Face your fears, people always say. OK, easily done, provided the mountain lion, object of my near-phobic trepidation, remains safely behind what looks like a sturdy metal enclosure.
I have driven well out of my way, to the dusty hinterlands of the high desert north of Lancaster, just to confront what I fervently hope I’ll never meet in the wilds of Auburn or any other trail in the Golden State. I planned to stand face to face, go tooth and claw, with a cat that, in less-controlled conditions, could have me for an afternoon snack.
Really, I shouldn’t be nervous. Anna Houston, the kindly docent at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound’s Feline Conservation Center, tells me in soothing tones that “we have a great safety record, never had any cats escape and never had any deaths or serious injuries or stuff like that.”
Good to know, since it’s not just a mountain lion (a breed so fierce, apparently, it also goes by the name puma or cougar) among whom I’ll be strolling for the next hour. The FCC, a nonprofit that opened its breeding facility doors several years ago for fund-raising tours, also is home to other threatened big cats, such as snow leopards, jaguars, black leopards, a lynx or two and numerous other species with big, long teeth dripping with saliva.
Now I’m no ailurophobe – though, to be honest, I’m a dog person, not a cat fancier – so nearly all the 70 rare felines, from the tiny margay to the stoutest tiger, don’t get my heart racing. But the facility’s lone mountain lion, that guy freaks me a bit. Completely irrational, I know. But maybe I feel vulnerable because I frequent trails in the foothills, which the lions call home, and read with equal parts fascination and dread about occasional sightings of the stealthy quadruped both in open space and, as was the case a few months back in the Bay Area, at a strip mall.
This particular cat, which keepers named Serrano because it was found on a trail of the same name, came to the center in 2012 after it was captured skulking around Whiting Ranch in Orange County. Department of Fish & Game officials determined that Serrano, then less than 2 years old, was “not acting” like other young lions, so they did not release him back to the wild.
“So he came to us,” Houston said. “We’re not a rescue, per se, but if Fish & Wildlife or a vet picks up an animal, we’ll take them in some cases. Mainly, though, we’re a breeding facility. We’re trying to increase the genetic variation of all of these endangered cats.”
She led me past spacious cages housing Pallas cats of Central Asia, a black leopard from Thailand and an amur leopard from Russia to a large enclosure that look a lot like the area around the American River confluence.
There was a lush, fragrant coniferous tree throwing ample shade. There were crushed granite paths and dusty duff. There were debarked logs both flat on the ground and propped on top of each other, an artificial “pond” about the size of a hot tub with a small water fall, a granite bluff and a fabricating “cave” for snoozing and, incongruously, a red rubber ball you’d find on an elementary school playground. Says Houston: “We do what we can to give them the environment they are used to.”
There was, however, no mountain lion.
Serrano did not make an immediate appearance. I, of course, figured he was stalking me before choosing the most opportune time to pounce. (Have I mentioned that I’m irrational?)
Houston laughed. “Serrano’s kind of shy, especially during the day,” she said. “For the most part, mountain lions stick to themselves. The reason we have ours was because he was coming down and getting on the trails around people, which is not normal behavior. So, in some situations like that, they don’t (reintroduce) the (lions) back into (the wild). And some of the situations are people who’d had them as pets when they were younger and they got too big and out of control and so the people –”
Wait, people have mountain lions as pets?
“Yes, really. That’s how we get many of our cats (of various species),” she said. “But, remember, we’re not a rescue.”
Serrano’s neighbors seemed much more outgoing. The North Chinese leopard and black panther in adjoining cages strutted and sunned themselves, occasionally leaping about boulders as if practicing parkour. Serrano? Not even a fleeting glimpse. Houston didn’t even bother to try to lure the lion out, as she did by playfully calling the names of cats in other enclosures. A mountain lion, apparently, cannot be so easily cajoled.
“Most of our cats are up and around most of the day, depending on how hot it is,” she said. “Some are more aggressive. Some are nicer, but some have been in captivity their whole lives so they have that connection with people.”
Serrano’s been a resident here for two years – about half his life. Houston said the cat hasn’t altered his stealthy mountain lion ways, keeping to himself. These aren’t, apparently, the most social of animals.
Two visitors to the center, who identified themselves only as Margo and Bruce, stopped by to take a gander and, seeing no activity in Serrano’s lair, turned their attention across the walkway to a jungle cat (Latin name: Felis chaus), found in Southeast Asia and looking like an extra tall and long domesticated house cat.
“It’s kind of like the zoo here,” Margo said. “They never come out when you want them to.”
Bruce did his darnedest to lure the jungle cat, aptly named Pandora, out of her boxlike enclosure.
“C’mon sweet Pandora,” he said, voice raising two octaves. “C’mon good girl. C’mon out. You’re a good girl.”
Margo said she and Bruce, who live in Tehachapi less than an hour away, drop by often to visit the cats. They have, indeed, spotted Serrano and shrug when I asked if he looked fierce.
“Pandora is our favorite,” Margo said. “Just a beautiful cat.”
Then she whipped out her smartphone and clicked on a photo of her house cat, a flamepoint Siamese that even a dog lover would find cute.
Cat lovers make up most of center’s visitors, though you could hardly call any of the feline inhabitants here cute and fluffy. More like sleek, sinuous and sneaky.
Over at the North Chinese leopard spot, Maureen and Colin Marshall, of Rosamond, brought their 7-month-old son, James, to see the big cats because, according to Maureen, “We have a cat at home and he (James) likes to torment him.”
James, for the record, hardly seemed fazed by the 160-pound spotted specimen with paws as large as dinner plates. The couple pushed the stroller past Serrano’s enclosure, saw no activity, kept moving. But I wasn’t yet ready to bail on Serrano. I lingered and read the laminated plaque outside his lair. “Deer are the most important part of the puma’s diet,” the poster read, but, really, they’ll eat anything from beavers to rabbits, raccoons to opossum.
Next to that was a handsome photograph of Serrano, regally sitting on his haunches. But I just kept fixating on his paws, so big, so lethal.
I left, eventually, having nary a peek at the object of my mortal fear. Then I remembered what an acquaintance once told me while on the Olmstead Trail in Cool: You might not have seen a mountain lion, but he’s seen you.”
Now there’s a comforting thought.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
EXOTIC FELINE BREEDING COMPOUND’S FELINE CONSERVATION CENTER
Where: 3718 60th St. West, Rosamond
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday-Tuesday
Phone: (661) 256-3793