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Neighborhood mountain lions? Summer Berkeley incident causes cities to rethink wildlife policies

By Jamie Hansen | 13 Jan 2011

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Last summer in Berkeley, a mountain lion found his way from the nearby hills to this downtown area. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

Most other diners had waddled home with bellies full of seasonal vegetarian lasagna, onion tart with anchovies, and macrobiotic kale when a giant carnivore padded into downtown Berkeley. Nobody can say for sure what he was after, but given that it was 2 a.m. — his normal dinnertime – he likely had raw meat on his mind.

The Berkeley Police Department got word at 2:13 in the morning that a 100-pound mountain lion was wandering the streets of the city’s “Gourmet Ghetto,” home to famous vegetarian restaurants and bordered by residences with bite-sized pets and small children.

Determining that the giant wildcat was a “great concern,” the department assigned a lieutenant, two sergeants and slew of officers to the job. After calling several animal management agencies for guidance, the police headed to the scene. The wildcat, in response, turned tail and bounded away, leading the officers on an hour-long chase down city streets, over backyard fences and through a playground where the homeless slept.

Meanwhile, the agency that usually deals with big wildlife — the California Department of Fish and Game — was a two-hour drive away and likely couldn’t bring tranquilizers. Its advice amounted to, “do what you think is best.” But being, as it was, the Berkeley police department’s first time chasing a mountain lion through the city, it wasn’t exactly sure what was best – and time was running out.

Communities caught off guard

Mountain lions aren’t the kind of creature a city usually plans to kill. This is especially true in the animal-friendly Bay Area. The cats are both imposing and elusive, skirting around the edge of our civilizations and our consciousness, mostly staying out of trouble. And as long as they remain that way, we are enchanted by the idea of them — but slightly terrified of a real-life encounter.

Such encounters are likely to increase as development encroaches on traditional wildcat habitat. Last fall alone, people reported mountain lion sightings in Woodside, La Honda, Half Moon Bay, San Anselmo and Pescadero.  And as the cats’ habitat continues to shrink, they’ll likely will continue to wander into areas where they are as unexpected and unwanted as a juicy Big Mac plopped onto a vegan table.

Berkeley police chased a mountain lion like this one through the downtown streets in August, ultimately having to shoot it out of concern for public safety. (Photo: Tony Hisgett/Creative Commons)

Urban communities, caught off guard, have tended to dismiss these instances as freak encounters, but many biologists and ecologists, believing otherwise, advocate education and planning to help us live with our carnivorous neighbors.

But that early morning in Berkeley, no such planning was in place, leaving local authorities to find a solution on their own.

It’s complicated: California’s changing relationship with mountain lions

Decisions about how to deal with mountain lions were a lot simpler a hundred years ago, when gold miners and pioneers considered the animals a threat to livestock and themselves, and the government handed out money to anyone who turned in a pelt. If a mountain lion wandered into town, a citizen likely would have shot the cat before the police did.

From the beginning, California has maintained a dysfunctional relationship with the wildlife it reveres. The grizzly bear still saunters across the state flag as an emblem of fierce wildness, despite the fact that no grizzlies have pawed California ground since a campaign by pioneers to eliminate them successfully concluded in 1922.

For a while, it looked like mountain lions would go the same way as the grizzly. In 1970, the statewide population dipped to about 600 cats. Then Ronald Reagan’s administration stepped in and placed a moratorium on sport-hunting the animals in 1971. The moratorium lasted 16 years, until the state legislature declined to renew it. In 1990, Californians permanently banned sport hunting through Proposition 117, which classified the cats as a “specially protected mammal.” California became the only western state where the mountain lions can’t be hunted.

Still, Californians kill about three lions a year to mitigate public safety risks and about a hundred annually through “depredation permits,” which are issued when a farmer or pet owner requests one. The permits allow killing wildcats that prey on livestock, but according wildlife experts, mistakes occur — for instance, the wrong cat is shot or it turns out the cat wasn’t the culprit at all.

And, if lion becomes a “public safety threat,” says Fish and Game, local authorities  may “kill the offending animal as soon as possible.”

Separating the mountain lion from the myth

At a November talk to an ecology class at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Zara McDonald asked a group of about 60 students how many had seen a wild mountain lion. A smattering of hands went up. She didn’t tell the hand-raisers that they were wrong, although most of them probably were. Fish and Game estimates that only ten percent of California’s reported mountain lion sightings are accurate. People get excited. Caught up in the adrenaline of the moment, they mistake everything from dogs to deer for lions.

Instead, McDonald told the hand-raisers they were lucky. She had a run-in with a lion ten years ago. It changed her life. Having already invented breakthrough GPS wristwatch technology and about to enter medical school, McDonald was training for an ultra-marathon in the Marin headlands when she came face to face with her first big  cat. They stared at each other in a gut-turning moment that felt much longer than it really was. “The cat was beautiful in a surreal and otherworldly way,” McDonald wrote in an e-mail. “I remember thinking after it turned and slipped silently back into the dense brush, that it belonged…in that wild space more than I did.”

For many of us, mountain lions are like the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot: both unnerving and alluring. And like mythic creatures, the cats go by many names: puma, panther, catamount, cougar — so many names, in fact, that the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes them for having more than any other animal. But McDonald thinks we’d deal better with mountain lions if we learned to see them not as mythical creatures, but as wild animals.

After her sighting, McDonald abandoned medical school to pursue a masters’ degree in wildlife ecology, which she’s still finishing.

This November, she paced the De Anza college classroom while unloading fact after fact about mountain lions on the scribbling students.

60-80 percent of a mountain lion’s diet is deer, though they eat everything from a mouse to a moose.

Students raced their pens across the page.

Since 1890, there have been 16 reports of violent accounts with mountain lions, and only six of them fatal.

More scribbling.

You’re 150 times more likely to be killed by a mountain lion’s prey (namely deer) than by a mountain lion. You’re 500 times more likely to drown in your own bathtub.

Everyone laughed.

Habitat loss, subsequent inbreeding and climate change are all challenging the cat’s existence.

Even in the classroom, McDonald moved with the power and pent-up speed of an ultra-marathoner. Her green eyes are always ringed in black eyeliner, and it’s hard not to see in her some resemblance to the fierce-eyed creatures she’s explaining on her slides.

McDonald founded the Felidae Conservation Fund in 2006 with the goal of protecting all wildcat species worldwide. The primary means to that end, McDonald repeats like a mantra, is education. Powered by McDonald’s dynamism, Felidae’s all-volunteer staff is co-leading the Bay Area Puma Project. Since 2008, the project has used tracking collars to gather more data about mountain lions in the Bay Area and share it with the public.

Following the incident in Berkeley, Felidae held a series of community talks in the area. “The Berkeley situation [was] a call to action for many Bay Area communities to think about the future we face,” she wrote. “If we want lions on the landscape we need to proactively address the effects of human encroachment and loss of habitat.”

Planning ahead

Phila Rogers has been walking the Berkeley hills near her home for more than 60 years, and as a retired science writer for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she understands mountain lions better than the average person. She knows her home is located at the edge of a hundred thousand acre regional park system, and she knows her yard is over-run by deer – puma bait. In recent years, she’s avoided walking much at dawn or dusk, when lion’s appetites are sharpest. The 81-year-old also knows she’s probably been watched by mountain lions over the years, but she’s never seen one – despite kind of wanting to.

“I would really enjoy having a sighting if I didn’t feel vulnerable,” she said.

This September, mountain lions did appear near Rogers’s home by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — and have continued to do so. The lab is located on Berkeley’s northwest side, where dense population gives way to regional parks and wildlife corridors.  In the wake of the August incident, the lab decided to take a pro-active approach to its cats. It brought on a consultant: area wildlife biologist Jim “Doc” Hale. Going about his work with his usual wide-brimmed hat and belly-length beard, Hale is monitoring populations and writing a report offering suggestions for how the lab can best deal with its wildlife.

Rogers, who sits on the lab’s community advisory group, is interested to hear what “Doc” Hale finds and what the lab decides to do. So far, she hasn’t heard much.

Currently, the lab believes a mother and two cubs are living near the property. “Right now, they’re cute and cuddly,” said Sam Chapman, community and state government relations manager at the lab. “But what happens when the cubs grow up?”

“It’s a sociological-political-economic-ecological conundrum,” said Hale, speaking of the larger situation as an independent wildlife biologist. He recently published an article in the San Francisco Chronicle calling for communities to create a “mountain lion response matrix.” The idea, which a colleague concocted, is to create training and protocols that can ensure lions aren’t killed “just because they show up.”

Back in Berkeley

On that August morning, when the young mountain lion “showed up” in downtown Berkeley, police lacked precedent and protocol, let alone Hale’s sophisticated response matrix.

They tried shooing the cat back into the hills, but it headed deeper into the urban area. The homeless were sleeping on the streets, night workers were walking home, and in a few hours children would head to school.

Police officers don’t carry tranquilizers, and Fish and Game likely would have taken hours to arrive from Sacramento. Relocation is almost never successful, because, as Fish and Game’s website explains, “it causes deadly conflicts with other mountain lions already there. Or the relocated mountain lion returns.”

Finally, deeming the cat a public safety hazard, an officer shot the mountain lion dead at 3:30 a.m.

Within three days of the Aug-31 shooting, a memorial to the “martyred” mountain lion appeared and debate broke out on online community forums over whether or not the cat should have been killed.  On Berkeleyside.com, area pacifists argued with pragmatists. “Could it be that ‘Puma’ was simply lost and wanted nothing more than to get to the sanity and security of the forest?” asked Big John, who argued that the police should have spared the lion. But Mike Farell countered: “My neighborhood should not be mountain lion territory. Cats that are willing to venture into dense urban neighborhoods should be removed from the population.”

Sergeant Mary Kusmiss said the police were overwhelmed with calls, ranging from gratitude to sadness to outrage and name-calling.

“When we have an issue like this, with so much community feedback, we always spend time internally asking ourselves what we could have done differently,” she said. She added that the police department has had some “internal discussion” about alternative ways to deal with future incidents and all officers have viewed a Fish and Game video about wild animals and public safety.

Still, said Kusmiss, future responses would likely be similar. The Berkeley police department stood by its decision to protect human safety, as did Fish and Game and two lion advocacy groups.  Most groups agree that public safety is paramount and that relocation would have been counter-productive. Many see the alternative– putting a grown cat, accustomed to ranging 50 – 200 square miles in its lifetime, in a zoo — as cruel.

Kusmiss added that no officer wants to dispatch animals, but that “each of us has a duty to serve and protect.”

“We hope we will not have any future encounters,” she said.

Berkeley’s Citizens Humane Commission, which advises city council on animal shelters and animal control, also looked at how the community might address future encounters. This November, the commissioners voted on a motion that would have asked police to make a specific protocol for dealing with wildlife. The motion would have asked the police to draw up a list of resources that would help them make “non-lethal” decisions for wildlife within city limits, so long as the wildlife wasn’t “actually attacking a person or persons.” It failed narrowly.

“It could have been very constructive,” said Dr. Alan Shriro, who chaired the meeting and voted in favor of the motion. In Shriro’s view, it failed because many councilors considered the mountain lion incident an anomaly. “The general thinking in the room,” said Shriro, “Was that this was a solution in search of a problem.” Shriro disagreed, noting that recent development around Berkeley has seriously encroached on lion habitat and predicting that the city will have to deal with similar events in the future.

Mountain lions today and in the future

On a Wednesday in November, about two months after police shot the mountain lion, diners in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto still weren’t sure what to think about the incident.

“My gut reaction was, why couldn’t something else have been done?” said resident Kimba Theurich, dining at the raw food restaurant Café Gratitude.

Ian Goldstein, a south Berkeley resident, had come north and was eating pizza with his family at the Cheeseboard. “I was disturbed that that was how the police department felt it should be handled,” he said, but added that he didn’t know what else they could have done. If the police could create a new protocol, he mused, then “maybe some good could come out of it.”

The mountain lion passed by Garwei Lee’s house during the chase. Today, she was lunching at the organic French restaurant Gregoire. “I was pretty surprised there was a mountain lion in the area,” she said. She wondered why the lion was in Berkeley at all. “I have a friend in Santa Cruz who’s worried about lions when she runs,” Wei said. “But here, we’re in a city. What was it doing here?”

For most of the downtown Berkeley diners on that sunny November day, the mountain lion incident seemed nearly forgotten. Forks clanked, glasses tinked and talk ranged from business to school to yoga. Giant carnivores were absent in the Gourmet Ghetto, though close by, residential gardens gave way to a sliver of green space. That , in turn, led up into the deer-specked hills where Phila Rogers hopes she might encounter a lion one day.

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