a reality check (for me)
- the Los Angeles Times has a special Outdoors section every Tuesday.
in last week's edition, there was a large feature on cougars.
perhaps i'm over-reacting, but this article made me seriously
reconsider bringing Paul into our local mountains until he's much
older. the wilderness park that this talks about, Caspers, is within
a 30-minute drive of my home and borders on the wilderness area where
we took Paul last February.
By David Baron
In 1991, a young bicycle racer disappeared while on a training run
behind his high school in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Denver.
Three years earlier, wildlife biologist Michael Sanders had attended
a national conference in Prescott, Ariz., seeking advice on some
small mysteries. Only in retrospect did he realize how clearly the
clues he gathered at that event had portended the young athlete's
For six months before the conference, Sanders had been working with
tracker and biologist Jim Halfpenny, studying cougars on the
outskirts of the environmentally progressive town of Boulder, Colo.
He was hardly a cougar expert yet, but Sanders did know enough to
realize that Boulder's lions were not behaving in the manner that
they should. The scientific literature suggested that cougars were
elusive, timid, frightened of humans and their dwellings, yet
Boulder's cougars wandered through backyards in broad daylight and
jumped onto roofs, seemingly unfazed by the presence of people.
He and Halfpenny feared for public safety. Should they?
The new frontier
Boulder in the late '80s offered a glimpse of what our nation is
becoming: a country where people build new homes on undeveloped land,
pay to preserve the open space beside it, attract deer and other
animals into their yards, and by embracing wilderness and wildlife
alter the very nature of what they presume nature to be.
These countervailing forces humans moving out and wildlife moving
in, lands being developed and neighboring lands being restored
present both an unprecedented paradox and a surprising phenomenon:
the return of the American frontier, which historian Frederick
Jackson Turner defined as "the meeting point between savagery and
civilization," more than a century after it was officially declared
closed. Here, on the convoluted boundaries between the wild and
suburbia, people coexist with creatures their pioneer forebears tried
their best to exterminate.
Mountain lions, Sanders learned, have become so numerous across the
American West that some biologists believe the cats may be as
abundant today as when Lewis and Clark paddled through the region two
centuries ago. In December 1988, he arrived at the mountain lion
workshop in Prescott armed with written reports of recent lion
sightings and photos.
"Here are some pictures of what we've seen in Boulder," he told
attendees, cornering them in hallways or over dinner or while
drinking Budweiser and shooting pool at a bar on Whiskey Row,
Prescott's famous saloon-lined street. "What do you think? How would
you deal with it?"
Conference organizer Harley Shaw, a well-known Arizona cougar
researcher with vast experience and a thoughtful, gentle manner,
spoke at length with Sanders. "I didn't think mountain lions would
live near people," Shaw recalls. "Most of us were a little surprised
that this was happening." Still, Shaw saw no reason for concern in
Sanders' reports. "I thought it was probably temporary, quirky .none
of us really felt that this was going to be a major issue."
Actually, one man at the conference did think that Sanders'
observations suggested a major, frightening trend. He had come to the
meeting from California, a state that had recently suffered two high-
profile cougar attacks. Both had occurred in Orange County, on the
edge of suburbia.
The first attack had come almost three years earlier, in March 1986.
Susan and Donald Small had taken their children, 9-year-old David and
5-year-old Laura, for a hike at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, a
7,600-acre county-owned preserve frequented by backpackers,
equestrians and picnickers in the foothills of the Santa Ana
Mountains. The family drove past the visitor center (where an
interpretive display featured a photo of a cougar kitten with the
caption "The Cougar or 'Mountain Lion' is quiet and secretive, with a
healthy aversion to humans"), parked in a gravel lot, headed up the
nature trail, and paused beside a shallow stream. Young Laura blond
and blue-eyed, wearing shorts and a sleeveless top had removed her
sandals and waded into the water to catch tadpoles when her mother
glimpsed a muscular animal leaping from the brush. It grabbed Laura
by the head and vanished with her in its mouth.
As Laura's mother, Susan, recounted later: "I was just standing next
to her, then the next second there was total silence. I didn't hear
any growling, Laura didn't scream, I didn't hear any dragging. They
were gone. And I could see that they had gone behind me, but when I
turned around there was no sign at all of them. There were no marks
on the ground. There was nothing. I could hear the stream, that was
all I could hear . [A]nd that was when I heard Laura . It sounded
like moaning." While her son, David, ran for help, Susan and her
husband searched the cacti and underbrush, eventually locating their
child, still locked in the jaws of the large cat, squirming and
covered with blood. Laura was badly injured: her scalp and nose and
upper lip hung loose, her right eye had been sliced open , her skull
was crushed, and a portion of the brain beneath had been effectively
liquefied by the trauma.
Laura was still alive, however. A stick-wielding stranger, whose
heroism would later earn him a medal and $2,500, persuaded the lion
to drop the girl. Laura's parents, taking turns carrying her, rushed
their daughter down the trail. A helicopter airlifted her to Mission
Community Hospital and, in a 13-hour emergency operation, doctors
saved Laura's life. (Her initial hospitalization lasted 38 days,
followed by years of reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. She
remains blind in one eye and partially paralyzed.)
The morning after Laura's attack, a government hunter killed the lion
believed responsible, about half a mile from where the incident had
occurred. The male cougar "appeared very emaciated and sick,"
according to an official incident report.
Initially, it seemed that the cougar attack California's first
since a mauling by a rabid lion in 1909 was the sudden, unexpected
and desperate act of a sick animal. But that explanation didn't hold.
A postmortem exam of the cat found no signs of serious illness, and
park officials soon revealed that months of unusual lion behavior had
foreshadowed the Smalls' ordeal. The preceding September, a mountain
lion had reportedly stalked a family of four hiking in Caspers Park;
the father threw rocks to drive the animal away.
Then, seven months after Laura Small's attack and after the offending
lion had been killed, a cougar struck again also on the nature
trail, also on a Sunday, also on a family hike. This time the victim
was 6-year-old Justin Mellon, snatched by the cat as he ran to catch
up with others after tying his shoe.
Mellon's injuries were far less severe than Laura's. He had suffered
multiple cuts, but the lion had not crushed his skull. Despite a
massive search, hunters with dogs failed to locate the cougar that
had mauled him.
The attacks fueled a smoldering political fight. In 1971, the
California legislature had imposed what was supposed to have been a
temporary moratorium on mountain lion hunting, intended to give
biologists time to evaluate the health of the state's cougar
population. The hunting ban was supposed to last four years, but
lawmakers and the courts have continued to extend it.
In 1985, before the maulings in Orange County, UC Davis wildlife
biologist Lee Fitzhugh had written to Gov. George Deukmejian urging
that the hunting moratorium be lifted: "In the past month at least
three incidents of close contact between unsuspecting humans and
mountain lions occurred in California, in residential areas. Mountain
lion attacks on humans, especially children, are well documented."
At the time he wrote the letter, Fitzhugh looked like a fear monger.
After Laura Small's ordeal, his warnings appeared prophetic. As
Fitzhugh spoke at the Prescott conference, his words seemed directed
toward Boulder. Fitzhugh made a bold and controversial argument
that, under certain as yet ill-defined circumstances, healthy cougars
can learn to view humans as prey. "I knew there was a body of
biologists that were still saying, 'This can't happen,' " he recalled
later, "and I wanted to disabuse them of that thought."
Fitzhugh spoke of the attacks in Orange County and of the close
encounters that had preceded them, and he described what witnesses
had seen: The cougars had crouched and swept their tails while eyeing
humans. "These traits indicate predatory, rather than defensive,
behavior," Fitzhugh said. In other words, the bold actions of the
cougars in Caspers Park could not be explained as the simple result
of curiosity or fear or territoriality; the lions were sizing up park
visitors as potential meals.
"Prey recognition is a learned behavior in cats," he told the
audience, and he cited the experience of wildlife rehabilitators in
California who successfully trained a young cougar to hunt animals
that it had not previously considered prey. For instance, the
rehabilitators had reported, "When we offered [the male cub] his
first guinea pig, he did nothing more than play with it. Several days
of feeding him on guinea pigs brought a different response when he
was presented with another live one."
A cougar's idea of what is and isn't prey is malleable, "and
knowledge of what constitutes prey may be gained in several ways,"
Fitzhugh explained. "One lion may learn from another that a 'strange'
animal is prey if the two are together at the time of an attack,"
"Another method of prey identification, according to a controversial
theory, is that the drive for prey-catching, if interrupted or
unsuccessful, must vent itself. So, if a human-lion encounter occurs
just after an unsuccessful attempt to catch prey, the behavior could
be transferred to the human."
Additionally, Fitzhugh surmised that a lion might be prompted to
attack a person if the human exhibited behaviors that mimicked the
cougar's natural prey, "such as running, quick movements, and,
probably for children in small groups, excited conversation."
Fitzhugh believed that before a cougar attacked a human, it first had
to go through a phase of merely observing humans. "According to
[German ethologist Paul] Leyhausen, it takes a fairly lengthy period
of time for a cat to decide what a new animal is, and they'll be
somewhat fearful of it until they decide," Fitzhugh said. "Once they
make a decision whether it's prey or not, then they'll behave
according to that decision. Lions that come into human-inhabited
areas and begin to wander around, they're probably in that process of
deciding. They've learned at that point that humans are not to be
feared, so they're into that process a ways, and they're into it in
the wrong way."
Therefore, on the stage of Prescott's Elks Theatre, Fitzhugh made the
following cautionary remarks: "An increase in the rate of lion
sightings or any 'close encounter' is a warning sign that should
stimulate analysis of the situation to assess the risk." And: "Any
situation is potentially dangerous if the lion places itself in
visual contact at close range with people, or remains in visual
contact, without moving away, after being discovered by people."
And: "Warnings should be direct and severe. Mountain lions are no
animal to consider lightly, and people should be told forcefully that
lions are dangerous." And: "People in responsible positions should
not dismiss encounters between humans and lions as merely curious
To a large extent, the biologists in the audience were not buying it.
They knew that mountain lions were not man-eaters. As philosopher
Thomas Kuhn wrote in his landmark book, "The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions," scientists are conservative, reluctant to accept
evidence that runs counter to their accepted worldview, and "will
devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their
theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict" when confronted
by an anomaly.
That's exactly what attendees at the Third Mountain Lion Workshop
did they started making excuses. They dismissed Fitzhugh's talk as
irrelevant. The Orange County lions must have been sick or deranged.
Or perhaps there was something unique about Caspers Park that
provoked bizarre behavior. Many of the scientists saw no reason to
rethink basic assumptions of how cougars relate to humans. Conference
organizer Shaw summed up his reaction to Fitzhugh's talk: "This is
not something we really need to be worrying about."
Yet Fitzhugh's words worried Sanders immensely, and the two men spoke
at length about the similarities between what had happened in Orange
County and what was happening in Boulder. "I told him there was a
problem there that needed to be dealt with," Fitzhugh recalls.
By the next year, the number of lion sightings and attacks on
domestic animals in the Boulder area was ballooning. Cats, like
people, can develop eating patterns that are idiosyncratic and
ingrained. It was becoming clear that cougars in the Boulder area had
developed a more than casual interest in Canis familiaris, the
domestic dog. A cartoon in a local paper depicted a woman reading a
letter by her rural mailbox. "Why, it's for you!" she says to her
dog, its tail wagging. "It's from a Mr. Cat and it says 'Welcome to
the food chain.' "
A short time later, the jokes stopped as the threat turned tragic. In
the town of Idaho Springs, not far from Boulder, Scott Lancaster, an
18-year-old high school athlete, went for a run in the hills near his
school and never came back.
A search party eventually found the body. A cavernous hole gaped in
the upper torso, and the insides had been removed. The left lung and
heart were missing. Lancaster had been killed and partially eaten by
a healthy mountain lion.
Sanders made a pilgrimage to the bloodstained hillside. "The lion
looks as if it followed a very long distance and then decided to make
the attack," he said.
Many of Lancaster's friends said that shocking as his death was, it
was somehow fitting. "He was a real outdoorsy guy," his girlfriend
said. "It felt natural," said another schoolmate.
On a scale of purity of death, being eaten by a cougar may, indeed,
rank higher than dying in a car crash, an end that claimed far too
many students at Lancaster's high school. But to label his
death "natural" was an oversimplification. His demise was as natural
as Boulder's irrigated lawns and urban deer. Since Lancaster's death,
mountain lions in the United States and Canada have attacked more
than 45 people, killing five. While this is a very small number
reflecting a very small threat, it does suggest that these predators
are adapting to suburbia.
- Thank you for posting this Emma. Last year we had a couple of cougar
attacks (I think on dogs) near Flagstaff and some sightings of then
in people's back yards in the mtn town as well. Game and fish ended
up tracking two cats they believed responsible and put them down,
despite the local Indian tribe's and Animal Rights protestes. The
attacks have stopped, for now.
I would say with small kids it's a real issue since they and dogs
seem to be the more common target so far. It's a scary thought
really. I worry about coyotees here too so I don't let my little guy
more than a few feet away from me on the trail, or he's in the pack.
When he's too big to carry and wants to run more, I really don't know
what I will do. I cannot even imagine looking at a cat holding my
baby boy in it's mouth. It is just a surreal thought. Purhaps more
studies of what behaviors the cats look for will help us in the long
run, kind of like what has happend with bears. You know ways to
maximize your safety while on the trail with a list of do's and
don'ts. Maybe you should look into participating in lobbying for the
no hunting ban to be lifted???
Jamie in AZ