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Make Space for Lion's Share

October 05, 2003

For almost a century, people and mountain lions in California stayed out of each other's way. Then, in 1986, a cougar mauled 5-year-old Laura Small during a family saunter through Caspers Wilderness Park. Almost as though that were the sounding bell for an era of change, there have been several lion attacks since, most on young children. One person, a solitary jogger in San Diego County, was killed.

Cougars usually run away from people, though no one knows why. We're bigger and scarier than bunnies, but usually smaller than deer, the lions' favorite meal. Experts theorize that humans' relatively recent appearance in their environment and our tall, two-legged profile set us apart from their historic prey. Hikers yearn for a glimpse of the cats; reclusive and solitary creatures, even with each other, they seldom show themselves.

But recent encounters -- especially the two lions that have appeared in recent weeks near an equestrian center in San Juan Capistrano -- indicate that a few lions have seen enough of humans to decide we're not all that intimidating. In these cases, the lions held their ground, exchanging stares with the people, neither attacking nor running away. Even conservationists say the lions' behavior is worrisome. Seeing a potential danger to humans, state officials had reason to shoot the first one; the second one escaped.

That's different from the man in Silverado Canyon who early this year shot and killed a young, female mountain lion that had just feasted on two goats kept in an uncovered pen. Keeping domesticated goats outdoors at night, the lions' usual hunting time, in a wilderness area, is like an engraved dinner invitation.

Watching wilderness diminish under the creep of suburban development, Californians have set a high priority on preserving what remains. In 1990, voters passed Proposition 117, to ban the game hunting of mountain lions.

Californians, especially those who move into areas on the edge of wilderness, should learn to live with the wildlife they loved from a distance.

They should not leave their pets, pet food and garbage outdoors and then call out the hired guns when cougars and coyotes take advantage of an easy meal.

Planners allow developers to penetrate deeply into lion territory. Through closer encounters, cougars learn more about people -- and in this case, familiarity does not breed respect.

There is reason to be hopeful about the lions' future in Southern California. A study recently confirmed the presence of a cougar in the coastal wilderness surrounding Laguna Beach, after many years with no sightings. The appearance of the two lions in San Juan Capistrano could be a sign that the population increased after last year's good rains.

Or it could be a sign of the loss of yet more lion habitat.

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