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Mountain Lions Among Us

August 28, 2013

mountain-lion-001Nothing seems to stir so much awe…and so much panic…as a predator among us. They are large. They are elusive. They are smart stalkers. And, in the case of most lions, they are hard-wired to give chase to anything that flees.  So, when the news came out about a mountain lion chasing and eating a deer in a suburban area at the edge of a wooded area and near a state park boundary, somehow the residents were surprised.  Really?  I’ll bet they see deer all the time; what made these folks think they would not see, at least once, a predator that eats deer? (Other than a speeding SUV that catches a hapless one in the middle of a dark road, that is.)

Humans build their environment around them, and then get complacent when they think that they now control that environment.  Yes, they can trap the gophers in the yard, but it’s tough to fence out fliers and climbers, like birds and raccoons.  Skunks and opossums have a way of finding weak spots in fences or foundation screens.  Hornets built nests under eaves: bats and bees have been known to invade attics. And deer can pretty much be found anywhere where there is browse and cover.  They’ve been chased off of our deck, browsing on our potted rose bushes, citrus trees and cherry tomatoes.  Nature abhors a vacuum: sooner or later, with herbivores roaming around, the predators who feed on them are soon to follow.  We haven’t had wolves or grizzly bears in California for a very long time (see Hitched to the Universe). But, we do have mountain lions.  And despite their name, they don’t necessarily need high mountain habitat to survive.

WarningJust as it is for other furry, four-footed predators, humans are not at the top of the menu.  Chances are good that you will never actually see a mountain lion in the wild.  But, if you behave like prey, like trying to run away, this motion fires the neurons in the cat’s legs to pursue, without any critical thinking about what’s (hopefully) about to be for dinner. So, those folks in Scotts Valley got a close-up look at what’s been happening in the woods and park behind their neighborhood for centuries and centuries.  If they thought that their built environment somehow isolated them from the natural world, they just had that notion banished.

Hopefully, this incident banished that notion for others, too, without planting an unwarranted amount of fear.  When we moved to Berta Ridge, we hoped to see all parts of the food chain, and not just the sweet songbirds, or the fuzzy rabbits.  When we moved to a place with such a significant amount of land dedicated to open space, we knew there was a chance of finding evidence, or even witnessing, a predator-prey encounter.  Within the first six months of moving in, we happened to look out our windows to see a shadow slinking along the edge of the wooded area at the far side of the fire break between our house and the woods.  It was a hazy afternoon, and the edge was in the shadows – not ideal wildlife viewing conditions.  But, suddenly we saw the long, lanky tail that could only belong to a mountain lion.  We suppressed our excited gasps, and just watched the mountain lion slide out of view, not bothering to scramble for a camera.

Thrilled with our sighting, we shared our observation a few months later at the homeowner’s association annual meeting.  Expecting the others to share our excitement, we were flabbergasted by the reactionary fear, as people asked about reporting to the state fish and wildlife department and depredation permits.  We tried to temper things, saying that we moved here just for those kinds of opportunities, and that with this much open space, these sightings, however rare, should not be unexpected.  Or feared. We went home that night vowing to never divulge another mountain lion sighting in the neighborhood.  Keeping quiet seemed the best way to minimize the disturbance to the resident cats.

Unfortunately, we have not seen another mountain lion in the past four years.  But, we don’t believe for a minute that there are no mountain lions out there in the neighborhood.  We installed our trail camera three years ago right along the edge of the fire break, on the same path we saw the mountain lion.  Alas, no trail cam shots of mountain lions, either.  But, we are hopeful.  We’ve captured smaller predators: foxes, coyotes and bobcats with the trail cam, so we think its only a matter of time before another mountain lion patrols our woodland edge.

More information about mountain lions:

Santa Cruz Pumas
Mountain Lion Foundation

Update January 23, 2015: Indeed, the mountain lions are among us. Our “green spaces” act as corridors, but are sometime a cul-de-sac for young adult cats looking to establish new territories. Among all the curious sights that can be seen in downtown Santa Cruz, we can now add mountain lions to the mix.

Mountain Lion Sightings Reported Downtown Santa Cruz

From → Mammals

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