Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
My wife, Lu, charged a mountain lion last Saturday defending our family dog. She got within 20 feet of the cat before it dropped the dog and fled. Heidi will survive a fractured skull, multiple lacerations and numerous puncture wounds. The marks of that lion attack will leave scars for the rest of our lives.
My wife’s heroism, the act of a true “Tiger Mom,” was not at all rational. She did what anyone might do when a loved one is in danger. The fact that she did it in the wilderness against a top predator makes the event far more meaningful, especially for me.
I long have idealized wilderness in the sense that Rousseau idealized the noble savage and Thoreau idealized his Walden isolation. Last Saturday, the wilderness pounced out of the forest and crushed our dog’s head in its jaws. Deep fang marks on Heidi’s skull show the killing acumen of the lion.
When I guide groups on nature hikes, I extol the virtues of wilderness as a necessary antidote to the frenetic distractions of technological society. I quote Thoreau, Muir and Leopold with religiosity. I paint a picture of wilderness as Bierstadt and Moran brushed their canvases. I summon Ruskin, Wordsworth and Shelley to convey that nature and pastoral beauty inspire the soul.
After watching my dog struggle for life, Jack London swings more into view. Tooth and claw prevail. The mountain lion that tried to snatch our dog was operating on pure instinct. There was no meanness to it, only opportunistic efficiency. That lion was in its rights as a predator to dispatch with our family pet. There was no malice in the cat, and there is none in us for what it did to our beloved animal.
It happened June 23, when my wife and her girlfriend hiked up the Henderson Park Trail in the upper Fryingpan valley. Our dog, a beagle-English foxhound mix of about 50 pounds, was on the leash the several miles to Last Chance Creek. Here, in an Elysium of wild nature, where the cold, clear water ripples over a sandy creek bed they rested, unaware that their every move was being watched through a screen of foliage.
Lu soaked her feet in the creek and laid back to nap. Her friend did stretching exercises. The dog sat nearby, enjoying cool laps of water. Death waited patiently nearby in the coiled form of the big lion.
When the time came, Lu put on her shoes and readied her pack. She hadn’t yet clipped the dog onto the leash, so the dog, anticipating the return, began jogging down the trail. The ladies followed and could see the dog until it turned a bend. That’s when the cat struck.
The sound our dog made was something my wife says she will never forget. What she saw when she sprinted around the bend was even more impactful. The lion was holding our dog by her head, dragging her toward a steep and tangled ravine. Another few seconds, and they would have been gone.
Without hesitation, my wife charged, clashing her hiking poles over her head, screaming at the top of her lungs. Her friend rounded the bend in time to see the cat drop our dog and disappear into the ravine. Freed, the dog sprinted down the trail in terror, my wife calling and running after her, trailed by her friend.
When my wife, spurred by adrenaline, reached the car, the dog was waiting in the shadows bloodied and traumatized. Lu and her friend loaded the dog and drove fast down the Fryingpan to the emergency vet in Basalt. What’s left is the will to live, the vigor of the dog’s body and the visceral terror that sprang from the woods.
This is where we live: a wild and gorgeous landscape that we share with wild animals that have their own set of laws, their own will to live and the means to do it. When our worlds intersect in violence, we view the wilds differently, not with hatred, but with respect and a healthy dose of fear. Such are the components of survival in the world of tooth and claw.
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