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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Instill Hefty Dose of Fear Into Wild Mountain Lions

January 17, 2004|Matthew Horns | Matthew Horns is watershed management specialist in Los Angeles.

I have worked in the wilds of California for more than 20 years -- and in mountain lion habitat for all that time. I have never seen one while working, but I constantly see signs of them. I know that they are there and that they are often aware of my presence in their territory. I have often worked alone many miles away from any other humans. Nonetheless, I have never felt threatened by mountain lions.

The Times has reported that there have been 21 mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, and that 19 of them occurred since 1986. Only two mountain lion attacks were reported in California before 1986. I question the theory that encroachment in their territory is the cause of recent attacks. Humans have been encroaching on mountain lion territory here since the 1849 Gold Rush, but attacks were rare until recently.

What has changed is the ban on mountain lion hunting since the 1970s. Since then, the number of mountain lions has climbed modestly, but attacks on humans have skyrocketed. Lions have apparently lost their fear of humans since people stopped chasing them with dogs and shooting at them.

I have worked in the Santa Monica Mountains for the last five years, and I constantly see mountain lion tracks, scratch marks on trees, scat and deer kills throughout the area. The recent attacks in Orange County forced me to reassess my lack of fear while working in lion territory. Then I remembered that a month ago a lion that killed some goats was chased and shot at by hunters in Malibu. I have great respect and appreciation for these magnificent creatures and am thankful that the hunters didn't kill it. I am glad, however, that those hunters scared the daylights out of the animal.

Lions are quite intelligent. I am confident that the only known male lion that lives where I work learned from the experience and will leave me alone as I hike through its territory.

I don't condone killing mountain lions. When they are afraid of people, we can coexist without conflict. Perhaps some kind of Department of Fish and Game program to pursue the ones that live close to humans would instill in them a renewed healthy fear of humans, allowing us to coexist without further fatal encounters.

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