Mountain Lion Hype

— When reporters call him, says Bob Turner, he often thinks they have run out of airplane crashes. "The news media love mountain lions," he says. "They can hardly wait for attacks." So Turner wasn't surprised at KGTV Channel 10 News' following-day story of a lion-sighting by Missy Boney on July 19. Boney told reporters that the horse she rode chased a "lunging" mountain lion away by stomping it. She was riding in the Rancho Palo Verde Estates section of Alpine.

This spring Turner retired as a lieutenant from the California Department of Fish and Game's San Diego County office. He graduated from SDSU with a bachelor's degree in zoology during the early 1970s and went to work for Fish and Game in 1981. Over the years he has acquired national recognition for expertise in mountain-lion behavior and their interaction with people. He has talked about lions on National Geographic Explorer and Dateline NBC. He currently lives in Pine Valley.

The lion attack on horse and rider "could have happened," says Turner. "I can't say, because I didn't go to the scene. But usually there are signs of a scuffle in incidents like that." Fish and Game officer Ben Thompson did investigate and says that he found no sign of Boney's allegation. According to a July 20 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, other deputies searched the area nearby but did not see the lion.

On July 22, the Alpine Sun, a weekly newspaper, also ran a story about the incident. Titled "Mountain Lion Sighting in Rancho Palo Verde," the article reported several earlier sightings in Alpine and warned local residents to contact authorities if they saw a lion. Alpine resident Kelly Fuller took exception to the account and wrote a letter to the editor. "One of the great things about living in Alpine is that we are so close to nature," she wrote. "Many of us can walk onto Cleveland National Forest land right from our back yards. It would be quite helpful if the Alpine Sun published information on how to live next door to nature instead of just running scary articles about mountain-lion sightings."

When the letter appeared in the Sun the following week, it had been edited in ways that Fuller considers "changed the balance of the letter." Specifically, the rewrite failed to mention the Cleveland National Forest, which abuts Rancho Palo Verde. "By removing the Cleveland National Forest reference," says Fuller, "they ensured that readers who live in the area where the mountain lion attack allegedly took place would not feel singled out or criticized."

Kelly Fuller teaches English part-time at Southwestern College in Chula Vista. Not long before learning of the mountain-lion sightings in Alpine, she had assigned her summer-school class to read the 1996 article "Predators on the Prowl," by Marc Peyser. Originally a Newsweek story, it had found its way into The Writer's Express, an anthology edited by Kathleen McWhorter. The article covers the lion attack that killed Iris Kenna near Cuyamaca Peak in 1994. Despite that, according to Fuller, the reading persuaded her students unanimously to support mountain-lion preservation in wilderness areas.

But about half the students changed their minds, says Fuller, after seeing the Channel 10 Alpine lion story, which failed to mention that investigators found no traces of the lion that Missy Boney reported attacked her horse. Fuller says that one young woman in her class declared that mountain lions should be driven away from people, even if that requires shooting all those that can be found close to civilization.

And therein, by Fuller's reckoning, lies the problem with hyped-up reporting on mountain-lion encounters with people. Fuller does lots of hiking and backpacking in the wilderness. She feels that such activities give confidence to young women especially. In her own case, trekking out of a dry waterfall in Arizona after breaking her leg there gave her the sense she could do anything she wanted.

"Backpacking is a meritocracy," says Fuller. "Depending on their skills, women can lead as much as men. Yet a woman is the most likely to want to turn back if mountain-lion tracks are spotted on the trail," says Fuller.

Former Fish and Game lieutenant Bob Turner tells concerned women that "you are more likely to be struck by lightning on the day of your wedding to Brad Pitt than be attacked by a mountain lion." He acknowledges, though, that how and where you spend your time makes a difference. People in the city, for instance, are obviously at much less risk than those who are outdoors in the backcountry, he says.

It has become a cliché in California to say that problems with wildfires and wildlife result from people encroaching on nature, not the other way around. Yet development in wilderness areas continues. The greatest increase in mountain-lion sightings in San Diego County occurred between 1985 and 1995, according to Turner. And though human sightings of mountain lions are still relatively rare, he says they will increase in the future with increases in development. Even now, he says, "mountain lions see people every day of their lives. There is not a place in California that people don't go."

Mountain lions, also known as cougars, try to avoid people. But aspects of their behavior and life cycle drive them into contact with encroaching civilization, according to Turner. Lions seek territories of their own, usually areas of about 100 square miles that they may have to share with several other lions. "Females drive their young away from between 18 and 24 months after birth," says Turner. "Two-year-old lions must then find a territory of their own. They often have to move to the edges of territories already occupied, or the older lions will kill them. That can bring them near people."

The greatest danger to humans comes from young lions that get desperately hungry, according to Turner. "They have to eat but might not be able to kill deer yet," he says. "By the time they attack someone, they are often emaciated. Sometimes they get down to 60 pounds. They are starving to death and will do unusual things." Smaller animals do provide lions some nourishment, but deer are their primary prey. "Wherever there are deer," remarks Turner, "mountain lions are there, too."

Turner maintains, however, that 99 percent of mountain-lion attacks on people are preventable. In an encounter, a person should face and maintain eye contact with the lion. Carry a long stick and never bend over, turn away, or run when the lion is looking at you, says Turner. "Running immediately makes them think you are prey."

In the wilderness, people are much safer in groups. And lions will stay away from homes if their natural sources of food are not nearby. "But the problem is," according to Turner, "that in the country people often keep domestic animals, like goats, that look and smell to lions like deer." Cat food left outside is also a problem. "No wildlife will ever go away if you leave out food they can get," says Turner.

Most reports of mountain-lion sightings, however, are "misidentifications," in Turner's estimation. "People will see a house cat and swear it was a mountain lion," he says. During his service with California Fish and Game, Turner says he met people who insisted that pictures taken of domestic cats during investigations were of mountain lions instead. He also remembers attacks being faked and false evidence being provided to support them.

"Mountain lions strike fear in people's hearts," says Turner. "We normally think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, and then a lion kills someone. Still, in the last 100 years, only three people in California are known to have been killed by mountain lions."

The last to be killed was Mark Reynolds, last January in Orange County. Several hours after the attack, according to a January 9 report by USA Today, the same lion attacked bicyclist Anne Hjelle, seriously injuring her before she was rescued by friends. Bob Turner was called to the scene of the two attacks. He and other investigators determined that Reynolds was crouching over his own bike to fix its chain when the lion attacked him from behind. Authorities later found the lion and shot it.

When the lion killed Mark Reynolds, "a media nightmare" took place, according to Turner. But even less serious attacks provoke a kind of panic in the public. "When I worked for Fish and Game," says Turner, "we used to get about five mountain-lion sightings in a normal week. But after a publicized attack, we'd get a hundred."

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