Category Archives: wild

When Mountain Lions Live Under the House

When we take away wild places for wild animals, those animals find ways of showing up in our backyard. Because it was their backyard first … When that animal is a predator, all hell breaks loose, suburban-wild style.

The anti-predator myth is exemplified by this week’s hysterical reaction to a mountain lion under a house that borders Griffith Park. It illustrates a cultural paranoia we must conquer if we are going to coexist with wild animals. We don’t have wolves to demonize here in California (other than OR-7, vacationing with his family in Southwest Oregon). We have mountain lions.

In the past 30 years, three people out of more than 30 million have been fatally injured by a mountain lion; less than a dozen fatalities in 125 years (a handful more if you add Canada and Mexico). California Fish & Wildlife estimates a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. So why are we so afraid?

Very few people ever see a mountain lion. Coming “eyeball to eyeball” with the lion known as “P-22” in a crawlspace, a worker installing a security system had the surprise of a lifetime this week. But journalists exploited this drama. With apparent glee, they treated this wildcat nap like a car chase or a hostage crisis. Reporters were licking their lips waiting for the armed cult leader to finally drive off the road or open fire on children. Or crawl out from under the house.

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Department of Fish & Wildlife photo

Wildlife officials poked that dang varmint with a stick, they shot beanbags at him, hell they even shot tennis balls at him. But that sucker was resistant. In a safe,dark place, he stayed put, while firefighters, wildlife officials, and reporters went nuts. CA Fish & Wildlife finally realized that (as any owner of a cat can tell you) the best way to get him to come out is to leave him alone.

And when they did, he left. So the news that obsessed media for a day was that a wild animal crawled under a house that borders a 4,300 acre park (5x larger than Central Park) where the animal lives. Why is this news? Because of the myth and the lore that surrounds apex predators.

Suburban sprawl into wild areas guarantees some overlap with wild animals. That’s why we must talk about protecting native animals by protecting their land and leaving them alone. Instead, there was only panic about the dangers of wild animals and a demonizing of predators.

Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. Even seeing one is unusual. Mountain lions—aka cougars, pumas, or panthers—are shy, solitary, and stealthy apex predators. They are the ninjas of the California animal world—and they want to be left alone. Lions are not often seen skipping down the mountainside, being goofy, like dogs and coyotes. Mountain lions are, after all, cats. Only in exceptional cases do they allow humans to see them. Mostly, mountain lions are there only when you have no idea they’re there.

As apex predators they are vital to our environment. Destroying mountain lions, by usurping their habitat, destroys entire ecosystems. And that’s just what we’re doing. There are only 4-5,000 mountain lions in California.

Culturally, we love identifying with predators, becoming them, temporarily as mascots and embodying them in tattoos: wildcats, lions, tigers, wolverines, bears. Unfortunately, people also like shooting them too—the combination of desire and fear is the attraction we feel when we don their likeness in symbolic ways to harness their mythological power. Yet we are terrified of coexisting with predators. That is the suburban mystique: we long for the wild within, yet massacre the wild without.

This cougar is ready for his closeup – famous photo of P-22 captured by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter (Hollywood sign in background)

We need to stop mythologizing animals and instead respect them by leaving them alone, and protecting their legal rights, lands, and lives. Coexisting—as anyone with roommates and teenage family members knows—is usually about leaving each other alone. We must make our decisions as a balance between science, ecology, and the highest common good, which includes the interests of animals and the Earth.

What’s the Law?

On June 5, 1990, Californian voters approved Proposition 117 – the Mountain Lion Initiative – (called the “People’s Initiative” after Mountain Lion Foundation volunteers gathered more than 680,000 signatures to put it on the ballot). Prop 117 did two important things: it banned trophy hunting and it helped save land for mountain lions to stay wild.

Prop 117 created a Habitat Conservation Fund of $1 million a year until 2020 to “acquire, enhance, restore” wild lands for wildlife. That Proposition also changed mountain lions from “game” hunted for “sport” to “specially protected mammals” who aren’t allowed to be killed for fun.

A property owner can kill a mountain lion who threatens humans or animals only with a depredation permit. This permit is required by law and even with this permit a person is prohibited from the use of “poison, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps and snares.” Breaking this law can lead to criminal charges.

What is usually shared when discussing predators is what to do when you encounter one; people are given a tip sheet for resolving confrontation at an individual level. What is not discussed is how to prevent and avoid confrontation at a socio-cultural level, because that would involve doing things we don’t want to do, like not treating the Earth like a parking lot, not acting on all opportunities for suburban development, and not thinking only of our own immediate interests.

That being said, for the benefit of animals, wild and domestic, here are some precautions to avoid the conflict with native animals like mountain lions in the first place:

Facts for Staying Safe and Protecting Mountain Lions

  • Mountain lions try very hard to avoid people, but often coexist around us, unseen and unheard.
  • Mountain lions are found where deer are found; deer are their primary food.
  • Mountain lions are especially found in the foothills and mountains.
  • Mountain lions who reveal themselves to humans may suffer rabies or be desperately starving.
  • Mountain lions who threaten humans are immediately killed – about 100 are killed every year: they can’t be moved (due to conflicts with other lions and revisiting issues).

Use Nonlethal Control

  • Don’t feed or attract deer – it attracts mountain lions and it’s against the law.
  • Don’t feed raccoons and other mountain lion prey: don’t leave pet food outside.
  • Not attracting deer means avoiding plants deer like to eat.
  • Not attracting a lion means trimming hedges that offer hiding places.
  • Don’t leave children and pets outdoors, especially at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Don’t leave yourself outdoors alone on a borderland jogging or hiking path, at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Make sure animals are protected with covered shelters.
  • Protect your perimeters with motion-sensor lights outside your home.

What if you’ve done all this and still see a mountain lion?

  • Do not, under any circumstances, get closer.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, run.
  • Do not pop a squat, crouch, or lose eye contact.
  • Do pick up small children.
  • Do make yourself look bigger and noisier.

What Does the Fox Say?

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In the past weeks, Yosemite biologists had the wild fortune to see the rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the northern alpine wilderness of the park. California’s Sierra Nevada red fox is a rare critter. There may be less than 50 such foxes remaining in the wild and they haven’t been seen in nearly a century. How much are we encroaching on wild spaces–how has our landscape changed–that the species is endangered? What can we learn?

Capture

Foxes have been congregating in the creek alongside my property. The wails of a native gray vixen (or a nonnative red), are not the beautiful yips and huffy songs of canis latrans, her coyote cousin, or canis lupus, her more distant cousin, the wolf. Hearing a fox for the first time—especially a red fox—can be a disturbing experience. Hearing a fox in my creek, a friend’s eyes widened as she asked, “what is that?!” Where the cry of a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) sounds like a haunted whisper: “help!” the scream of a nonnative red fox (Vulpes vulpes) sounds like a banshee (from the Irish: bean sí, a spirit woman who rides the outskirts of twilight, warning of coming danger, and death).

Like coyotes, foxes are hunted as “pests.” My friend’s response to hearing a fox was concern: is a child being strangled in the bushes? Or is perhaps a wounded animal crying for help? Unfortunately, others respond by wanting to shoot foxes, even though nonlethal methods of coexisting abound, and shooting them usually increases, rather than decreases, their reproduction rates. They are also killed for their fur (on fur farms they are kept in horrific confinement, then electrocuted and skinned alive—very few if any laws protect them).

And if that’s not bad enough, foxes are “cool” and “cute,” so they are becoming the “new” trendy hipster accessory. People are trying to raise (or import) foxes as pets. They are so playful (the foxes, not the hipsters), even goofy like dogs. But why must we “tame” the wild? Why must we put our human paw prints on everything? Owning wildlife is a terrible idea—international trafficking in exotic animals is a multi-billion dollar, cruel industry.

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Smug hipster fox was cool before hipsters were cool

But it also points toward a desired disruption of the border between wild without and wild within. We want wildness within so much we will wear it without, or cage it in our backyard. As is the case with “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred like machines and kept in small boxes for people who want to buy, rather than adopt, an animal, wanting a pet fox means condemning thousands of other foxes to life in a cage as it becomes a pet industry.

We want to touch, and yet fear so much, beings that are wild. Even with my injured leg, I’ve limped through the darkness, standing still with a darkened flashlight in hand, hoping to catch sight of my nocturnal neighbor. But, foxes upset birders by hunting small mammals and birds, some endangered. And they madden farmers, who raise chickens and lambs for slaughter. I live in a borderland of crisis between farmed animals and wild animals; between humans and wilderness.

My country lane is lined with farms, surrounded by vineyards, on the border of a shrinking wilderness. At dawn, I hear cows, chickens, horses, pigs—and there are donkeys, llamas, and goats. In the daytime, I see jackrabbits, quail, hawks, vultures, crows, and other birds. In the dead of night, I hear owls, coyotes, foxes, and I know there are  many more creatures in that mysterious wild.

This winter, I’ve had a mouse under my bed, a tarantula in my windowsill, a bird in the garage, a bat in the attic, a snake in the grass, a lizard in the pantry, a quail in the driveway, a bunny in the backyard, raccoons on my doorstep, vultures devouring a chicken by my well, feral cats in my creek, and coyotes, foxes, hawks, other birds, squirrels, and the wild turkeys who conjugate down the road. I welcome the presence of the ones outside the house, as long as they are outside the house. I haven’t quite resolved myself to accept their presence inside. Yet all of us are shaded by the slopes of the Mayacamas, dreaming of a space where once we were more wild and perhaps more free.

Foxes, like coyotes, have adapted—and thrived—in urban spaces (like the coyotes who’ve set up shop in downtown Chicago). But do we really want them to? What Does the Fox Say?(by a Norwegian comedy duo) has nearly 500 million views online. A better question may be — what do we say about foxes? We call women vixens, foxes; we say we were outfoxed; we say, with some admiration and irritation that someone is as sly as a fox. Culturally, our language coexists. So why can’t we?

On Being Left Alone, Outdoors

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When I don’t get enough solitude, I grit my teeth over simple things. My creativity becomes a stagnant, shallow creek. Real solitude, the kind I need, is quiet, alone with my dog in nature. People ask me if I get lonely—but the truth is, loneliness is seeking solitude and not finding it.

This morning, a friend suggested I get “out” of the house by going to the office—on a holiday… on my day off. That got me thinking.  Have I wrongly assumed everyone shares a longing to touch the wildness within by being outside?

When my well has run dry inside, I go outside. That’s my office. That’s how I replenish. I find the alone and unknown. My mind grows quiet thankfully, as my soul speaks like water. Alone with trees and leaves and animals and earth, I find my own inner world, and my outer “self” vanishes. What a relief, to be so free of the human world and its demands, its anguish, and to be quenched in solitude. I long for closeness to the few remaining wild spaces people haven’t yet plundered. I seek total autonomy.

These winter months—and a leg injury—have kept me from being outdoors and from being creative: my cup runneth nowhere. Just today, I ventured out and could not escape people, whether on land or water, high ground or lowlands. People, noises, and the “junk” of human existence; it’s inescapable.

Our modern search for satisfaction gets us lost, quick. Deep down, I don’t want the convenience of stores, and gadgets, although I share reliance upon them. And people who like being indoors perplex me. For them, the outdoors is something in between the car and the house and the store. They enjoy the outdoors by focusing on equipment to survive it, as if they can conquer the environment. This isn’t our animal self. If I can’t get lost in the porous natural world, I might as well be made of gortex.

And that’s why I haven’t traveled the world in search of the highest peak, or climbed the sheerest cliff. I prefer the humility of looking up at the mountains in awe and reverence and sleeping outside in a meadow, sheltered by their granite boulders. I don’t seek thrill. I just know there is more to this world in the mystery of the wild. I’d like to move through it quietly, gently, with a soft footstep.

Without this, with only pavement beneath my toes, I thirst, and dry up. For some camping means taking a pop-up trailer to a parking lot by a man-made lake, grilling on a Weber, and throwing aluminum beer cans at each other. This is not what it’s about. And I can’t seem to escape this world.

Are creature comforts, the urban landscape of convenience, the obsession with coffee and artifice, the addiction to being online, to cranking up the heater in mild weather, suffocating the wild within?

I mourn that I cannot truly be left undisturbed. Thoreau said, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” But how does one find true solitude—autonomy—these days? How do you do it without being able to own the Earth beneath your feet? How can I howl at the moon if I can’t find a long life, alone and truly free? I’m frightened at the idea that my path might continue this way, and the urge to be untrammeled by humans is one of imperative, not philosophy. I must find a way.

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