage and preserve it” to “adapt ourselves to it.” Thanks to our changing attitudes, particularly toward large predators, Baron predicts that lions will soon be reclaiming their old territory, even in urban areas. […]