Friday, February 2, 2007
When a mountain lion attacks
My heartfelt sympathies to the Hamms, who fought off a mountain lion attack last week. The couple’s chilling description of the ordeal and their determined defense has inspired a great deal of interest and compassion, not to mention lame rhetoric and political commentary. Fortunately, Mr. Hamm is on the mend, after a turn for the worse due to infection. The Hamms have always enjoyed hiking in wild places, and I hope they won’t give it up after this experience. But if they do, so be it. You can’t really blame them.
California’s wildlife advocates invoke changing demography to explain the increased frequency of mountain lion attacks. It stands to reason. The state’s landscape looked a lot different in 1849 when a very sick wagon train captain named J. Goldsborough Bruff (1804 - 1889) decided to call it quits. He dropped out somewhere in Lassen County, wintered in a shanty, and kept a diary. His account gives perspective on what it was like when wildlife outnumbered people. Bruff ran out of food, but the native Yahi offered no succor. Nasty encounters with a steady stream of unsavory fortune seekers had already taught them to keep a low profile. He resorted to scavenging the carcasses of abandoned oxen and big game killed by wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. The predators didn’t leave much meat, but he lavished praise on the choice broth he concocted from the boiled bones. No doubt wild game outnumbered people one hundred and fifty years ago. There was even enough carrion around to support a population of condors. Bruff knew—he shot one.
Long gone are the wolves and ‘grizz’, but the California Department of Fish & Game estimates we share our state now with as many as 6000 mountain lions. And the census takers tell us the golden state has 35 million people. (It’s easier to count people.) The place is changing in other ways. Most of the quaint towns of the coast range, foothills, and Sierra Nevada have given way to burgeoning suburban communities. San Francisco’s bay area baby boomers have migrated to the foothills and beyond into the Sierra Nevada, so a lot of people now live much closer to nature. Mountain lions and other predators must see or encounter a lot more people than in the past.
There’s a clear and present danger when large predators encounter people more often than their normal prey, and this might have been the case with the lion that mauled Mr. Hamm. Cal Fish & Game officials killed a pair of mountain lions near the site of the mauling, and identified the female as Hamm’s attacker. Mountain lions are solitary, which means the female was with her offspring or was having a fling. Either way, two cats get half as much to eat when they make a kill. To eat normally they have to kill more often.
When something like this happens, I get a lot of free advice from family and friends. Normally they view my camera-trapping sorties into the woods as harmless eccentricity. In the wake of near tragedy they behave like officials of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). I can’t defend my outings with the old arguments about probability—"I’m telling you the odds are better of getting hit by lightening than killed by a puma."
But I don’t really want to tempt fate, so I have to consider the expert advice. Don’t go into the woods alone. Carry a big stick. Don’t run when you see a puma. Make your self look big. Etc. Neighbor Richard advises me to take a sidearm, preferably a double action .38 caliber. Professor Wolfgang Schleidt, my grad school mentor in ethology tells me to carry a black umbrella. (Indeed a 19th century German explorer crossed Africa unscathed by flashing open his umbrella at all threatening beasts). And why not don a crash helmet and neck brace? Pumas invariably attack the head and neck.
I am trying to heed the advice of family and friends. My daughter bought me an air horn, and my cautious wife advised me to take the walkie-talkie on my outings—not that anyone could ever find me should I send an SOS.
So a few days ago it was again time to check the trap line.
"Sweetie, how about a hike down in the canyon this afternoon? Two is safer than one, right?"
"You walk too fast. And with my luck the puma would attack me, the slow weak one. Take the walkie-talkie and the air horn Lauren gave you".
I arm myself with a big stick, the walkie-talkie and the air horn. I leave the other walkie talkie in the kitchen. With my knapsack on my back, I head down into the barranca—"valderee, valderah, valderee, valderah ha ha ha ha ha….",
Safely at destination, I drop my knapsack, and pull out the walkie-talkie to report to home base.
"Okay sweetie (puff puff), I’m here at set 21. . . the mossy rock--where I got the puma pictures. . . Do you read me?"
The walkie-talkie goes "Blurp", and there is silence.
"Okay sweetie", I repeat, "I’m here. . . are you there?"
Another blurp, another silence.
Back at the house, I query my beloved whether she heard me calling, and she answers, "No, I was in the computer room.
"Well, what if a puma had attacked me."
"If the puma attacks call when I’m in the kitchen."
My wife is a practical woman.