David Baron began his career as science reporter for WBUR in Boston and went on to cover science, medicine, technology, and the environment for “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” and “Weekend Edition” on NPR.
A speaker at Point of Departure on July 7-8th at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, David has felt the heat of erupting volcanoes, the chill of the South Pole, and the bite of African safari ants over the course of his radio career.
Now an author, his 2003 book The Beast in the Garden tells the story of Colorado’s first fatal mountain lion attack and won a Colorado Book Award. Here we talk with David about his early days in radio, the power of science, and petting a sleeping lion.
How did you get started in public radio?
Well, I was a public radio fan from the time I was in junior high school, way back in the early days of NPR, when public radio was this tiny, obscure media outlet. When I got into college I was a science geek—I majored in physics and geology—but outside of class I spent all of my time at the radio station. I was an intern at NPR, working as a tape-cutter on All Things Considered, back when you literally had to cut tape. We’d have ¼” reel-to-reel tape and you’d take a razor blade and you’d cut it and splice it together with tape and that’s how we edited audio.
I had every intention of becoming a scientist, but I was having too much fun in radio. When I graduated, I wasn’t ready to go to graduate school. I thought, ‘Let me just see if I can work as a science journalist for a few years in public radio’. I ended up getting hired by WBUR in Boston and Boston is a great place to be a science journalist. I never could think of a reason to go back to graduate school, so I stayed in radio.
What was it you loved so much about radio?
I think it’s the performance aspect. Part of it is literally the performance of getting in front of a microphone and speaking. I really thought of radio stories as little movies. You’re telling a story that people have to listen to in real time, in the order you’re telling it. They can’t skip ahead like in a newspaper article. You’re in control of the experience like a movie director. The way you tell the story and the intonation of your voice and the audio you bring in, both the voices of people and the natural sound, it was a real creative outlet for me. My favorite part of doing radio was mixing stories and getting the audio perfect.
Did having that tactile experience of cutting tape, the way a film editor cuts film, give you a greater appreciation for the outcome?
Probably. I can be sort of ornery about how the youngins today have it. To edit audio on a computer is almost too easy. Twenty or 30 years ago ago, literally cutting tape with a razor blade—and I’ve got the scars on my fingers to show for it—if you wanted to excise a sentence, it was on a 10-inch long piece of tape that you cut out. If you realized later that you wanted to put it back in, you had to keep track of where that piece of tape was, and they all looked the same. You couldn’t hit undo.
Do you have a favorite TED talk?
I really like “Zombie roaches and other parasite tales,” by Ed Yong. I’m a great admirer of Ed as a science writer, and his talk is a well told and expertly delivered lecture on a fascinating subject. What more could one want?
You wrote your first book, The Beast in the Garden, after moving to Colorado. How did that come about?
It’s the true story of what lead to Colorado’s first fatal mountain lion attack back in 1991. An 18-year-old named Scott Lancaster was jogging behind his high school in Idaho Springs in the middle of the day when a mountain lion jumped on him, killed him, and partially consumed him—treated him as prey. It was shocking. At that time, mountain lions—for as large and powerful as they are—were considered virtually harmless creatures that would avoid people at all costs.
It was a shocking event, but as I write about in my book, it was foretold in the several years leading up to it. My book is really about what happened on the Front Range of Colorado in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that lead to that attack, as humans had moved back into this area that had once been lion habitat and brought the lions back. The lions had been virtually exterminated in Colorado, but then became protected. We created this weird unnatural landscape for the mountain lions that ended up shifting their behavior.
There actually were a couple of biologists working in Boulder at the time who were witnessing the change in lion behavior as they lost their fear of us, as they associated humans with food. They forecast that it was only a matter of time before someone was killed. The book really speaks more broadly to the ways in which we modern humans have so changed the nature of nature in America that we are altering wildlife behavior in unexpected ways.
Sadly, that analogy seems like a fixture of modern life: scientists warning us of danger and people often dismissing those warnings.
Science is where we make progress as a species, as a civilization, and I find it very exciting to be there on the cutting edge. Not that you know where science is going, there’s a lot of science that goes off in the wrong direction for a little while, but in the long run it’s self-correcting. It really does lead toward deeper and deeper truth. Particularly at a time when we’re so divided as a nation, and in politics we seem to have gotten away from facts, I think science is incredibly important.
Did you spend any time with mountain lions when you were researching your book?
In the course of my writing, I spent a very memorable day up in Montana with some biologists who were fitting mountain lions with radio collars and tracking them. I was tagging along, but we successfully treed one mountain lion. We were out with a houndsman who had these trained hounds who knew how to get on the track of a mountain lion and eventually would get it up a tree. Once the lion was in the tree it was tranquilized. As soon as it was shot with the dart it jumped down out of the tree and quickly collapsed in the snow.I got to pet it while it was sleeping. They are amazing animals.
For those of us living here on the front range, they see us all the time but we rarely see them. They are so secretive. One could be hiding fifteen feet off a trail in the brush and you’d never see it. When you actually see one, it’s a freaky experience because they are so much bigger than you image. I was astonished to see this cat as large as an African leopard in the forests of Montana. It really looks like a creature that belongs on another continent.
They are certainly intimidating creatures.
You know, people ask me “how do I protect myself from a mountain lion when I’m hiking?” I have several answers, but one is, “Honestly, it’s not the lion you see that you have to worry about, it’s the one you never see.” Their mode of killing is to sneak up from behind and go for the neck. If you see a lion it’s probably not interested in you. You should still be careful but you basically want to show the lion that it should be afraid of you and not the other way around. Stare it down, act large and scary, shout at it, and throw things at it.
The most important way to stay safe when you’re hiking is not to hike alone. The odds of being attacked are small, but I don’t go hiking in lion country by myself. If you’re with even one other person, the odds of being attacked drop dramatically. In the very unlikely event that you are attacked, you’ve got someone there to come to your aid. If someone clobbers the lion with a log or hits it with a rock, the lion will give up. Mountain lions are solitary predators; they don’t hunt in packs like wolves. If a lion gets injured while hunting, it’s dead. It doesn’t have a pack to take care of it. A mountain lion’s goal is to have a quick easy kill and as soon as it’s not quick and easy, it will give up.