Who’s afraid of the big bad cat?
Examiner Staff Writer
October 30, 2008
Nancy Mangini still vividly remembers the first time she saw a mountain lion in Woodside, while delivering a prescription from her husband’s pharmacy.
“I parked in the driveway, and it just came loping down next to the car,” Mangini said.
The second time — about four years ago — she was walking at dusk in Edgewood Park and looked out across the valleys, only to find she wasn’t alone.
“I could see a very large feline walking along the ridge, and I thought, ‘This is probably not a good place for me to be,’” Mangini said.
In both instances, the sight was “rather thrilling — it reminds you that you are indeed in the natural world.”
Whether they’re thrilled, frightened or just curious, 13 separate mountain lions have reportedly been sighted since late August by residents of San Mateo County. While only one of those sightings — a cougar hit and injured Oct. 14 by a sport utility vehicle on Highway 92 — has been confirmed by officials, experts say there’s no doubt that residents are more aware of big cats than ever.
Most of the reports have come from places where open-space parks and hillside residences meet: Woodside, Portola Valley and San Bruno Mountain. Opinions vary regarding whether sightings have increased, as well as the reasons why residents feel they’re seeing more mountain lions.
“We’re not tracking it, but anecdotally, we think the reports are increasing,” said Ken White, director of the Peninsula Humane Society.
That may be due in part to increased awareness and media attention, according to Kyle Orr, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game. The mountain lion population in California is holding steady at 4,000 to 6,000, and the population of their primary prey — deer — has also been stagnant, Orr said.
And although development in rural parts of the county — particularly along Skyline Boulevard — has been static for years, near San Bruno Mountain there are new housing projects planned, boosting the opportunity for residents and lions to spy one another, according to Lisa Grote, director of planning for the county.
Aside from living closer to the animals, some residents are making changes that are bringing the wildlife closer to them.
“Mountain lions were unheard of five years ago,” said Perry Vartanian, treasurer of the Woodside Hills Homes Association. “What’s going on is, we didn’t used to have deer here — there was no vegetation.”
Now, brush is thicker and more residents are putting in gardens, giving the deer plenty to nibble on — and drawing cougars closer to houses.
At the same time, better awareness about health and exercise — coupled with tight budgets that keep residents closer to home — means more Peninsula residents are hiking in local open-space parks, according to Dave Holland, director of the San Mateo County Parks Department.
However, Holland said as locals take to the outdoors and spot the occasional wild big cat, their fears will decrease, not increase.
“More connection with nature will ease that concern, because you’re more familiar and you have more information on how to be prepared for an outdoor environment,” Holland said.
Indeed, there is little sign that locals are feeling threatened by the lions in their neighborhoods.
Although California residents can obtain permits — called depradation permits — in order to kill a mountain lion they believe is threatening public safety, their pets or livestock, only four such permits have been issued in the county since 1972, and no felines have been killed as a result, Orr said.
Eric Sakuma, a deputy with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office who responds to many reported sightings, said he sees signs that locals are becoming less afraid of their predatory neighbors.
“Two years ago, the calls were, ‘Get the lion, I want it out of here,’” Sakuma said. “I think residents now are more concerned about documenting that it’s in the neighborhood so alerts can go out.”
Don’t tell a mountain lion tale unless you see a tail, expert says
The first thing mountain lion experts want the public to know is that if you think you’ve seen a big cat, chances are you haven’t.
There are plenty of the big cats throughout the state, including in San Mateo County — somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000, according to state Department of Fish and Game estimates. However, most of the animals reported as mountain lions are actually other animals.
“Most commonly they’re dogs, or sometimes even a large house cat,” said Doug Updike, statewide mountain lion coordinator for Fish and Game. “When it’s dark or dim, people don’t get a real good look.”
Cases of mistaken identity are common enough that when San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy Eric Sakuma responds to a mountain lion sighting, the first thing he asks the reporting party is whether the animal had a tail.
“And they’ll say, ‘No, it didn’t have a tail,’” Sakuma said, confirming that many times locals are seeing bobcats, not cougars. “It’s one and the same to a lot of people.”
Adult mountain lions are a single, tawny color from head to tail, except for a black-tipped tail and a black “mustache” on their face, according to Updike. Females weigh 75 to 90 pounds, while males weigh 120 to 160 pounds. Their tails are half the length of their bodies.
Their favorite times to prowl are dawn, dusk and night, particularly by the light of the moon, according to Updike. They roam through large areas up to 200 square miles, mostly so their prey forget they’re around.
And, because they’re well camouflaged and shy, it’s not easy to spot them.
“Lions see us all the time,” Updike said. “And, typically, we look right at them and never see them.”
That’s why the second thing big-cat experts want locals to know is: They don’t like eating humans.
Since 1890, only 14 Californians have been attacked by mountain lions, according to Fish and Game spokesman Kyle Orr. Six were fatal.
“Mountain lions tend to attack from behind, so it’s a good thing we’re not on their menu,” Updike said. “If we were tasty, hundreds of people would be killed each weekend. They don’t like us, and that’s a good thing.”
Cougar sightings in San Mateo County
Since late August, 13 separate reports have been made by Peninsula residents who said they spotted a big cat.
Aug. 21: Resident reports seeing two mountain lions entering the west side of Edgewood Park in Redwood City.
Aug. 31: Portola Valley resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 200 block of West Floresta Way.
Sept. 9: Woodside resident reports seeing a mountain lion at 5 Vintage Court.
Sept. 15: Woodside resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 400 block of Old La Honda Road.
Sept. 30: Resident reports seeing two mountain lions walking along a trail on San Bruno Mountain; jogger reports seeing a mountain lion crouching in the brush on San Bruno Mountain.
Oct. 3: Resident reports seeing a mountain lion on the Bear Gulch Trail in Wunderlich Park in Woodside.
Oct. 8: San Mateo resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 200 block of West Poplar Avenue; San Mateo resident reports seeing a mountain lion near Occidental Avenue and Clark Drive.
Oct. 14: Driver reports seeing a mountain lion limping away after being hit by a vehicle on Highway 92 west of Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir.
Oct. 18: A Portola Valley resident reports finding a devoured deer carcass in the front yard of a home on Naranja Way, and suspects a mountain lion left it there.
Tips for living among big cats
Coexisting with California’s biggest cats is quite simple. If you’re living in mountain lion country:
Don’t feed deer. It’s illegal in California and it will attract mountain lions.
Deer-proof your landscaping by avoiding plants they like
Trim brush to reduce hiding places for mountain lions.
Don’t leave small children or pets outside unattended.
Install motion-sensitive lighting around the house.
Provide sturdy, covered shelters for sheep, goats and other vulnerable animals.
Don’t allow pets outside when mountain lions are most active: dawn, dusk and at night.
Bring pet food inside to avoid attracting raccoons, opossums and other potential mountain lion prey.
Do not hike, bike or jog alone.
Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active: dawn, dusk and at night.
Do not approach a mountain lion.
If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects; pick up small children.
If attacked, fight back.
If a mountain lion attacks a person, call 911
Source: California Department of Fish and Game
Mountain lions in California: Facts and figures
4,000 to 6,000
Mountain lion population statewide
Possible sightings in San Mateo County since late August
Mountain lion attacks in California since 1890
Sources: California Department of Fish and Game, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.