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Hiker reports cougar attack

Authorities say they are investigating the Foothill Ranch man's statement because no evidence was found.

August 07, 2008|Mike Anton and My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writers

A man who said a mountain lion attacked him Wednesday when he tried to pet one of the cougar's cubs led to the closure of Orange County's Limestone Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park and the temporary lockdown of a nearby elementary school.

But after scouring the Foothill Ranch area for several hours, state Department of Fish and Game officials called off the search for the lions because they found no evidence -- raising suspicions among authorities about whether the attack took place.

Authorities are investigating the report by Kevin Lassiter, 47, of Foothill Ranch, and are consulting with experts to determine whether the scratches on his arm were made by a mountain lion.

"We are not saying it didn't happen," said Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. "But according to Fish and Game, it is an unconfirmed incident." He added that cougar cubs have been sighted recently in the area.

If Wednesday's incident is verified, Amormino said, "he can consider himself an extremely lucky man."

Lassiter was treated at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. Later in the day, Amormino spotted him lying in bushes behind a department store near the park. Paramedics were called and treated Lassiter, who complained of feeling faint because of low blood-sugar, Amormino said.

While mountain lions that have contact with humans "are generally put down," Amormino said, cougars that attack when provoked are behaving naturally and aren't considered an immediate danger.

"Our No. 1 priority is public safety," he said. "But even if the mountain lion incident did happen the way the man says it happened, that lion is not a danger to the public."

Signs in the park warn that mountain lions live in the foothill wilderness.

In January 2004, a mountain biker was killed and another badly hurt by a cougar in Whiting Ranch. The death of Mark Reynolds, 35, of Foothill Ranch was the first in Orange County history and the only one statewide since 1994.

Wednesday's reported attack occurred about 8:30 a.m. a mile up the Borrego Trail. Foothill Ranch Elementary School was locked down for several hours.

Lassiter told authorities that he was hiking and came across a female lion and three cubs that he estimated were about 8 weeks old. "He said they seemed so cute and cuddly and passive," Amormino said.

When he went to pet one of the cubs, Lassiter told authorities, the mother lunged at him -- and then ran off.

Lassiter went to a convenience store near the park's entrance. Store manager Richard Bales said blood was running down Lassiter's right arm.

Bales said Lassiter, a regular at the store, put some napkins on his arm, said he had been attacked by a mountain lion and tried to leave. Bales called 911.

"I know he was embarrassed and he wanted to leave, and I said, 'We have to call the police. We can't just let it go,' " Bales said.Foothill Ranch Elementary School is "nearby and kids are always in this park," he said. The lockdown at the school was lifted in the early afternoon, and students were sent home at their regular times.

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mike.anton@latimes.com

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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