Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The rural life: Lions among us

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

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.

Discussion | 14 comments

  • robertdnollSeptember 28, 2013 - 5:06 am

    good article Jennifer

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  • J.F. MeyerSeptember 28, 2013 - 12:41 pm

    Thank you, Robert. My cat, Leo, looks exactly like a tiny black panther and is every bit the fierce predator. Learning more about mountain lions has made me realize just how alike all cats are. So different from dogs! And majestic in that typically feline way.

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  • MarySeptember 29, 2013 - 4:41 am

    Jennifer, I must be honest, before I even began to read your story, I had already started to roll my eyes instantly, when seeing the header! Reason for my behavior & attitude honestly is due to the amount of stories over the years that I have read on this very same subject that have false information, unrealistic pictures painted, misleading, & Or lack of facts which is dangerous when it comes to this beautiful creature! Just because you don't see them, does not mean they need to be put on a "Specially Protected Mammals List" yet as you mentioned, prop 117 back in 1990, I sat inside the state capital, listened & watched the sierra club line the pockets of, who knows how many politicians, with ignorant statements along with untruthful results from phantom research they claimed had taken place & documented! Meanwhile the fish & game officers, who knew that mountain lions were of an abundance, & actually if anything needed to happen it wasn't prop 117, sat quietly with only one line said here & there which was, I'm without knowledge on that at this time?!? Hence the passage of prop 117, & my education on how our systems works. Back to my point regarding your story, refreshing & accurate! I Thank You as You made my Day. I hope someday, under safe conditions, you manage to see one of these cats as they are magnificent! Again Thank You Mary

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  • J.F. MeyerSeptember 29, 2013 - 2:27 pm

    Mary, I appreciate your kind remarks. I love animals, but I also love logic, reason, and common sense. I think our legislative system often fails to consider the unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning laws. Reality is seldom black and white. Anyway, thanks for commenting.

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  • cookie65September 30, 2013 - 6:53 am

    Seeing one is a shock to your system. At first you don't believe your eyes. But nothing is more unforgettable than hearing the screaming sound they make. It is shrieking sound, coming out of the darkness, that can only be described as a little girl being brutally tortured. It makes all your hair stand on end.

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  • J.F. MeyerSeptember 30, 2013 - 8:19 am

    Cookie, I have indeed heard that nightmarish sound. I'll ever forget the first time...I bolted to the window (it was the middle of the night) and wondered if there could possibly be a woman, fleeing from who-knows-what tormentor, plunging through the dense brush, down the hill. Surreal and spooky in the extreme. Later I learned that's exactly what a mountain lion sounds like. I've heard the scream a few times since then, and even though I now know what it is, it always brings the hair up on the back of my neck.

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  • J.F. MeyerSeptember 30, 2013 - 8:22 am

    Uh, make that "I'll *never* forget...," not "ever forget." (Once an editor, always an editor.)

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  • Melody LaneSeptember 30, 2013 - 6:14 pm

    It is difficult to obtain accurate mountain lion info from Fish & Game or CA Fish & Wildlife. The statistics on their website is outdated by approximately 30 years. Inquiries made in July to F&W about the number of lions and depredation permits still have not been responded to. Check out this harrowing incident of 3 mountain lions attacking a dog in Camino during the 8/28/12 BOS Open Forum: All 3 lions were dispatched by a professional trapper.

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  • rodSeptember 30, 2013 - 11:53 pm

    Jennifer, If you really want to see one up close and personal, start a jogging regime on a brushy trail in the foothills... better keep an eye over your shoulder. Go alone and unarmed in the evenings, that will work better. Funny, more MLs are killed every year now than before prop 117 when they were occasional shot at and kept their distance. Super stupid to have wildlife management by ignorant bleedinghearts voting on sentiment... these cats are DANGEROUS... just ask the families of those that have been killed. I have been stalked by a lion hiking downhill after a two day fishing trip. Seeing its face and eyes was a shock, but 30 minutes later it was closer, but I was almost back to my pickup... lucky for him...I would have whipped him to death with my little carbon fiber pole... yeh.

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  • swileyOctober 01, 2013 - 6:40 am

    Jenny, great article on living the rural life! Don't worry too much about Buddy, Our Pigmy, named Buster, lived for 16 years under foot of the horses. They protected him from mountain lions, large packs of coyotes, and neighborhood dogs. If I tried to lock him up for his safety he was terrified.

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  • J.F. MeyerOctober 01, 2013 - 12:54 pm

    Thanks, S. Wiley--that is reassuring to hear about your Buster. I’m going to hope the same continues to hold for my Buddy. Rod, funny you should mention running at odd hours, as that’s what initially prompted me to do the research that led to my original feature on MLs in the Democrat. I used to run sometimes at dawn or dusk. After writing that article, I determined I’d run (now walk) only in daylight, and away from cover as much as possible. ML attacks on humans are still rare, but no sense being foolish and putting yourself at risk.

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  • rodOctober 01, 2013 - 6:34 pm

    JF, Fatalities are rare but lions are getting braver and more prolific, hence the CDFW crews dispatching more of them. Stalking of humans and observation are much more common than before prop 117. I wonder if they would answer an inquiry as to how many are shot by them per year, then compare years. That might give a trend. Punjabis were their sunglasses on the back of their heads when walking the tall grass, that's where ALL cat attacks come from, rarely frontal.

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  • rodOctober 01, 2013 - 7:00 pm

    In the winter months when snow moves the deer herds down lower, lions focus more on rural neighbor cats and dogs. They still prefer deer but in old age and cold weather lions move to alternate food sources i.e. calves, goats, sheep....

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  • Phil VeerkampOctober 01, 2013 - 7:09 pm

    . . . lost dogs and cats . . . i.e. puma snacks

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