Fog drapes the manzanita bushes and wisps across the pavement in front of my car. The road is dark with damp and at its edge sits a golden animal. I brake because I think it's a stray dog, maybe injured and in need of rescue. The animal turns its head to look at me for a second, then bunches its muscles and springs. Its front feet hit the center line of the road, then the back haunches roll forward. The hind feet strike the pavement, while the front legs stretch for the opposite side of the road. The tip of the creature's long tail flicks, as if waving good bye, before it disappears into the thick brush.
My heart thrills and a tingle launches itself up my spine. I have just seen one of the most elusive animals in North America: a mountain lion.
In California where I live, the mountain lion population has rebounded in recent years from a low of 600 in 1971 to between 5,000 and 6,000 in 2005. This growth in population is due, in part, to the grace of California's voters when they passed Proposition 117 in 1990. This legislation ended sport hunting of mountain lions while still allowing depredation permits for lions that kill, injure or threaten livestock and pets. Since 1990, the debate about mountain lions has raged in California. Proposition 197, which would have restored sport hunting of mountain lions, was defeated in 1996. A new bill (AB24) has recently been introduced into the Legislature by Bill Maze (R-Visalia). Its passage would override Proposition 117.
Wading through mounds of information, one quickly becomes aware that the hysteria about mountain lions is largely unfounded. Attacks on humans, especially when they involve a death, jump into the headlines when they occur. So are attacks increasing? Are people in California at high risk to die in the jaws of a mountain lion?
The California Department of Fish and Game keep a detailed list of all attacks and deaths attributed to mountain lions. There are some interesting statistics that are worth noting. From 1910 through 1993 (76 years), there were no deaths in California from lion attacks. Then in 1994, Barbara Schoener, a 40 year old jogger from Eldorado County, was attacked and killed by a female mountain lion. Only a few months later, this time in southern California, Iris Kenna was killed while hiking in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. These two deaths fueled a new attack against Proposition 117. Despite the fact that nine more years passed before Mark Reynolds was killed in 2004 by a mountain lion in Orange County, the hysteria has continued.
Since the passage of Proposition 117 there have been a total of eight mountain lion attacks (resulting in three deaths) in California. Nationwide and including Canada, there have been 13 fatal attacks over the past 100 years. Remarkably, from 1976 though 1996 in California alone: 300 people have been killed by bees, 750 people have died in their cars after hitting a deer, 1200 people have been struck by lightning and 85 have died in hunting accidents (www.sfgate.com/getoutside/1996/nov/lionlaws.html). So why aren't voters demanding that deer be eliminated, or that hunting be outlawed, or that bees be exterminated?
The belief that mountain lions are not being killed in California anymore is pure myth. The California State Department of Fish and Game has killed 85 cougars a year since 1995. Additionally, at least 100 lions a year are killed by private citizens under special permits granted for threats to livestock or pets. Terry Mansfield, chief of the wildlife management division for Fish and Game in California, testified before the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee in 1995. At that time he stated that Prop 117 could not be the direct cause of any increase in lion/human conflicts; nor would repealing this legislation sufficiently reduce lion densities and thus reduce potential attacks on humans (www.dfg.ca.gov/lion/outdoor.lion.html).
Why does the mountain lion generate so much controversy? There is something about this elusive and majestic animal that inspires fear and awe. Primarily solitary creatures who come together only to mate, cougars are rarely seen by people. Female mountain lions deliver two to three cubs. The cubs stay with their mother for two years and learn the art of hunting before they leave their mother to establish their own territory. A male lion's territory encompasses approximately 100 square miles; while females stake out only 20 to 60 square miles. Mountain lions often share territories and lion densities may be as many as ten per 100 square miles. Lions prefer to avoid human contact when possible. They follow the deer herds.
In my neighborhood, herds of deer roam freely munching on lawns and gardens.
It is no wonder that one particular mountain lion has made this neighborhood part of his territory. He wanders through from time to time. He not only has been seen by a number of people (one woman reported that he sat in her driveway for several minutes before slipping away between the pine trees), but his piercing cry has echoed through the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning.
Once, I was jolted from sleep by a noise so hair raising that I jumped from bed and slammed the window closed. In the dark, the cat passed through my yard mere feet from the house. Even still, this lion who makes his home amongst humans has never threatened a person. He fills his belly with deer and passes mostly unnoticed through a relatively populated area.
Last summer, I had an interesting conversation with the man I hired to take down four large cedar trees in my front yard.
"My wife saw a female mountain lion with her two cubs," he said.
"Really?" I lifted an eyebrow, aware that many mountain lion stories are prone to exaggeration. In fact, the California Department of Fish and Game estimate that up to 80% of all lion sightings are actually domestic house cats, dogs, bobcats, or deer.
"Yes." He nodded. "They ran down the driveway next to her car as she left for work."
The image of a female lion with her two cubs, romping down a driveway in the dawn of an early morning would frighten more than a few people. But, this man told the tale with excitement in his voice. "I hope we see them again," he said.
I moved to Shasta County, California in 2002. High in the mountains, between towering pines and cedars, I enjoy the beauty of this natural area. I have seen bear, heard the screech of a red tail hawk, and listened to the sweet whisper of the wind through the trees. And I have been lucky enough to see mountain lions.
It is many months since I saw my first mountain lion on a fog shrouded morning. This time I glance from my living room window to see a large animal picking its way down the slope of my yard. The weather is different; hot and dry this time. But, the feeling is the same: a jolt of adrenaline, followed by awe. The lion stops. He seems to feel me watching him. He turns his sleek head and gazes at me with golden eyes. And then with a flick of his tail he bounds into the undergrowth and disappears, almost making me wonder if he had truly been there in the first place.