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The cougar's last stand

Southern Californians rejoiced when a litter of cubs was born to the last two mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. Little did the public know that they may face a future of inbreeding, hunger and early death.

October 09, 2005|Veronique de Turenne | Veronique de Turenne is a Malibu-based freelance writer.

Deep in the Santa Monica mountains, her exact whereabouts known only to biologists tracking her by GPS, the puma gave birth a year ago to four kittens. Two males and two females, their newborn eyes and ears sealed shut, their tiny bodies making swimming motions against the lapping of their mother's rough tongue. It was a solitary act by a secretive animal in a wilderness her species has roamed for thousands of years.

Six weeks later, the cubs were media stars. Photo ops and stories by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News and ABC 7 News put them squarely in the public eye.

"Last known Santa Monica Mountain lions become parents"

Images of a National Park Service worker cradling a 6-week-old cub, all wide blue eyes and black-spotted fur, round and clumsy as a plush toy, gave the story legs.

"It's quadruplets for the last known mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains"

The timing could not have been better. Just 10 months earlier, after an investigation showed that the cubs' father, known as Puma 1 or P1, was preying on goats, a rancher had been granted a "kill" permit by the state Department of Fish and Game. News that hunters were about to shoot the last known male lion in the Santa Monica Mountains produced a public uproar. The rancher quickly backed down and the permit expired. Now, with the death sentence lifted and a litter of cubs giving the local mountain lion population a significant boost, there was cause for exultation.

"Four lion cubs are born free"

But Ray Sauvajot, a wildlife ecologist and director of the National Park Service's 10-year-old Carnivore Project, knew better. In public, he shared his genuine joy at the litter's birth. In private, he faced the grim truth that science wouldn't let him ignore: With freeways, roads, business parks, housing developments and vineyards gobbling up their range, there isn't enough wild land left in the Santa Monica Mountains to support all six pumas.

Without a way into the wilder lands to the north, these mountain lions may be doomed. They have no one to breed with but each other. Driven by his territorial instincts, P1 could kill any one of them at any time. What appeared to be salvation from extinction was, without some luck and some quick action by humans, the beginning of a grim slide into oblivion.

The puma in Topanga Canyon is invisible. buff-colored, he blends into the golden trunk of a sycamore, vanishes against the dun-colored dirt floor of his enclosure. Adjust your focus and suddenly he is there, crouched motionless save for the twitching black tip of his heavy tail.

His head is small and sleek. His fur is thick and soft as a house cat's. It smells like warm toast. But before you can get too misty-eyed, even as you notice his pink nose, golden brown eyes and the Mr. Coffee murmur of his powerful purr, he makes the tiniest of motions. Shifts his weight, perhaps. Flexes his toes. And he's airborne. No warning, no visible effort. Balletic and lethal, that long, long tail flowing behind as ballast, he floats 20 feet across the cage to land, soundless, inches away from your face.

"Hi, kitten. You killed us," says Mollie Hogan, president of the Nature of Wildworks, the nonprofit wildlife refuge where the lion lives. He turns without a glance and stalks away.

Hogan's compound shelters mostly native species displaced from zoos, illegally kept as pets or orphaned or injured in the wild. She uses the animals in public education programs. Today, she's talking pumas.

Mountain lions roamed the Americas tens of thousands of years ago, she says. They were here when the Spanish conquered first the Aztecs and, centuries later, the Californias. Their range extends from the southern Andes Mountains of South America to the alpine forests of Alberta, Canada; from the West Coast of the U.S. across to the Florida Everglades. Among mountain lion subspecies, it is puma concolor, Latin for cat of one color, that resides in California.

"They're the true natives," says Hogan. "They've been here a lot longer than we have."

Cat of one color, perhaps, but of many fanciful names. They have been called cougar, catamount, panther, king cat, mountain screamer, silver lion, brown tiger and, most telling of all, ghost cat. The males, which grow up to 8 feet long--3 feet of which is tail--can weigh up to 200 pounds. Females are slightly smaller, up to 6 feet long and from 80 to 130 pounds. They live and hunt alone, seeking each other out only to breed. Those encounters can be so ferocious that it's sometimes impossible to tell whether the lions are trying to mate or murder each other.

Each zealously guards its territory. Males need about 150 square miles to survive, an enormous chunk of land. Females use about a third of that. They can mate at any time during the year, the fierce ritual sometimes taking several days. When the courtship is over, the male disappears.

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