Magazine article American Scientist

Suburban Stalkers: The Near-Wild Lions in Our Midst

Magazine article American Scientist

Suburban Stalkers: The Near-Wild Lions in Our Midst

Article excerpt

On a rainy November night in the hills of Malibu, California, a mountain lion moves silently into a pen of alpacas. It snags a long throat in its jaws, teeth bloody, the animal barely squealing, no flight, fully down. There are more alpacas, many more, and the mountain lion's overcharged instincts hold him to readiness again. Movement triggers attack, jumping, tearing, until nothing moves-a field of bloody prey he cannot eat or drag away.

The recent killing of 10 alpacas by the mountain lion known as P-45 in the Santa Monica mountains near Los ' Angeles made national headlines and prompted outpourings of support for the big cat. The alpaca owner received a permit to exterminate the beast, but she too felt sympathy for this magnificent creature. She let it live. Many cheered her decision, though others faulted her for grazing her normative flock in mountain lion habitat.

Many of us desire to conserve the wild, in part so that we and the generations after us can experience it. But the case of the mountain lion in southern California shows just how uneasy neighbors we and wild animals often become. Many Californians want to protect this carnivore, even at the risk of losing livestock and, although much less likely, human life. Without our intervention, the mountain lion cannot thrive among us. But it's unclear whether we can live alongside it and still protect the species-and its wildness.

Living with Lions

In Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, a series of mountain ranges extend in parallel from the Hollywood Hills west to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, with dense suburban populations on either side of and between them. These ranges-the Santa Susana Mountains, the Simi Hills, and the Santa Monica Mountains-connect to a longer range stretching 300 miles northeast along the major San Andreas fault, with the vaster Los Padres and Angeles National Forests lying to the north. Both east-west and north-south freeways and urban development cut these "inner" mountains off from the rest of the "outer" range. Mountain lions (Puma concolor)-also known as cougars, pumas, panthers, and catamounts-live, breed, and roam in this extensive inner area, which has its own system of freeways and suburban sprawl. The National Park Service uses GPS collars to track as many as 20 mountain lions at any one time just within these densely populated areas.

Californians voted to protect their big cats in 1990 with the California Wildlife Protection Act, a ballot initiative that made California the only western state to outlaw trophy hunting of mountain lions, with a few other states trying to enact such a ban. The act does, however, permit government agencies to kill mountain lions deemed a threat to public health, and for individuals to request depredation permits to kill mountain lions that attack their livestock.

Today, the ihountain lion population in California is stable, with an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 individuals in the state. So far, living with lions has come with minimal risk to human life. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, mountain lions have killed six people in the state since 1890. Despite the low risk, the core of public support for P-45 and other mountain lions seems based in part on our need to feel enlivened by their presence, their vitality and danger, as if we ourselves gain a certain charge and revived natural spirit for having them close by, sauntering through urban outskirts, restoring a lost wildness to our own lives.

Poet Brendan Galvin, in "Cougar," captures our thrill in finding a lion in our midst, because it helps us push back the stale conformity, inauthenticity, and enervating overconvenience of modem life:

Non-native plantings stuck into

lawns, ,

welded chains supporting the

mailboxes,

too many electives at the regional

school-we were in danger

until a state trooper saw it

pad with dignity across the road.

. …

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