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a reality check (for me)

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  • Emma Eyeball
    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,
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 7, 2003
      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.

      Hunting Humans?

      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
      disappearance.

      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."

      Selecting prey

      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,"
      Fitzhugh said.

      "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
      events."

      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.
    • chcoa
      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
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 7, 2003
        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
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