Beach Cat Appears Doomed
PG residents express support for (and fear of) mountain lion.
Thursday, July 8, 2004
“The lion has been deemed a public safety threat,” Pacific Grove Police Chief Carl Miller announced at a community meeting last week, called to discuss recent mountain lion sightings.
The next step appears to be pretty clear-cut, says Fish and Game wildlife biologist Terry Palmisano: “If the opportunity arises, the animal will be euthanized.”
The statements from Miller and Palmisano drew an emotional response from the hundred or so gathered residents, from gasps and moans to flat-out yelling.
“God! It’s wrong,” one woman lashed out. “We kill everything because of fear.”
Another lectured the chief that the decision wasn’t his to make, and that it needed to be made by the community.
About half of the crowd wanted the animal either left alone or relocated, like a mountain lion that was trapped in a garage in Gonzales last month, tranquilized, then moved back to the wilderness.
Palmisano replied that the Gonzales lion was unique in that it had accidentally wandered into a neighborhood, unlike the cat that has hunted and killed four deer around Asilomar, within mere yards of popular walking paths, and then repeatedly returned to feast on the kills.
The other half of the crowd was quiet at the outset but eventually spoke up too.
“I love animals as much as anyone, but I’m afraid for my grandchildren,” one woman said. Another said he struggled with whether or not to get up and talk for fear of backlash, but he didn’t want to have to explain to a parent why he didn’t when their child was killed by the mountain lion.
The likelihood of that happening is pretty remote according to conservation biologist Chris Papouchis of the Mountain Lion Foundation. Since 1890, just 18 people in the nation have been killed by mountain lions. Six of those were in California. That may be because “California has more mountain lion habitat than any other Western state,” he said. But the depletion of that habitat means more and more run-ins with people.
“If you have deer, you can pretty much rest assured you have mountain lion,” Palmisano said.
Their ranges—the areas the large cats roam and call home—are enormous, spanning anywhere from 25 square miles to as many as a thousand for males in Texas. The overlap, where one male mountain lion shares territory with another, is miniscule.
That means the Asilomar cat is probably the only one around, depending on where the boundaries exist, according to Palmisano. Even if the animal recently spotted near Jack in the Box in Monterey was a mountain lion, it’s likely the same Asilomar cat. Most sightings, though, turn out to be bobcats or foxes or other animals. Mountain lion sightings are rare.
The big ranges also make relocation difficult, according to Papouchis. Tranquilizing the Asilomar cat and relocating it could be devastating for the animal, particularly if conservationists end up putting the animal in the home range of another. They’ll fight to the death for territory, he said.
Mountain lions are also an integral part of our ecosystem, according to Papouchis, who gave as an example the wolves that were returned to Yellowstone a decade ago.
The wolves, who prey on elk, were seen as a menace. So the wolves were taken out. The elk overran the place and obliterated habitat needed by other critters, such as beaver, which disappeared. Since the wolves have returned, the elk population is under control and the beavers are once again part of Yellowstone.
Papouchis said mountain lions play an equally integral role in maintaining our ecology. “The beauty here is due in large part to mountain lions,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean the Asilomar cat can stay, at least as far as Chief Miller is concerned.
“We just cannot coexist in an urban setting with mountain lions” he said. “They are predators.”
Still, Miller recognized that the situation is not an easy one.
“Our primary job is public safety,” Miller said, ”but also as stewards of natural beauty: the coastline, the wildlife, even the mountain lion.”
Palmisano, who’s spent most of her life in wildlife preservation and solves hundreds of mountain lion problems yearly through education, said more than nice words are needed.
“People want to protect wildlife when it happens out there, away from us,” she said. “That lion lives here for the same reasons we do: we all want to live here in nature. Only, some of us want our nature sanitized, just to make it go away. We want to do environmental preservation, as long as it’s not directly in our backyard.”
Whether the cat is relocated or killed, Papouchis said, there will be others that come to claim its relinquished territory. But this cat is unique, hanging out in populated areas and hunting in the open, which some think increases the threat ten-fold.
“Nobody wants to run out and shoot this lion,” Palmisano said. “We can let it stay and wonder, ‘is it going to be a good lion again today?’ Where do we draw the line? Do you personally want to be the one to make a mistake and then notify parents about a child?”
Regardless of the lion’s ultimate fate, it will no doubt be controversial. “We’re running out of options here,” Palmisano said. “We must err on the side of public safety.”
Miller agreed, and added that the recent backlash over the way a Palo Alto mountain lion was treated after it was killed—it was plopped into the back of a truck and carted away—won’t happen in PG.
“We will treat this animal with respect if it is euthanized,” he said. “But we’re still hoping it’ll just move on.”
Only time will tell. In the meantime, some residents are angry and some are very afraid.
“Trust your leaders,” Miller said. “Nothing kills like a mountain lion.” And so, as Palmisano said, it will be killed instead.
Then Miller wavered, appearing unsure, and asked Papouchis, the mountain lion expert, for help: “Is there any sort of mountain lion repellant?”
Papouchis shrugged, disagreeing in the first place that the animal is a public safety threat, and said: “You can do like the Montana ranchers do. They urinate on their fence posts.”
Tips for Living With Cats
If you come upon a mountain lion:
• Don’t run. It may trigger the cat’s natural instinct to chase.
• Make as much noise as possible.
• Do what you can to make yourself bigger, opening a jacket and extending arms if possible.
• Don’t crouch, even when picking up small children.
• Throw things at the cat.
• Unlike with dogs, don’t look away. Make direct eye contact instead.
• Back away.
• Stay calm.
• If attacked, fight back. Think sensitive areas: nose, eyes.
Around the house:
• Bring pets in at night.
• Don’t feed other wildlife that may be prey: raccoons, squirrels, deer.
• Cats are particularly vulnerable. They may be viewed as cubs, future competition.
• When leaving the house or coming home, make noise, sing.
• Leave on music or talk radio when you’re outdoors.
• Don’t leave pet food out.
• Remove plants that attract deer.
• Remove brushy areas where a cat could hide.
• Supervise children closely.