Know your mountain lions- Animal Rescue Team hosts talk on big cats; 30 from law enforcement attend

In 2008, there were 23 fatalities in the United States caused by dog attacks. In 2000, there were 54 fatalities caused by bee stings, in 2007 there were 450 fatalities from falls within the home. Every year there are approximately 150 fatalities involving automobile collisions with deer. But since the 1890s, there have been a total of 18 fatalities in the North American continent caused by mountain lions.
While this statistic might shock many in Southern California, where mountain lion sightings are becoming increasingly common as their habitats are being encroached upon, Robin Parks is not one of them. He volunteers with the Mountain Lion Foundation, based in Sacramento, and before a group of about 30 law enforcement officers on Friday he argued that most agencies’ responses to mountain lions are completely out of proportion to their actual threat.
New guidelines should be developed to handle encounters, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s rarely necessary to kill the cat, because there are often other options to get them back into the wild,” Mr. Parks said. “If you leave a way out, the cat will take the way out. A cat isn’t going to take a 5th grader on his way out, he’s going to try to get out of there.”
His hour-long presentation at the Animal Rescue Team facilities in Solvang focused on explaining the dangers that mountain lions present while offering solutions that are both humane and safe.
Although mountain lions rarely bother humans, their formidable physique is enough to scare most people anyway. They boast a vertical leap of 22 feet from a dead start, a horizontal leap of 45 feet and can clear 16 feet with a whole deer between their teeth. They can run for short sprints at 50 miles per hour — faster than any human alive. Mountain lions extend between six to eight feet, and weigh between 110 and 180 pounds.
They are not pack animals and prefer to remain solitary for most of their lives. The males roam in a very wide area, approximately 200 square miles; and as habitats continue to shrink on the Central Coast and in Southern California, it has become inevitable that encounters with mountain lions have increased. But contrary to rumors, the mountain lion population is not exploding. Mr. Parks said it might be holding steady, and may be as low as 250 in California.
Their existence is vital to the food chain, he said, because they are apex predators, meaning they hunt everything below them. Without their presence, the entire food chain is affected.
Although rare, attacks against humans are not unheard of. They hunt primarily during dusk and dawn, and look for prey traveling alone. Cyclists are particularly at danger, because they are roughly the same size as deer, and move at the same speed. If someone encounters a mountain lion, the most important thing is not to turn your back on one. “Stand your ground, don’t run, because you can’t outrun a mountain lion,” Mr. Parks explained. “When you turn around, it triggers an instinct. It’s something they can’t resist. It makes you look like prey. If you’re out front, it’s a different situation.”
Mountain lions rely on instinct, he said, and will attack animals that exhibit prey-like traits such as flight or submission. If someone ever finds themselves in a brawl with a mountain lion, they can escape by making it as difficult for the lion as possible.
“Fight like hell,” Mr. Parks said. “Use anything you got. Use your elbows, bite, kick, punch them in the head, go for the eyes, use a rock. Keep it up, don’t quit. The guys who survive, that’s what they do and the probability of survival goes way up.”
Law enforcement officials had already begun revisiting their practices.
Lieutenant Steve Tolley of the San Luis Obispo Police Department has responded to two sightings of mountain lions, both of which involved the death of the animals. “Nobody wanted to do that, but we had an obligation for the safety of the people around us,” he explained. “It gives me a lot to think about. We do need guidelines to deal with (them). We’re not the experts, and hopefully they will help us develop a policy.”
Animal Rescue Team, which hosted the event, has been an active responder to similar sightings and is the only agency both permitted and equipped to handle these kinds of animals between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Julia Di Sieno, the executive director of Animal Rescue Team, has been working closely with law enforcement agencies to neutralize the more dangerous animals. “We’re trying to train our local law enforcement to work better with wildlife encounters and not to resort to lethal force,” she said. “We’ve had five major wildlife fires in our county that have displaced wildlife and destroyed habitats.”
While the number of calls the team responds to varies widely, it is equipped to handle almost every animal at its facilities, and has already responded to 300 calls this year. “We use aversion training to scare the animals away. You want to blast them with a paintball gun, so they associate humans with pain. It’s proven to be very effective.” The team also works with tranquilizers and uses an animal ambulance to cart the critters back to the ART facility for treatment and recuperation.

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