By Robert Chianese
Published in American Scientist Magazine, September-October 2017
On a rainy November night in the hills of Malibu, California, a mountain lion moved silently into a pen of alpacas. It snagged a long throat in its jaws, teeth bloody, the animal barely squealing, no flight, fully down. There were more alpacas, many more, and the mountain lion’s overcharged instincts held him to readiness again. Movement triggered attack, jumping, tearing, until nothing moved—a field of bloody prey he could not eat or drag away.
The recent killing of ten alpacas by the mountain lion known as P-45 in the Santa Monica mountains near Los Angeles made national headlines and prompted outpourings of support for the big cat. The alpaca owner received a permit to exterminate the beast, but she too felt sympathy for this magnificent creature. She let it live. Many cheered her decision, though others faulted her for grazing her alien flock in mountain lion habitat.
Many of us desire to conserve the wild, in part so that we and generations after us can experience it. But the case of the mountain lion in Southern California shows just how uneasy neighbors we and wild animals often become. Many Californians want to protect this carnivore, even at the risk of losing livestock and, although much less likely, human life. Without our intervention, the mountain lion cannot thrive among us. But it’s unclear whether we can live alongside it and still protect the species—and its wildness.
Living with lions
In Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, a series of mountain ranges extend in parallel from the Hollywood Hills west to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, with dense suburban populations on either side of and between them. These ranges—the Santa Susana Mountains, the Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains—connect to a longer range stretching three hundred miles northeast along the major San Andreas fault, with the vaster Los Padres and Angeles National Forests lying to the north. Both east-west and north-south freeways and urban development cut these “inner” mountains off from the rest of the “outer” range. Mountain lions (Puma concolor), also known as cougars, pumas, panthers, and catamounts live, breed, and roam this extensive inner area with its own system of freeways and suburban sprawl. The National Park Service uses GPS collars to track as many as twenty mountain lions at any one time just within these densely-populated areas.
Californian’s voted to protect their big cats back in 1990 with the California Wildlife Protection Act, a ballot initiative that made California the only western state to outlaw trophy hunting of mountain lions. with a few other states trying to enact such a ban The act does, however, permit government agencies to kill mountain lions deemed a threat to public health, and for individuals to request depredation permits to kill mountain lions that attack their livestock.
Today, the mountain lion population in California is stable, with an estimated 4,000 – 6,000 roaming the state. So far, living with lions has come with minimal risk to human life. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, mountain lions have killed six people in the state since 1890. Despite the low risk, the core of public support for Puma-45 and other mountain lions seems based in part on our need to feel enlivened by their presence, their vitality and danger, as if we ourselves gain a certain charge and revived natural spirit for having them close by, sauntering through urban outskirts, restoring a lost wildness to our own lives.
Poet Brendan Galvin in “Cougar” captures our thrill in finding a lion in our midst since it helps us push back the stale conformity, inauthenticity, and enervating over-convenience of modern life:
welded chains supporting the mailboxes,
too many electives at the regional
school—we were in danger
until a state trooper saw it
pad with dignity across the road
. . . . .
Good to know we have places
the houselights don’t pin down,
. . . . good to feel,
going from car to porch light,
the short hairs lifting off my neck.
Stalking near the ranchettes, McMansions, and swerving housing tracts of the Santa Monica Mountains, P-45 reminds us of the savagery and wilderness we have tamed and nearly destroyed. We feel cougars have to stay. The risk they present to pets, livestock, hikers, and joggers we think are worth it. However, it’s not an easy accommodation.
We create landscapes increasingly at odds with mountain lion biology. While mountain lion populations are doing well overall in California, the National Park Service reports that the long-term survival of mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains region in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties is threatened by an increasingly fragmented habitat.
Lions, particularly males, roam in search of mates, which increases healthful genetic diversity. A male cougar’s typical home range is about 200 square miles, a female’s around 75 square miles. They often move along natural wildlife corridors—long-established animal trails along ravines, passes, and seasonal streambeds. In Southern California, their intense need to roam frequently meets impassable asphalt. In 2015 vehicles killed nine mountain lions in this region. Last December, a female, P-39, was killed on the eight-lane Highway 118 on the edge of the suburban Simi Valley, a major choke point on what seems a well-travelled natural corridor. She left three kittens behind in rock piles high above the houses. Within a couple of months, two of the kittens met the same fate as their mother.
Mountain lions that forego dangerous highway crossings instead face health risks associated with inbreeding. The coastal edging Santa Monicas in particular feature fractured habitats resulting in genetic “bottlenecks.” According to the National Park Service, mountain lions in this region have among the lowest genetic diversity of any mountain lion population ever recorded.
Mountain lions also have a strong instinct to hunt, which places both domesticated animals and the mountain lions themselves at risk. P-22, the mountain lion known as the “Griffith Park lion,” is believed to have entered the LA zoo, jumped an 8-foot wall, and captured and fled with a koala. Los Angeles mourned the koala and also accepted that this might happen in a zoo located within a large urban semi-natural park. The loss of a single zoo specimen can be lamented, but owners of livestock often feel their livelihoods are threatened by cougar attack. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, 250 cougars face depredation permits each year in California.
As urban development further impinges on the mountain lion’s historic travel routes, the compulsively roaming animals will be inevitably forced to creep through expanding human habitat with these sad outcomes.
To buffer against these threats, the mountain lions close to human development are highly managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service. Many of the lions in southern California are captured, tested for disease, genetically typed, then collared with a radio transmitter for regular GPS monitoring of their travel and energy use over their lifetimes. They are numbered if not named, photographed even at night, sometimes re-captured and treated for disease, and finally channeled not just by their own scent trails and ancient paths, but by human-altered geological features and the irregular lines and discontinuous edges of our fragmented human developments. By carefully managing lions, we in effect strip them of their original wildness.
Conservationist Stephen M. Meyer defines the wild as places without human disturbance, and claims, resignedly, that there are no such places left. His book The End of the Wild (2006) forces us to face our total re-shaping of the planet for our purposes. Meyer’s formula for checking the depletion of species is as simple as it is difficult to accomplish—reduce our material consumption, shrink our ecological footprint, and stop pollution. But he takes his thesis about the control we have over nature to an end point we may not like—we need more control over nature, more management and interventions, not false hopes that things can survive if left to themselves as “wild.” Environmentalist Bill McKibben makes a similar claim in The End of Nature (1989). McKibben chronicles how pollution of the atmosphere and subsequent global climate change alter some prime values and beliefs. In subduing nature, we lose our sense of “God or spirit” in nature, and now experience an underlying sadness and loneliness when contemplating it.
This brings us back to P-45 and his forays into domesticated nature on the edge of what I call the “near wild”—the mainly undisturbed outer areas of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. P-45 killed ten alpacas, eating only one. How wild is that? According to a statement issued by the Mountain Lion Foundation after the alpaca attack, “P-45 finds himself victim to an evolutionary mismatch between the environment in which he evolved and the place where he is attempting to survive today.” Presenting P-45 with a pen of alpacas prompted an “unnatural” animal attack. The alpacas had nowhere to run. P-45 responded to an over-stimulated instinct that triggered relentless behavior. He became, at least temporarily, a manic slaughterer rather than a stealthy, savvy hunter.
Everything about cougars plying outlying areas into suburban neighborhoods is a semi-this or semi-that—semi-wild, semi-tamed, semi-developed, semi-acceptable. The whole issue lives in a liminal zone. Artist Luke Matjas turns this space between the wild and managed into a locus of fantasy in a project entitled “The Natural History Museum meets Home Depot.” His hyper-real painting Study of Landscape Connectivity in Urban Island Environments (2016) offers a tribute to cougar P-18, who was killed crossing the 405 freeway. It depicts the over-burdened cougar supporting a camper, plastic containers and chairs, an ecological life-cycle diagram, and a semi-living tree of life. P-18 seems stoic, accepting his burdens as he steps into a poppy-edged pathway. Had such a pathway been an open wildlife corridor, he may have survived.
Matjas’ title implies his wish that we could create corridors that connect the “islands” of wild. I see, however, a resigned cougar supporting both our gear-craving and our contrary attractions to wildness. P-18 upholds our plastic stuff as icons of suburban life. The cougar’s tamed proximity seems to promote the endless accouterments of modern camping in the “wild,” here both a desert on the camper’s roof and a burnt hillside where P-18 seems to pause. The red gas can is more ominous—the source of both pollution and wildfires. P-18 seems to carry the means of his own destruction, or is himself reduced to another outdoor consumer product for us to own, control, and safely enjoy. He is then an “other” like nature, out there and separate from human life.
What Might We Do?
Many conservationists push to connect isolated cougar populations by unblocking natural wildlife corridors or creating new ones. Increasing connectivity could mean protecting large swaths of land between cougar populations, or building overpasses or underpasses to encourage safe highway crossings. For example, the National Wildlife Federation’s #SaveLACougars campaign is raising funds for a major corridor over the east-west 101 freeway that would connect the Santa Monica Mountains with the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains.
But some ecologists believe that constructing corridors gives us a false sense of conservation. Ecologist Daniel Simberloff of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville told writer Jim Robins for Yale Environment 360, “A general concern I’ve had with the corridor bandwagon is that it perpetuates the notion that we can somehow have conservation on the cheap by providing a technological solution to the problem of habitat destruction and fragmentation…It’s seductive, but unlikely to work in many cases. Unfortunately to conserve biodiversity we have to conserve habitat.”
There is also a simple and confounding issue I have never heard addressed—increasing connectivity between mountain lion populations creates two-way access. Corridors are not just escape routes into less populated or open areas. Connectivity may also, I fear, allow lions from the hinterland to more easily walk into suburban hillsides, causing more human and livestock encounters. I wonder whether, over time, this more regular contact may further strip mountain lions of their remaining wildness. Wildlife ecologist Anthony Giordano, founder of The Society for the Protection of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES), claims that mountain lions now eat more raccoons than deer, by necessity. Will they one day stalk raccoons into suburban haunts, ambushing them at garbage containers? Will they yield to the temptations of coyote-like adaptive co-existence with us? Will this induce a lamentable semi-domestication to their magnificence?
We have three options. First, we can persist in a shaky coexistence, and expand cougar ranges and access, hoping new corridors might keep them—and us—safe. That seems our current direction.
Second, we can accept that instead of truly “wild” lands, we have something more like the “near wild” of the distant mountains, the “managed wild” of the inner mountains, and the “contained wild” of Griffith Park and the Los Angeles Zoo itself. In our attempts to save the mountain lion, we could follow Meyer’s seemingly paradoxical injunction to go ahead and manage the environment even more in order to preserve it. We could consider the rural surrounds of Los Angeles as an extended semi-zoo, where animals are managed and fenced in or out to meet our need to share the environment with them. We could introduce more native deer and other natural prey. We could provide water sources like pipe-fed troughs to encourage them to stay within their managed ranges.
Or, we could attempt, whenever possible, to keep our distance from them. We could stop developing housing and commercial projects that jut into open space, which would reduce the need for “managed” corridors between shrinking habitat “islands.” In Ventura County, where I live, we have just partly done that. We passed a number of integrated land use ballot measures by wide margins that would save open space and agricultural resources (SOAR) on the edge of suburbia for thirty more years. These multiple initiatives, first adopted in 1995 and 1998, do not permanently lock up our large, mainly undeveloped county, but require a vote of the people to approve any development in the “protected” areas. The first SOAR initiatives generally succeeded for twenty years in restraining development beyond the existing boundaries of our cities. These land use measures have not prevented near-wild creatures like P-39 from escaping death from crossing freeways, but can minimize the loss of nearly wild habitat over the coming years for them to roam in. However, new grumblings about SOAR from within our County Supervisor Board suggest we will have to continue the fight both to keep and expand our preserved open space.
I believe that mountain lions would do better if we kept our mutual distances. But keeping the near-wild lions already in our midst out of backyards and motorways remains an unresolved dilemma. We want mountain lions here and can protect them somewhat, but ultimately our coexistence might serve little more than to threaten or tame them.
Galvin, Brenden. 1986. “Cougar” from Seals in the Inner Harbor; reprinted in Urban Nature: Poems about Wildlife in the City, 2000. ed. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Milkweed Editions.
Meyer, Stephen M. 2006. The End of the Wild. MIT Press.
McKibben, Bill, 1989. The End of Nature. Random House, NY.
Matjas, Luke. 2016. that Great Rock Mass is Called The Earth. Carnegie Museum exhibit, with catalogue. Oxnard, CA.
Simberloff, Dan. in Can Wildlife Corridors Heal Fragmented Landscapes? by Jim Robbins, Yale Environment 360. October 10, 2011.