Guest Article: Are Mountain Lions More Important Than the Safety of People, Children, and Pets? – Part 1, by William E. Simpson

In the late 1980s, it was determined by a relatively small group of financially- and politically-biased scientists and their lobbyists that the population of mountain lions (aka: cougar, puma) in California was dangerously low. So, they launched a massive media campaign to convince Californians that there was a genuine problem, giving rise to the 1990 California State legislation that provided a “protected” status for mountain lions. However, there was no overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting such a claim. If there had been such credible evidence supported by a collective of unbiased and objective wildlife biologists, forming a majority opinion, mountain lions would have surely reached the benchmark for obtaining “endangered species” status and would be listed as such today. That was not the case.

“One” Specially-Protected Mammal

Since the passage in 1990 of California S.B. 132, which designated mountain lions as a “specially protected mammal”, deer populations have sequentially fallen-off to a point where they are in very serious decline, possibly leading to moratorium on deer hunting! The Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are now 445,000 deer in California, down from two million in the 1960s and 850,000 in the 1990s.

The reality is that mountain lions are extremely hard to observe and study in the wild, and there are very good reasons to believe that the mountain lion populations are much larger than what is being reported by California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. Lions are as elusive as ghosts and are equipped with some senses that exceed those of any other apex predator. For instance, their night vision is extraordinary, which is why they usually seek their prey during conditions of low light, when they have the tactical advantage over other animals (and humans) who cannot see well in the dark.

Jim Hamm in 2007 after mountain attack; Source: Mark McKenna/[/caption]

Mountain lions are, pound for pound, one of the strongest animals alive. They are recorded as making lateral leaps as far as 45 feet and vertical leaps up to 15 feet. Mountain lions can easily carry the equivalent of their body weight for short distances, which means that a large lion of 160 pounds can carry prey weighing 160 pounds or more to another location. Many times, they will kill and feast on the spot, then cover the remains until they return to feed again, so as to prevent other predators from robbing the lion of its kill.

Not So Cute or Cuddly

Some people have the false impression that a large and powerful dog presents a threat to a mountain lion; this is the result of misinformation being spread by pro-mountain lion lobbyists, who like to show photos of how “cute” and “cuddly” they appear. That is as far from the truth as the planet Pluto is from Earth! Here is a video, captured at night (when lions like to attack) of a lion who attacks and kills an adult Doberman Pincher guard dog that was inside a walled compound!

Now having seen the video, ask yourself this simple question; if such a powerful guard dog is so easily overwhelmed, how do suppose your child would fare, or even an adult human? How would a pet that you love like a family member survive this? The truth is that human children and adults have been attacked, injured, and eaten by mountain lions.

Costly Litigation Could Bankrupt Counties

The case of a little girl (Laura Small), who was attacked and seriously injured while she was collecting tadpoles at the county park, is just one of many, many examples. Had it not been for the heroic efforts by a passing hiker, the mountain lion would have certainly eaten the five-year-old, Laura Small. Subsequent to the mountain lion attack on Laura, Orange County California was hit with a $100 million dollar lawsuit. After a long and very costly legal defense, the county lost the lawsuit and ultimately settled out of court for $1.5 million dollars. As a result of this outcome:

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said Thursday she fears the settlement establishes a legal precedent that leaves the county “more vulnerable for additional lawsuits.”

Actually, Supervisor Wieder’s statement was short-sighted; the results of the Small lawsuit, and others like it, have created a body of legal precedents such that other counties in the State and elsewhere will face even more difficult challenges in all such future litigations. And these litigations have the ability to bankrupt smaller counties.

The State of California’s arguably negligent and reckless management of mountain lions has created an ominous level of potential financial liability for the counties in the state… Any “hands-off” policy that mandates management action only after people and/or their pets are injured or killed is unacceptable given that statistical predictive methods, based upon actual events, indicate that lions in close proximity to people leads to increased risks of adverse interactions. Furthermore, even if these interactions were “rare”, as some pro-lion activists claim, they are nonetheless extremely costly when they do occur. The bottom-line is that counties are saddled with all the liability for the state’s mismanagement of the lions and are now facing the massive costs for past and future litigations, while the State looks the other way and continues with the same management practices.

If I had a say, I would propose the following:

  • If the state wants to continue to manage mountain lions in the manner that they have, and are, and aside from the deer-decline implications, I would propose that all counties in the state that have lion-human proximity and territorial encroachment issues demand that the state immediately indemnify those counties with regard to any and all litigation related to lion attacks.
  • Should the state refuse to indemnify these counties, which I feel would be unreasonable, I believe that these counties would, pursuant to their fiduciary duties, and other law, have firm standing and legal ground to implement a low-impact mountain lion management and control program addressing only the lions that are encroaching upon citizens and thereby creating a greatly increased risk for lion-human interaction, resulting in excess liability risks for the county, which must be mitigated before citizens are harmed or suffer any economic and/or emotional trauma.

Counties in California that have excessive lion populations are now facing the perfect storm” for devastating litigations when the next mountain lion attacks occur. It is well known that lions are now establishing their territories in and near areas where there are children and pets playing.

The following is an excerpt from this publication:

Public Safety

An increase in lions often leads to attacks on humans. We have a photo in our photo files of the stomach contents of a lion that killed a small boy. One can see clearly parts of clothing the lion consumed as it fed on the youngster.

Lion attacks on humans increase when:  

  1. Prey animals are few in number.
  2. Lions become accustomed to man. Mountain lions are solitary animals. They generally hunt at night and, for the most part, are not seen by humans. However, recently lions have been sighted in and near western towns. This indicates an increase in lions and/or a limited prey base forcing the cats to come closer to man in search for food. This carries the potential for attacks on humans.

      This problem has such significance that the state of Colorado held a symposium in 1991 specifically addressing the rise in mountain lion attacks on humans. The Wildlife Society Bulletin featured an article documenting lion attacks on humans by Professor Paul Beier of the Department of Forestry and Resource Management at the University of California at Berkeley. Beier’s conclusion stated that mountain lion attacks on humans have “increased markedly” in the last two decades. (Beier, Paul; “Cougar Attacks on Humans in the United States and Canada”; WILDLIFE SOCIETY BULLETIN, 19:403-412, 1991.)

Here are a few documented mountain lion attacks on humans:

  1. Spring, 1986 – Orange County, California – Laura Small, age 5, was attacked by a mountain lion in the Ronald W. Caspars Wilderness Park. The female lion attacked her head and dragged her off. Laura suffered paralysis of her right side and was confined to a wheelchair for a period of time. She has had 11 operations. Now Laura has a steel plate in her skull. Her right leg is weak, her right arm is partially paralyzed, and she is blind in her left eye.   A lawsuit of $100 million and $750,000 in personal damage was filed against Orange County. Small was awarded $2 million dollars. Orange County appealed the ruling.
  2. August 1986 – Justin Mellon, age 6, was hiking in Ronald W. Caspars Wilderness Park. He was attacked and mauled by a female lion. Mellon suffered bites to the head, leg, and stomach. His injuries were not as severe as that of Laura Small. Note: Due to the lawsuit over the Laura Small attack, the Board of Supervisors for Orange County decided not to allow minors into Caspars Wilderness Park at all. (Information was compiled from Ronald W. Caspars Wilderness Park, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, Sacramento, California and various news reports.) 
  3. 1989 – Evaro, Montana – Jake Gardipe, age 5, was killed by two or three mountain lions (possibly a female with two kittens) while riding his tricycle in his front yard. The boy was dragged from the yard, and the body was found nearby several hours later. The boy’s home was 100 yards from U.S. Highway 93, just outside of Evaro. (Associated Press, September 13, 1989)
  4. 1989 – Apache Junction, Arizona – Joshua Walsh, age 5, was mauled by a mountain lion near Canyon Lake, some 30 miles northeast of Phoenix. Without warning and near a parking lot and boat dock filled with people, the mountain lion attacked Joshua, bit him on the head, and began to shake him with its jaws and drag him away. Tim Walsh, Joshua’s father, leaped down a 20-foot embankment, grabbed a rock, threw it, and hit the lion on the head, scaring it. The lion dropped the boy. Joshua was air-lifted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where it took 100 stitches to close Joshua’s head wounds, including re-attachment of his right ear, which was nearly severed in the attack. (Phoenix Gazette, May 1, 1989, page A-1)
  5. 1991 – Nevada Test Site, north of Las Vegas, Nevada – Mary Saether, was attacked by a 120-pound female mountain lion. She suffered minor cuts and received 21 stitches on her head, right arm, and back. The cougar crept up on Saether and two male companions and attacked before they were aware of its presence. The two men beat the lion with their cameras, forcing it to release Saether. A Wildlife Services Specialist arrived the next day. As he was doing a preliminary check, he heard noise in a tree and turned to find the lion charging. The man had only enough time to draw his handgun and shoot the lion at point blank range. The lion was found to be in good health. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, Reno, Nevada and various news reports)
  6. 1991 – Idaho Springs, Colorado – Scott Dale Lancaster, age 18, was killed by a lion while jogging near his high school. Lancaster was attacked by a 90-100 pound female cougar and dragged some 60 feet away. When asked how severely the boy was mauled by the lion, Undersheriff Dave Graham replied, “Bad!” It took authorities two days to find Lancaster’s body. (Clear Creek Courant, January 16, 1991, page 1)  
  7. 1991 – Riverside, California – Searchers found evidence that Travis Zwieg, age 3, of La Quinta, California, was possibly attacked by a mountain lion. Shoe prints thought to be Zwieg’s were found a half mile from where the toddler disappeared. The prints stopped at a rocky overhang where mountain lion prints were found. “Where the shoes stopped, there was a slide area and what they believed to be drag marks,” said Sgt. Craig Kilday. (Associated Press, February 26, 1991 – Note: We found no record of the boy being found.)
  8. 1992 – Gaviota State Park, near Santa Barbara, California – Darron Arroyo, age 9, was attacked by a mountain lion as he walked along a park trail. Darron was hiking with his two brothers when a lion rushed from the bushes and attacked, attempting to drag him off in the brush. Steven Arroyo, Darron’s father, was walking about a hundred yards behind the boys. He heard the screams and saw the lion dragging Darron. Steven rushed toward the cat, picked up a rock, threw it, and struck the lion between the eyes. The lion dropped the boy and left the area. Darron sustained bites to the face and head and scratches to the chest. (Information compiled from Santa Barbara News Press, Gaviota State Park and California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento, California.)
  9.  1992 – Wenatchee, Washington – Jessica Vanney, age 5, suffered cuts and puncture wounds when a 60-pound mountain lion attacked her as she walked along a path through trees at a 100-site campground in Lake Wenatchee State Park. Her father, Michael Vanney, witnessed the attack. “Jessica was four or five feet in front of me. She walked between two trees, and I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. Then I saw the cougar run around a tree and jump on her. Its front paws just wrapped right around her head and shoulders.” Vanney grabbed his hunting knife and attacked the animal. This is the third known lion attack in the state. (Associated Press, June 18, 1992 – Note: What if this was a full grown lion weighing 150 pounds? What if Jessica was walking that path by herself?)
  10. 1992 – Vancouver Island, British Colombia – An 8-year-old Kyuquot Indian boy, Jeremy Williams, was fatally mauled by a mountain lion in the village of Kyuquot. The boy’s father and a dozen youngsters witnessed the attack. Jeremy was attacked as he sat on the grass in the elementary school playground. The cougar rushed and attacked the freckled, red-haired youngster as other children ran for help. Kevin Williams, Jeremy’s father and a teacher at the school, hurried to the scene and watched helplessly while children screamed in panic. The school’s janitor shot and killed the 60-pound lion. Richard Leo, a Kyuquot Indian chief, said angry parents accused the school board of ignoring the danger of wild animals. (Associated Press, 1992)
  11. 1994 – Auburn Lake Trails, California (near Sacramento) – a 40-year-old vocational rehabilitation counselor, Barbara Schoener, was attacked and killed by a mountain lion. Schoener was jogging in the popular Auburn Trails area when a cougar attacked her from behind. The force of attack caused Schoener off the trail. Schoener made two strides before falling 30 feet. Schoener then stood up and moved another 25 feet down the slope where the final attack occurred. Wounds on Schoener’s forearms and hands showed attempts to defend herself, but the 5-foot-8-inch, 120-pound woman was no match for the lion. The lion dragged Schoener 300 feet downhill and, after feeding on her, buried her with leaves and debris. Schoener received two fatal wounds– a crushed skull and bites to the head and neck. (Sacramento Bee Final, April 27, 1994, page B1 and B4)