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Officials Hunt Cougar After Attack on Boy

October 21, 1986|JOHN SPANO and MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writers

The search continued Monday in an Orange County wilderness park for a mountain lion that attacked a 6-year-old Huntington Beach boy, and a leading state wildlife official said it may be time to allow the killing of some cougars in the southern portion of the county.

Such "preventative hunts" of mountain lions previously have been authorized only to protect livestock. And since the sport hunting of cougars was banned in 1971, the animals have proliferated throughout the state.

Sunday's victim, Justin Mellon, was in satisfactory condition Monday, said a spokeswoman at Mission Community Hospital in Mission Viejo. The kindergartner was attacked by a cougar that attempted to drag him off as he walked ahead of his family on a hiking trail, not far from the site of a similar attack on March 23. Justin was gouged by the animal on the back of the head and on the arms and legs.

The boy required "more than 100 stitches over his entire body," said his father, Timothy Mellon, who said his son would probably miss about two weeks of school.

At 6:30 a.m. Monday, a combined force of trackers, game wardens, park rangers and six dogs began searching the park for the cougar, which may have threatened at least one other Orange County family in the same area of the park on Saturday.

About 24 hours before the attack on Justin Mellon, Doug Schulthess, his wife and two children were hiking along the same nature trail when they spotted a mountain lion watching them from the brush about 15 feet away.

'Lion Just Watched'

Schulthess said he was about to take a picture of his family when "I saw the mountain lion watching them. I said, 'Walk slowly to me.' The mountain lion just watched."

The family was able to retreat safely. Before leaving the park, Schulthess said, he and his wife filed a written report with park rangers. "The ranger didn't say much, but he seemed concerned that a mountain lion had come so close to people," Schulthess recalled in an interview Monday.

Meanwhile, Tim Miller, county manager of parks and recreation operations, said a meeting of state and county wildlife officials will be held in the next few days to decide what specific actions to take.

Among the options is closing the park permanently, which, he said, would represent "a phenomenal loss of a natural environment enjoyed by thousands of people every year."

Warning Signs Posted

Since the March incident, warning signs have been posted at all trailheads, rest rooms and the main gate.

The suggestion of a "preventative hunt" came from Brian J. Kahn, president of the state Fish and Game Commission. Kahn said he would favor such a hunt if the lion that attacked Justin Mellon on Sunday is not captured.

But he and other government and wildlife authorities urged restraint in reacting to the latest attack.

Kahn warned of an "emotional reaction" against a 15-year state ban on sport hunting of lions as a result of the attacks in 7,500-acre Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park even as he acknowledged the potential dangers of the encroachment of urban developments on the natural habitat of lions.

"We may be getting into a situation where we're getting enough lions frequently in inhabited areas," Kahn said. "It is possible under some circumstances some lions may be losing their historic fear" of humans. Kahn said he was speaking as an individual.

The California Legislature adopted a moratorium on the hunting of mountain lions in 1971, and renewed it in 1975 and again in 1983. Technically the ban expired last January, but the state Fish and Game Commission has yet to set an open hunting season for mountain lions.

A commission spokeswoman, Peggy Blair, said several studies of cat populations are under way. The commission will consider the lion situation as part of its "regular process of considering restrictions on all mammals" early next year, Blair said.

In another development Monday, an Audubon Society official revealed that shortly before a 5-year-old El Toro girl, Laura Michele Small, was badly mauled by a mountain lion in the same area of Caspers Park on March 23, a meeting involving county and state game and park officials had been scheduled to consider the problem of big cats in the area.

But the discussion--which never took place--was intended "to determine a protocol for dealing with the potential problem of lions in the area," said Jeff Froke, an Audubon official.

Froke, along with county parks and state fish and game officials, are defendants in a $28-million lawsuit filed by the parents of Laura Small in which Donald and Susan Small charge that officials had known of the danger of the cats in the area.

The attack left Laura's right arm and leg paralyzed, damaged her right eye and caused a difficulty in speaking. Her progresss has been slowed by side effects of the antibiotics she took to ward off brain infection, her mother said Monday.

The lawsuit claimed that park officials were so concerned about increased sightings that the evening before the Small attack, they warned park-goers and even offered instructions on what to do if confronted with a lion.

On Aug. 24, U.S. Forest Service firefighter Kenneth Jordan, 29, said he was charged by a mountain lion but managed to scare it off.

Times staff writers Gordon Grant, Bill Billiter and Maria L. LaGanga in Orange County and Kenneth F. Bunting in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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