Cougars prowl the
La La land
Ex-Express Staff Writer
I thought it was a dog. I was running alone along a fire road on a
mountain ridge overlooking the dark blue scoop of the Santa Monica Bay.
Million-dollar mansions and strip malls sat just down the hill on Sunset
Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway. But up here, it was all
sagebrush, bright sky and dusty fire road. So the animal was easy to see
when it slinked out of the dense bushes about 75 yards ahead. It walked
a few steps down the road and then just stopped and squatted. That's a
big dog, I thought. I wondered where its owner was. And then I
recognized the unmistakable feline movement of its hips and shoulders,
the snake-like flip of its tail. Jesus, I realized, that's a cougar!
stopped—awestruck. For the last three years, I had lived in the Wood
River Valley, in the mountains of Idaho, where cougars were a fact of
life. They sometimes even came down out of the hills and brazenly
wandered along small-town streets in the late afternoon looking for pets
as an easy meal. Dogs and cats disappeared, leaving only a trace of
blood. Residents spoke of cougars stalking hikers for miles through the
mountains in a heightened game of cat and mouse. I had always wanted to
see one of the elusive animals. But I never did. I had to move back to
Los Angeles for that to happen.
skinny. I could see the outline of its hip bones. Its fur was tawny
brown. Its head, which was about as high as my waist, seemed too small
for its body. I stood in the road, slightly crouched—I'm not sure
why—and watched it for what seemed like an eternity but was probably
only a few seconds. Its head swiveled around like an owl's. It was
silently looking for something to chase down and kill, I vividly
imagined. There are deer everywhere in the Santa Monica Mountains, and
rabbits, and me. It ignored me, but I wondered how quickly it could
cover the distance to where I stood, if it wanted to, and then I turned
around and went back the other way, walking at first, and then jogging
when I knew I was out of sight. I didn't want it to see me run and think
I was prey.
I felt a
mixture of fear and curiosity as I made my way back down the ridge
toward Sunset Boulevard. Trailheads here have signs with a picture of
the big cat and a warning that cougars are part of the ecosystem, so
people should avoid hiking alone and should keep small children close.
Just down the hill, stands the nation's second-largest metropolis, where
nearly everything, even rivers, is encased in concrete. Los Angeles
holds a headlock on Mother Nature. I run in the mountains to temporarily
escape that. And I was supposed to worry about wild predators? I never
took the signs seriously.
everyone knows a story. My friend Judy Hein, who lives in Topanga Canyon
10 minutes up the road from Santa Monica, remembers a big cat stalking
her small boys as they played in her backyard one summer afternoon in
the early 1970s. She loves to recount how she enticed them to return
calmly back inside by offering an ice cream to the slowest walker. My
wife, Kathleen, recalls a mountain bike ride that took her through an
upscale hillside neighborhood where a cougar lounged on a perfectly
manicured lawn watching with lazy disinterest as the cars drove by. But
how could that be? It's too strange. Maybe she only dreamed it, she
years, officials with the National Park Service and California State
Parks have been hearing such stories about cougars in the Santa Monica
Mountains. But they were skeptical because no one had ever managed to
get a photo. Besides, it was unlikely that cougars still lived here.
They need a lot of space, and the range is filled with homes, cars and
people. Twelve-lane freeways, dense suburbs and the ocean surround the
lately, a different story has been evolving in the news. Last spring,
remote cameras caught a male cougar on film, the Los Angeles Times
reported. Ecologists set leg snares, trapped the animal near Mulholland
Highway, and fitted it with a radio collar capable of tracking its every
move by satellite. Uniformed park service personnel stood in the parking
lot of Starbucks in Malibu sipping iced coffee and waving hand-held
radio antennas as they followed the 150-pound beast through its scrap of
researchers want to preserve the animals and protect people, though
attacks on humans are rare. In fact, no one seems to have a story about
that. But what happens if a cougar decides to eat someone's $200,000
horse or to hang out around an elementary school or in someone's
backyard? Who's liable for a cougar wearing a radio collar? Park
officials say they won't take any actions based on the location of an
animal, only on its behavior. So far, cougars have left humans alone and
have done only what cougars are supposed to do—kill deer and mate.
service believes there could be as many as eight in the island of
habitat surrounded by Sunset Boulevard on the south, the San Diego
Freeway on the east, the Ventura Freeway on the north and the ocean on
the west. There are maybe two males in that area and up to six females,
which is not enough to even maintain a population, said Seth Riley, an
ecologist with the park service. Long-term survival depends on two
undeveloped corridors that link the Santa Monica Mountains to the larger
wild areas of the Santa Susana Mountains and Los Padres National Forest.
The wider of those two corridors is on the other side of the Ventura
Freeway, a torrent of cars that no animal would likely walk across.
Besides, a proposed 3,050-home development there threatens to block the
corridor. Cougars, it appears, are on the way out.
I knew I
had seen something special, and I couldn't wait to tell people. But no
one seemed to understand or to share my enthusiasm. One friend, a writer
and an ex-professor of English at UCLA, was obviously confused by my
excitement and asked me how big it was. I told her its head was as high
as my waist. "Oh," she said, her eyes widening. "I always
thought they were, you know, like housecats."
I ran for
nearly an hour before I got to the upscale neighborhood streets above
Sunset Boulevard and then down to the glaring lights and traffic of the
strip malls and gas stations near the Pacific Coast Highway. Overall, I
had been running for more than two hours. I was covered with sweat and
dust, and I was tired when I entered the plastic interior of the
sandwich franchise so I could get a drink of water and call a taxicab
for a ride home. I told a young employee in a green polyester uniform
that I had just seen a wild cat the size of a Great Dane and he said
"oh, really," with thinly veiled disinterest, and went back to
mopping the floor.
you had to be there. And how amazing that you can run there from your
home in a metropolis. It's not that cougars in the Santa Monica
Mountains are a vital part of the ecosystem. Ecologists seem to accept
that they no longer are. But what was so great was just seeing that big
cat in the flesh and blood. It's one of those rare moments that sticks
in my brain like a film clip. It gave me a broader idea of what's
possible in the world. I won't stop running in the Santa Monica
Mountains. In fact, I hope to see a cougar again. You bet. Los Angeles
might have Mother Nature in a headlock, but as long as those cougars
exist, at least I'll know it's not a death grip.