GRAND CANYON, Ariz. -- Eric York was obsessed with the big cats -- their health, temperaments and survival rates amid the park’s annual tourist invasion.
For years, he wandered the area’s crags, gullies and woods, tracking and tagging the region’s last remaining mountain lions as a biologist for the Grand Canyon National Park.
In 2007, tragedy struck. At age 37, the Massachusetts native was killed doing the job he loved, but not in the way people might guess. He wasn’t mauled by a lion, but fell victim to a case of pneumonic plague he contracted doing a necropsy on a dead female cat.
Because the park lacked a forensic lab, York did his postmortem for the mountain lion research program in the garage of his home in the village of about 2,000 park employees.
This summer, officials plan to open a new lab at the park for the kind of work that biologists like York did in their garage. His death prompted park officials to seek funding for the facility, which in the end just might carry Eric York’s name as a memorial.
“He was your true biologist’s biologist,” Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management for the park, told the Los Angeles Times.
On Saturday, officials will hold a Celebrate Wildlife Day at the national park in York’s honor, including public presentations in Grand Canyon Village that include live birds, snakes and other reptiles along with question-and-answer sessions.
“This is our way to remember Eric,” Hahn said.
In late October 2007, York received a signal that one of the big female cats he had collared had died. He hiked into the park and found the big cat motionless near the canyon’s South Rim. It’s nose had been bleeding.
He threw the animal onto his shoulders and carried it back to his truck and then drove it home. While most such postmortems were sent out of the park to be conducted in outside labs, York wanted to know why the animal had died.
Lori Rome, a seasonal supervisor at the park in the interpretation department, knew York’s work. She’d often accompany him on big cat excursions and tap into his passion for the animals during public presentations.
“His desire to understand the natural world drove him to find answers, so he performed a necropsy. Did she die of internal bleeding? Had she been attacked by the large male, P4, who frequented her territory?” she wrote in a memorial after York’s death.
“Eric told me that he found teeth marks in the neck, puncture wounds in her abdomen and massive internal bleeding. Her three kittens were now orphaned.”
Hahn says officials now believe that York contracted the disease as he carried the animal back to his truck. “It’s a pretty heavy animal. He put it on his shoulders,” she told The Times.
In the coming weeks, the park will finish the preparations for the opening of their “wet” lab for tests on park animals.
And the Celebrate Wildlife Day will go on Saturday, and the passion and insight of the biologist who inspired it will be remembered.
In her memorial, Rome captured York’s love of his work with the park’s cats that he began in 2003.
“Eric was amazing. He would rise before dawn to set and then check his lion traps, and briefly stop in the office before returning to the field to check his traps again. Cold or hot, sunny or snowing, Eric was outside with the animals he studied, covering hundreds of miles off trail in the wilds of the park,” she wrote.
“He found kill sites, followed tracks and monitored activity. Eric learned that lions have large territories here, that Grand Canyon’s lions prey primarily on elk and that people affect lions more than lions affect people.”
Elaine Leslie, York’s former boss, said he became a legend in the park.
"Eric was much like the lions he stalked. To catch a glimpse of the elusive Eric, you needed to be up at dawn as he hurried in and out of the office to gather up his freshly charged radio, dart pistol and other tools of the trade,” she wrote after his death.
“By sunrise you could find him on the carcass of a freshly killed deer or elk, carefully reading the signs and placing a snare. Then off he would run, yes run, to check his trap lines."
When York became ill, he visited the park's clinic, where staff diagnosed a flu-like illness and sent him home. It was there, three days later, that a roommate found him lying motionless on the couch.
Park officials say cases of pneumonic plague in humans are extremely rare. “Eric's death reminds us of the inherent hazards, including the less obvious ones, that biologists are exposed to while working to manage and conserve wildlife,” officials wrote in a statement after York’s death.
During York’s career, he captured and tagged 23 species of carnivores. He worked in many areas of the United States -- including the Santa Monica Mountains -- as well as the world, including Chile, Nepal and Pakistan, where he researched the elusive snow leopard, park officials said.
“He focused on the world, and about cats, how they moved, what made them tick,” Hahn said. “He knew so much.”