California Forum

The fascination with mountain lions

A motion-activated camera captured four mountain lions on Tami and Bob Sutton’s property in Georgetown.
A motion-activated camera captured four mountain lions on Tami and Bob Sutton’s property in Georgetown. Courtesy of Tami and Bob Sutton

Bob and Tami Sutton have enjoyed the open space of country living for 30 years – and the wildlife.

Still, viewing a rare picture of four mountain lions near the front gate of their 3-acre Georgetown residence was remarkable. The black-and-white image was taken on an early February morning by a surveillance camera Bob had installed after the unexplained loss of neighbors’ pets.

Tami posted the image on a community Facebook page that often highlights pending yard sales and local politics. The media reacted quickly.

The Suttons, who own a real estate company in Cool, declined television stations’ requests to visit their property. But Tami gave refreshing telephone interviews as if she were employed as a wildlife advocate.

“We don’t have that alarmist attitude,” she calmly told me after the media frenzy waned. “We are in awe that we live among wildlife. They (the cougars) have a right to be here. We are invading their space. Why can’t we live in harmony? Why do they have to be killed?”

The Suttons’ experience heightened cougar curiosity as have other sightings, including a mountain lion named P-41 that found temporary residence in the basement of an urban Southern California home.

Interest in cougars initially piqued with the April 23, 1994, death of Barbara Schoener of Placerville. She was attacked while running alone near Auburn Lake Trails and was among seven North Americans killed by mountain lions in the 1990s. At least five more people have been killed by mountain lions in the past 15 years.

More humans are killed yearly by dogs, snakes and alligators, yet the public’s fascination, my fascination, with mountain lions is intense.

Every time there’s a mountain lion sighting reported, particular in urban areas, I wonder: Did they find the mountain lion? Did they kill it? Why? I even wondered that when the body of Schoener, a running acquaintance, was discovered. I’ve wondered when a mountain lion kills a human, is it likely to kill a human again?

An East Sacramento woman recently reported a mountain lion on her backyard fence. The sighting wasn’t confirmed, but a local television station broadcast the story sensationally by using a sketch of what the animal might have looked like.

Seeking clarity, I contacted Winston Vickers, an associate veterinarian for the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. He has studied mountain lions’ interaction with wildlife and humans in Southern California since 2003.

“I don’t really know why mountain lions capture the imagination of some people to a greater degree,” he said. “But there’s an inherent fascination with big animals that can kill you. There’s probably something deeply innate in humans because we are not used to being prey.”

With the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990, California became the only state to ban mountain lion hunting.

The state’s mountain lion population is between 4,000 and 6,000, and it has remained stable for years, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But why are more mountain lion sightings reported, particularly in urban areas? Are there fewer deer, mountain lions’ preferred diet? Have they lost their elusive nature? When captured, how is it determined if a mountain lion is killed or relocated?

Fish and Wildlife reports less than 3 percent of hundreds of yearly reported mountain lion sightings result in the animal identified and killed as an imminent threat to public safety. About 200 to 300 mountain lions are killed yearly in California, primarily through depredation permits issued by the state if they are posing a danger to livestock or humans.

“We have a pervasive attitude amongst the public that grossly oversimplifies the animal capture process,” said Fish and Wildlife’s Capt. Patrick Foy, who has killed as well as relocated cougars, bears and deer. “People think if there’s an animal, you just put a dart in, it goes to sleep, you take it someplace and let it go.

“Sometimes it goes great, sometimes it doesn’t. You do everything you can to make it right and tragedy happens.”

Foy said Fish and Wildlife in recent years has become more flexible when reacting to mountain lions in urban areas. It’s an increasing public concern.

“More mountain lions are coming around the edges of human development,” Vickers said. “It’s complex. Where there are more small prey and more outdoor pet food, there are more mountain lions. We know scientifically, the closer they are to us, the riskier their lives become.”

James Raia is a Sacramento journalist and frequent contributor to The Bee.