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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of October 2 - 8, 2002


Cougars prowl the 
La La land

Ex-Express Staff Writer

At first, 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!

I 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.

It was 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.

Still, 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 admits.

For 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 mountains.

But 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 habitat.

The 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.

The park 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.

I guess 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.



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