The rural life: Lions among us

By From page A4 | September 30, 2013

In the spring of 2012, our Saanan goat and his two equine pasture mates told me an interesting story about a mountain lion. I was returning from my morning walk when I found Buddy and the two horses clumped in a corner of their pasture, standing at attention with ears up, riveted toward the neighbor’s property.

I stopped and listened. From a wooded hill across the way, I heard the plaintive baying of hounds. Ordinarily my animals would ignore the distant sound of dogs barking, but this was different. Something was up.

My first thought was of the mountain lion that had recently been attacking livestock in our area. I knew a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapper was intending to track and kill the offending animal. (It’s the only workable solution for lions that lose their innate fear of humans. Relocate them and they become a safety threat in their new area, fight with lions already in the territory, or even return to the original locale.)

Trappers use trained dogs to pick up the lion’s scent and track it until the cat is cornered or treed. I later learned that the mountain lion in question had in fact been taken on that hill.

But I’d already known that. My horses — and Buddy — had told me so.

That’s been my closest encounter with a mountain lion to date. I’ve lived in El Dorado County nearly 50 years and have never even glimpsed one in the wild. I know they’re highly solitary, secretive animals, but still. Wildlife experts say cougars prowl our county anywhere there are deer — and we’re crawling with deer out here in Latrobe.

These magnificent cats — the largest native to North America — have always fascinated me. In 1998 I wrote a feature, “Living in Mountain Lion Country,” for the Mountain Democrat. At that time a California Department of Fish & Game (now Fish & Wildlife) biologist told me there had probably been, at some point during the week, a mountain lion “within a mile of anyplace in El Dorado County.”

That gave me pause. And, in that lion numbers have remained fairly consistent in the intervening years, it still does.

Puma concolor is a daunting creature — up to 150 pounds of pure predator. Its preferred method of killing is a spine-severing bite to the back of the neck. Though it prefers deer, it also preys on a wide variety of other mammals, and even domestic livestock and pets on occasion.

When cougars do come for livestock, ruminants are a favorite target. This makes me nervous for Buddy, who doesn’t get locked in at night (the best — though not foolproof — way to keep goats and sheep safe).

Buddy does hang out with horses, however, and I’ve always hoped that provides some measure of protection for him. (Though mountain lions have been known to attack horses, as well, if infrequently.)

We’ve had Buddy for 10 years now, and so far, so good. In reality, domestic dogs have proved a bigger threat. (I wrote about the time neighbors’ dogs attacked Buddy, then a kid, in my debut “Rural Life” column in August of 2004.)

Homeowners can kill a mountain lion if they catch it in the act of threatening a human or a domestic animal, or if an attack seems imminent. Otherwise, a depredation permit from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is required to lawfully kill even a problematic lion.

Mountain lions used to be hunted in this state, but since the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990, they’re a “specially protected mammal” — meaning only individual animals causing damage to property, livestock or human health and safety can be taken.

Are mountain lions a significant threat to humans? According to CDFW, attacks on humans are rare — just 16 verified in California since 1890, six of them fatal. In fact, you’re a thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar.

No one knows what causes a lion to go rogue. Disease may be a factor; CDFW says some lions killed for public safety reasons have tested positive for feline leukemia, and at least one was infected with rabies.

My policy is to be prudent. Just as you wouldn’t fly a kite in a lightning storm, you shouldn’t do things that might attract a lion. That means no feeding of deer or otherwise attracting them to your area. It also helps to clear dense vegetation from around your home, especially near children’s play areas. And don’t let pets roam, especially between dusk and dawn.

It’s easy to get creeped out about mountain lions by focusing on those rogue events. So it helps to know that although the CDFW receives hundreds of reported mountain lion sightings throughout the state annually, fewer than 3 percent turn out to be verified public safety threats. Tracking studies of radio-collared lions indicate they often co-exist peaceably around humans, unseen and unheard.

If you’d like to see an amazing video of a live cougar, search online for “mountain lion up close — Effie Yeaw Nature Center.”

For my own part, I’m still hoping to see a mountain lion in the wild someday … perhaps in my area … but definitely not up close.

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer, a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat, would love to hear your own lion stories. Leave a comment online, or contact her at [email protected]

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author with three published books to her credit. Currently she is a senior editor with Horse & Rider magazine. Jennifer lives in rural Latrobe with her husband, Hank; their daughter, Sophie Elene; and the family’s assorted animals.
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