On September 7, a 6-year-old boy who was hiking with his family was attacked by a mountain lion. It was about 1:00 in the afternoon, the group was on a hiking trail near a winery in Cupertino, there were a total of four adults and six children in the party, and the targeted boy was within ten feet of the group. The mountain lion was a small, young male.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife tracked and killed the animal on Wednesday September 10. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed they had killed the correct animal.
This was a very bold attack – the lion snatched the child away from a large group in broad daylight near a populated region. Mountain lions used to be wary of people, but no longer. Why would this be?
In 1990, Proposition 117 was passed. This proposition banned the sport hunting of mountain lions. Today, the only permissible reason to hunt mountain lions is to remove “problem” lions who have attacked livestock or people with a depredation permit.
That was 24 years ago. There have now been several generations of mountain lions that have no memory of being chased or harassed by people. For the first generation, at least, the mother cats taught their kits to be wary of people. They remembered being chased and found humans and dogs frightening. The next generation learned their mother’s lesson, but had no personal experience to support it. They mostly obeyed mother’s teaching, but weren’t sure why. We are now starting to encounter lions who have only had benign encounters with people and they are looking at us differently. These human creatures aren’t scary at all. Now they wonder if we’re tasty.
It doesn’t matter if you’re human or animal; no one wants to work harder for their dinner than they have to. Catching deer is hard work. Deer know they are prey and they are always on the lookout for predators. They are also fast and great jumpers. People and their pets and livestock are another story. We and our animals live protected lives and we don’t generally view ourselves as prey. We trust an outmoded human/animal dynamic, and have become unjustifiably complacent.
If we want to maintain our status as the biggest, baddest creature in the landscape, we need to start walking the walk. Predators will always seek out the easiest meal available and we need to convince them that isn’t us. Better yet, we need to convince them that we think mountain lion is a fine thing for dinner.
Nothing teaches like hard personal experience. This means we need to resume harassing mountain lions. They need to be chased, they need to be frightened and they need to have painful experiences every time they approach human territory. It doesn’t necessarily need to be fatal; a haunch-full of rock salt from a shotgun could be painful enough to make them reconsider approaching human territory.
What we cannot do is continue our no-touch policy. Unless, of course, we want to become prey.