About once a week, the big female mountain lion would come out of the hills at night to stalk the greens and sand traps of an Orange County golf course surrounded by upscale homes.
She’d make a kill — maybe a deer, maybe a raccoon, maybe a coyote, maybe a family’s house cat — and carry the carcass to a small copse of trees where her hungry kittens awaited.
“It was right behind a house, and she was there, virtually every week with her kittens. And, of course, no one was ever the wiser,” said Winston Vickers, a UC Davis wildlife veterinarian who has spent years studying California’s mountain lions, including the female that lurked the golf course for months while wearing a GPS tracking collar.
If there’s one thing studies have shown, it’s that California’s mountain lions and human residents often share the river lands, canyons and foothills that have been enveloped by suburban sprawl. Humans usually have no idea their giant feline neighbors are around.
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Sunday was a rare exception. A state biologist shot a wayward cougar with a tranquilizer dart in a North Natomas backyard, the second such encounter in Sacramento city limits in recent years. In June 2014, a state wildlife officer darted another young male cougar in an Oak Park backyard.
Learning that mountain lions often stray close to people shocked researchers in the 1970s when biologists first began placing radio telemetry collars on the animals. Despite four decades of research confirming those findings, the public is still shocked by urban cougar encounters, but biologists say they probably shouldn’t be.
“They’re our neighbors. They’re one of us. It’s something that not a lot of people know. They think, ‘Mountains lion? Why the heck isn’t it up in the mountains, where it belongs?’” said Justin Dellinger, the mountain lion and wolf researcher with the Department of Fish and Wildlife who tranquilized the cougar on Sunday. “It’s interesting how little people realize that there are lions in close proximity.”
While California’s mountain lions inhabit mountains and rugged forests, as a general rule state wildlife officials say that if you see deer, the odds are high that a mountain lion is around, too.
That is true, they say, even in places like Sacramento, where deer habitat is found in the surrounding farmland and foothills, and in the greenbelts, parkways and river corridors that criss-cross the city.
Deer are a mountain lion’s preferred prey, and deer are attracted to tasty landscaping plants and gardens in suburbia. Plus, too many people intentionally feed deer, which is illegal in California, said Capt. Patrick Foy of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Feeding deer sets a buffet for the local cougar population — something Foy said many people don’t realize they’re doing when they’re told to stop by their local game warden.
“They’re horrified they may be contributing to the mortalities of these deer they’re feeding and watching,” Foy said.
‘Just moving through’
Was the cougar in Natomas living in that area?
Dellinger said it was more likely that cat — a healthy 1 1/2- to 2-year-old male Dellinger estimates weighs between 110 and 125 pounds — was just passing through.
Young male cougars often travel long distances looking to establish new territory and to avoid the dominant older males that will fight them if they stay too long on their turf.
Dellinger said the Natomas cat was probably using the greenbelts along the nearby Sacramento River as he made his journey. Like some young cougars “that zig when they should have zagged,” the cat ended up lost and in a place he shouldn’t have been, Dellinger said.
“Most of these resident adults, they know pretty large areas like the back of their hands, but these young males when they’re traveling through these new areas, they haven’t had the time to accumulate that local knowledge,” Dellinger said.
The confused cougar was filmed Sunday walking past a doorbell camera in broad daylight before hunkering down behind some shrubs in a backyard as throngs of police, reporters and neighbors swarmed the street.
Dellinger said males’ wanderlust also is likely why they’re disproportionally the ones killed by wildlife officers or professional trappers after the cats prey on Californians’ backyard livestock and pets.
A Sacramento Bee investigation in 2017 found that an average of 98 mountain lions are killed each year under state permits after attacking goats, alpacas and other livestock. The Bee found that the rate at which lions are killed via permit is almost four times greater than it was prior to a 1990 ballot measure that banned mountain lion hunting.
Nearly 70 percent of the cats killed under such “depredation” permits are males, state biologists told The Bee.
Dellinger said young male cats likely target livestock for much the same reason the cougar ended up in Natomas: “They’re just moving through.”
“They’re trying to find something to tide them over until they find an opening on the landscape,” Dellinger said. “They’re just sort of getting fast food per se.”
‘Take you out with one swipe’
Humans are rarely on the menu, but attacks on people do happen.
In the past 25 years, cougars have killed at least three people in California, including Barbara Schoener, 40, in Auburn Lake Trails on April 23, 1994.
Wildlife officials shot the lion after a week-long search through the American River Canyon. Schoener was the first person killed by a mountain lion in the state since 1909.
Later that year, a lion killed a woman at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a popular San Diego recreation area.
In the years that followed, researchers set out to determine how the cats in the park interacted with human visitors. What they found reinforced the notion that big cats and Californians often frequent the same landscapes – and that people usually have no idea.
A two-year study of 10 GPS-collared lions in the park found that they spent on average 9 to 19 percent of their daytime hours in the park within 100 meters of hiking trails. During the two years the researchers studied the cats, none exhibited aggressive behavior toward people.
“If the lion thinks he’s hidden, it’s really, really common for a lion just to stay there and let you go by,” said Vickers, the UC Davis veterinarian.
Vickers said he’s walked within feet of where he knew a cougar was hiding, based on the GPS coordinates of its collar, and the cat slipped away without him seeing it.
“They’re incredibly furtive and good at staying hidden,” Vickers said.
In the rare event you encounter a lion in the wild, biologists say it’s best to make loud noises, throw rocks and appear as large as possible to intimate the cat as you back away slowly.
If you find a cat in your backyard like the Natomas lion, it’s best to leave it alone and call the authorities.
Dellinger, the state biologist who tranquilized the Natomas cougar, said he’s darted around 50 cats while working the past three years on a statewide mountain population lion study.
Sunday’s lion was the first one he’s darted in a backyard, but he said it was just as terrified as those he’s tranquilized after they were chased up trees by dogs or caught in traps.
“It never crossed my mind that that animal was going to come out of the bush and come towards me,” he said. “Lions, they don’t realize how big and powerful they are, honestly, and that they could just take you out with one swipe. They’re pretty easily intimidated.”
Sunday’s cougar was released at an undisclosed location not far from Sacramento, Foy said, but far enough away from residential areas where it likely won’t end up on another doorbell camera.