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Southland's wild side

A mountain lion sighting at JPL creates a buzz among foothill residents and prompts a warning. Wildlife biologists say the big cats routinely venture into civilization, but most go unnoticed.

January 26, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

An engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge was walking across a bridge to work about 8:45 a.m. Jan. 16 when he spotted something moving in the creek below. At first he thought it was a coyote, but as he got closer he could make out the low build, hulking forequarters and tawny fur.

Mountain lion.

The engineer, Matthew Dickie, moved to grab his camera, and the animal crouched and froze. Other people walking to work noticed and peered over the bridge too.

I'll be damned.


The mountain lion stood frozen, looking straight up at them, at most 20 feet away, unwittingly providing a rare broad-daylight glimpse of one of Southern California's most storied, feared and elusive animals.

Soon Dickie's photo was ricocheting through local list-serves and websites. And residents of foothill neighborhoods could see what they have been murmuring about for months: Mountain lions are out and about.

On Tuesday, Crescenta Valley High School went so far as to put out a warning in its newsletter to parents:

"For those of you who live near the foothills of So. Cal. There have been several cougar sightings. . . . He is very large (that's why they presume it's male). Don't hike alone in the San Gabriel Mtns."

Wildlife biologists say the sightings are normal, but the buzz is a perennial reminder that Southern California, after a century of urbanization, still has a wild side.

"Most people who live in L.A. see the mountains but don't get that it can be as alien an environment as if someone threw you 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean," said attorney Paul R. Ayers, who posted the photo on an online forum for area hikers.

He said reaction to the mountain lion, also known as a cougar, has included everything from fear to appreciation to awe.

"Wow," one woman wrote. "My children will be fascinated. Glad I don't run on the trails."

Ayers said he didn't want to strike fear with the photo but thought that the public should be aware simply because the mountains around JPL are frequented by so many people -- hiking, jogging and walking their dogs.

"The Arroyo Seco, it's like the backyard," he said. "There are a lot of children in that area. You forget you are on the edge of a system that isn't deterred by our thoughts of civilization. I've seen cougars three times. You quickly realize you are not on top of the food chain."

Mountain lion attacks against people are rare. There have been 12 verified attacks -- three fatal -- in California since 1986, and only three recorded in the century before that.

Wildlife experts say mountain lions routinely venture into civilization. Most go unnoticed, but last week two of the great cats found themselves in a camera lens like wary celebrities caught by the paparazzi.

On Jan. 13, a mountain lion was spotted in an old pump house at the Chatsworth Reservoir. Soon it was surrounded by gawkers snapping photos on their cellphones.

Three days later, the mountain lion at JPL was photographed walking into the mountains. It was 20 feet from a hiking trail, twice as far from a sprawling parking lot and within view of the 210 Freeway. Witnesses said that both appeared to be good-size males.

JPL employees have been spotting mountain lions for years. The NASA laboratory is perched on 177 acres climbing the side of the San Gabriel Mountains into the open wilderness of the Angeles National Forest.

On its east side, the Arroyo Seco -- a stream that goes from dry to torrent depending on the weather -- courses out of the mountains onto a sandy flood basin behind the Devil's Gate dam.

Because mountain lions and other wildlife routinely follow streams, the Arroyo Seco is a natural corridor, funneling a 32-square-mile watershed down to a narrow cut -- where Dickie spotted the cougar last week.

Until last year, when the upper JPL property was fenced, large deer herds roamed the facility's open areas.

"Whenever you have a lot of deer, you are asking for lions," said Lt. Martin Wall of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Two years ago, JPL employees found a partially eaten deer carcass under a trailer.

"That was an eye-opener for them," Wall said.

JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said all sorts of animals -- bears, foxes, coyotes -- roam onto the property.

Generally, when security officers are notified of a mountain lion sighting, officials make an announcement over the public address system and post an advisory on JPL's internal website.

McGregor said this has happened three times since 2004.

Joe Edmiston, director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said such sightings should be celebrated.

"I think it's the most wonderful thing in the world that we still live in a place that's not tamed, not domesticated," he said.

"We should venerate the idea that this mountain lion is staring up at the engineers in their pocket protectors."

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