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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Trackers Searching for Cougar at Mugu Park

Wildlife: Several hikers report seeing the lion, which ventured within 3 feet of two women. Game wardens say they will most likely kill the animal.

September 16, 1998|MASSIE RITSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

POINT MUGU — Trackers and their dogs are searching Point Mugu State Park for a mountain lion that came within 3 feet of two frightened hikers on Sunday and was spotted in the park throughout the weekend.

Concerned that any animal venturing so close to humans could be poised to attack, trackers aim to take the animal from the park, most likely by killing it, said Capt. Roger Reese of the California Department of Fish and Game. While the search continues at least through this morning, the park is closed to the public.

Reese said the hunt began Monday after state rangers received several reports Sunday of a mountain lion roaming the Sycamore Canyon area in the northwest portion of the park.

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Two women, who were hiking in the area about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, saw the cougar about 50 yards away before it disappeared into the brush. The pair stopped at a nearby picnic table to discuss what to do.

They then heard noise from the brush and, assuming it was the mountain lion, retreated into a portable toilet.

As the noise turned into slow footsteps, the women locked the door.

"When the footsteps were right next to them, one of them looked through the vents in a portable toilet and saw a mountain lion 2 to 3 feet away," said Reese, who interviewed the hikers.

As the cougar circled the toilet, the women began banging on the walls to scare the animal off.

Several bicyclists had also reported seeing a mountain lion Sunday. Park rangers contacted wardens at the fish and game department, who identified tracks as being those of a lion.

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Because the lion approached the women, a move uncharacteristic of the species, it could mean this animal has attacked a human before, Reese said.

"We decided that this was one of those situations where we had to take action because we felt it was a threat to public safety," he said.

Three animal damage control specialists and tracking dogs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived Monday and searched into the night. They resumed the hunt Tuesday morning but had not seen the lion as of Tuesday evening.

Reese said the search would continue this morning.

"If this animal has left and doesn't return in the near future," Reese said, "he probably won't return for a while."

Ray Sauvajot, wildlife ecologist for the National Park Service, said mountain lions are rarely a threat to humans because of their nature and their number, which Sauvajot estimates to be between 10 and 20 lions in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

In addition, they tend to move mostly at night.

"We've never, ever had an incident involving a park visitor and a mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains," Sauvajot said.

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Mountain lions are protected by state law, but a lion can be killed if officials believe it threatens public safety. The last cougar to be killed in Ventura County was in 1995 after the animal had been blamed for carrying off dogs in Fillmore.

Two years ago, a mountain lion was tranquilized in Santa Paula and released into Los Padres National Forest.

Reese said tranquilizing an animal is always an option, but it is not a sure way to capture it. "There are a lot of things that can go wrong when you try to tranquilize an animal," he said.

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