Thursday, April 29, 2004

The Lions of Shadow Mountain

The three of them were thin, hungry, and just six months old -- too young to be foraging the mountains on their own. Maybe there would be easier pickings in town. It was their bad luck that they strayed into a yard next to the school run by Shadow Mountain Baptist Church.

I was listening to KCBS, the local all-news radio, during the siege. The children had all been herded inside, out of harm's way. The police and game wardens came. One cub was tranquilized and later released in the hills. Another was shot dead. The third, maddened by fright, bolted over a fence and was hit by a car.

I?m sure the police used their best judgment in dealing with the animals. Mountain lions can kill human beings; a bicyclist died down in Orange County just a few months ago, and this week another Orange County park was closed when a cougar was apparently stalking mule riders. Just yesterday, a horse was attacked near Stanford University.

Although the schoolchildren were safe inside, imagine the consequences if some errant fifth grader, rushing to class, had cut through the yard where the lion cubs were hiding.

As long as the white settlers have been here, the mountain lions have been feared. (The hunting stopped about thirty years ago.) The local newspaper reminded readers,
One of the more colorful stories from Morgan Hill's history tells of Isola Kennedy, who saved three boys from a mountain lion attack by fighting off the animal with an eight-inch hair pin. Miss Kennedy died from her wounds two months after her heroics in the foothills east of Morgan Hill.

No date was given for the story, though that hair pin (hat pin?) sounds Victorian.

And yet. And yet. I think of those poor creatures, hungry and terrified. I look at their pictures, one caged, one dead, in the Morgan Hill newspaper. What a sordid, sorry ending to the wildcats' brief lives. When it comes to a showdown between young cougars and young humans, I know the humans have to take precedence. But I have to wonder if there isn't a better way to handle the intersection of human and wildlife.

Boulder, Colorado, offers some interesting statistics on mountain lion attacks, as well as advice for safer confrontations with bears and cougars. California's state animal is, of course, the grizzly bear, long extinct even in the wildest mountains. But the state fossil is the sabre-tooth cat (Smilodon californicus). It's easier to be proud of a fierce and beautiful creature when there is no chance of meeting one on your way to work.

That seems to be the case in Los Gatos, a particularly rich and beautiful mountain town. Though there are varying stories of how the town was named, all involve the mountain lions. In one tale, they snatched and devoured a baby, whose distraught mother drowned herself in Los Gatos Creek. In another, their caterwauling kept a mission priest awake all night. I prefer the third story, in which the noise of fighting wildcats -- and a little knowledge of the ways of mountain lions -- led the mission priests to find the water they desperately needed.

Naturally, the Los Gatos high school sports teams are named the Wildcats.

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