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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Hunting pumas with kindness

Dr. Rob Horwich of Gays Mills WI just responded to the previous mountain lion blog:

"I recently heard about that lion attack and another where a mother defended her 7-year-old against a cougar for an hour. I think California should institute the old cougar hunts with dogs (but in this case the "hunts" should be non-lethal). I think that would probably give the mountain lions some fear of humans. In Belize the mountain lions are described as "upstart", but they are smaller in Belize, and I am unaware of any attacks there. By the way, I recently heard about a huge pack of 53 squirrels bringing down a cougar, so once again nature establishes a balance."

Horwich’s "benign hunting" idea has merit. Use aversive conditioning to change the puma’s minds from ‘people are prey’ to ‘people are scary’. If the idea conjures images from Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay of Anthony Burgess’s "A Clock Work Orange", allow me to reassure you. We’re suggesting a kinder and gentler aversion therapy than that.

Here’s my take on it. First, consider an area where wildlife biologists deem people to be at high risk of attack by pumas. The hypothetical area has a known population of pumas, a low population of deer, and is frequently used by hikers, mountain bikers, and joggers, who occasionally report sightings of prowling pumas. Maybe harmless puma-human encounters have already taken place. In other words, the clock is ticking.

Responsible wildlife authorities would be scientifically prepared for the undertaking. They would have baseline information on puma-human encounters, and an index of puma abundance based on indirect census methods, such as counts of sign and camera trap records. Next, the wildlife biologists would stage mock hunts. Winter might be the best time. That’s when puma mothers teach their cubs to hunt. The hunters themselves would be professional wildlife biologists, and they would track the lions with hounds until treed. Have you ever seen a picture of a treed puma? Their body language tells it all. If you will excuse my anthropomorphism, they wear a look of terrible humiliation. After a few unpleasant encounters the sight and sound of people and dogs will give pumas what we Californians call "bad vibrations".

If the method works, pumas would avoid rather than stalk people. In any event, the field surveys would give quantitative measures of success or failure. In other words, if the cats avoid the area and puma sightings decline, we could consider the method successful.

Having worked for the government for many years, I know that bureaucrats usually do not cotton to really good hare-brained ideas. So I would anticipate two kinds of responses. The "argument of personal responsibility" would maintain that the hiker who is informed and cautious about pumas is a safer hiker.

Good bureaucrats also use more than one excuse. The coup de grace to the well-intentioned but misguided suggestion is the "argument of fiscal limitation". "Your suggestions, while interesting and of possible utility under specific circumstances, are not feasible for economic reasons." This is usually followed by a litany of statistics about the department’s enormous scope of responsibility, low staffing levels, and equally important competing needs. Your hair-brained idea is dead meat.

So, let "benign puma hunts" increase departmental revenues. It could be tastefully done. There would be no shortage of well-heeled Silicon Valley naturalists who would pay big-time to tree a puma and shoot it (with a camera). Hey, aren’t Apple’s latest operating systems named after the big cats? What are we waiting for? Thar's gold in them thar hills!

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