IDAHO FALLS, IDAHO — It was Jan. 2, 2001. Frances Frost was cross-country skiing along the popular Lake Minnewanka Road trail, near her home in Canmore, Alberta. Rangers say the 132-pound cougar was hidden under a juniper bush. It watched her pass, then zigzagged behind her for 144 feet. Ms. Frost was probably unaware of the cat until moments before it killed her.
It's easy to dismiss Frost's death as a tragic anomaly. Through the entire 20th century, not a single fatal cougar attack was reported in Alberta. In all of North America, a little more than 100 people were attacked in the past 100 years.
But the picture changes abruptly when you know that half the century's attacks took place in its final decade.
It's time to listen to the message behind these anomalies: Living alongside big predators means surrendering the illusion that we somehow exist outside the food chain.
The cougar, North America's biggest cat, is also known as the mountain lion, puma, or panther. Like other big predators, cougars started the 20th century with barely a toehold. Those not killed by bounty hunters had been starved out of most of their world - which once included nearly all of North America - by the market hunting of deer, their main food.
Then market hunting was outlawed. Sport hunting seasons and limits kept killing in check. Preservation became a watchword, deer herds grew, and the cougar quietly returned, slipping out of wilderness strongholds. Now healthy cougar populations exist in 12 Western states and two Canadian provinces. In all, biologists think, upwards of 26,000 cougars live in North America.
As cougars complete their recolonization of an increasingly crowded West and slowly begin migrating eastward, the comforting old truism - that they are harmless and avoid people at all costs - is giving way to a new picture.
Cougars turn up in backyards, kill house pets, and stalk people. In Kalispell, Mont., predator control officer Eric Wenum fields up to 60 cougar calls some summer months: some in pastures and on porches, one even under a basement pool table.
Ten years ago, game wardens around Bend, Oregon, answered one or two cougar complaints a year. As the resort town boomed into the countryside and outdoor recreation increased in popularity, calls multiplied by a factor of 10.
Back in the post-bounty years, efforts to save cougars and other big predators hinged on that harmless-to-humans truism. We told ourselves that predators would no longer be "them," the enemy. Now they would be "us," peaceful co-inhabitants of spaceship Earth. Of course grizzlies don't hurt people unless frightened, we said. Of course cougars flee human contact. Wolves transplanted from Canada into Idaho and Wyoming will, of course, never attack humans.
As long as big predators remained too scarce to encounter humans frequently, the truism could stand. But cougars are no longer scarce. And although their strong preference is for deer, cougars are also opportunistic. They eat what wanders by, be it porcupine, moose, or malamute. Why not humans?
Of course, humans. Yet, as attacks increase in frequency, the old "truism" refuses to die. It merely grows limbs. We still believe that cougars are harmless, but we write off certain cougar behavior to circumstances. We say this cougar had to defend a kitten or its territory or a kill. That one mistook a running child for a bounding deer. This one is sick or underweight or has faulty vision, or is simply a "bad" cat.
Research into recent attacks found no evidence to support those scenarios. Based on information collected from game wardens, trackers, and victims, it seems clear that the cougars, hunting the only land left to them - land shared with humans - simply attacked what passed by.
If we stop seeing cougar attacks as anomalies or errors, what will we learn? Perhaps, a new question to ask: Not, why do cougars kill people? But, why do cougars, given their increasing proximity to people, so seldom attack humans?
And perhaps, as it has with bears, a new question will lead to a solution that actually works.
Breaking an old tradition of treating real bears like reincarnations of Smokey in his ranger hat - killing the "bad" ones and relocating those deemed worth saving - game managers like Kalispell's Eric Wenum now treat bears the way diplomats should treat foreign governments: with understanding and respect.
Relocation of problem animals doesn't actually work. Game managers have known that almost as long as they've been doing it. Problem bears starve or simply return home to rip into more garbage cans and bird feeders. Eventually, these repeat offenders are shot.
Wenum's diplomacy relies on a new question and its answer. The question: Why do bears become problems? The answer: Because we teach them to be.
Wenum reeducates. He shoots backyard bears with beanbags and harasses them with Karelian bear dogs. Homeowners are taught, too: Put up the garbage, feed the dog indoors, and remove the sweet-smelling hummingbird feeder. The combination almost never fails.
What will we learn when we ask the right question about cougars?
Almost certainly that something must be surrendered. To coexist safely with bears, some homeowners give up fruit trees. What residents of cougar country will surrender is unknown, but whatever it is, the cougar's survival depends on it. Individual human lives hinge on it, too. And our loudly proclaimed commitment to predator preservation will be proved - or mocked - by our willingness to change.
Jo Deurbrouck and Dean Miller are authors of 'Cat Attacks: True Stories and Hard Lessons from Cougar Country,' released this month (Sasquatch Books).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor