Big cats on campus: mountain lion sightings prompt UCSC expert forum

A cougar stares down from its hideaway in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
A treed young cougar stares down from its hide-out in the forests of Santa Cruz County.

A giant projected photo of a mountain lion stared down at the audience—lithe, beautiful, powerful, and, well … a little scary.

The image was part of UCSC professor Chris Wilmers's recent informational forum about these elusive "charismatic megafauna," whose recent spate of appearances on and near campus have prompted excitement, speculation, and some anxiety.

A woman 15 rows from the front was visibly nervous. "Will you look at the glare on that mountain lion's face?" she said to the people sitting next to her. "My Siamese gives me that same glare all the time. And she only weighs seven pounds!"

The audience member was just one of the many UCSC students and campus and county residents who have been in a heightened state of cougar alert for the past few weeks.

On January 17, two walkers with a dog saw two mountain lions near Pogonip's Spring Street entrance—a highly popular area for joggers, distance runners, and day hikers. A week later, a UCSC student—out running on a forested and sparsely traveled section of Chinquapin Road—saw a mountain lion 25 feet from the unpaved roadbed.

Although the mountain lion did not threaten the student, UCSC police took the precaution of sending out an alert to CruzAlert subscribers that afternoon.

All that excitement led to a big turnout for Wilmers's talk about mountain lions; more than 120 people, including a large assortment of UCSC undergraduates, showed up for the far-ranging talk, which mostly focused on high-tech efforts to understand these creatures' behaviors.

Wilmers also spoke of plans to protect them in the future, in collaboration with Caltrans, perhaps with fencing and redesigned culverts that could cut down on the number of cougars killed during highway crossings.

More dangerous: A cougar or a toothbrush?

Naturally, some audience members also wanted to know about their own safety.

While Wilmers advised people to proceed with caution in any known mountain lion roaming grounds, he also assured them that they had an exponentially greater chance of getting killed by their own toothbrushes than attacked by a mountain lion.

Statistics bear up Wilmers's claim; citing figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Book of Odds, an on-line reference of "odds, probability and chances," claims that Americans have roughly a one in 100,000 chance of suffering a serious toothbrush-related injury on any given year and winding up in the emergency room. 

Meanwhile, the chances of being injured by a mountain lion fall in the range of one in several million -- while the chances of getting fatally attacked are one in 32 million. Since the year of California’s statehood – 1850 -- there have been a total of 16 mountain lion attacks on people, and only six fatalities, two of them because of untreated rabies.

"I'd be more worried about toothbrushes," Wilmers added. "If you want to go running (in the forest) at night, bring a bell or another person. But even if you do everything wrong, the risks (of mountain lion attack) are really, really low."

Big change in views on big cats

Before launching into the scientific aspects of his talk, Wilmers spoke of the dramatic changes in attitudes toward cougars over time.

In the 1920s, he said, even high-ranking biologists advocated the wholesale slaughter of big predators like wolves and cougars. "Scientists later realized predators have a profound effect on ecosystems," he said. Killing off top predators can have disastrous consequences, upsetting the natural balance by creating a "cascade effect" that can lead to an overabundance of prey species or cause lower-level predators such as raccoons and coyotes to overrun the forest.

The killing off of cougars was often the result of fear and misunderstanding, he said.

Now, high-tech methods are helping scientists close that understanding gap through the use of telemetric collars, which must be placed on the creatures out in the field, after finding them, often with help from tracking dogs, and anesthetizing them. The collars relay steady data streams. A visual representation of that data looks like a cross between an EKG print-out and the shaking lines of a seismograph; by studying these wavering patterns, scientists can deduce mountain lion movement and behaviors ranging from the 'pounce' to the slow retreat.

"We want to understand the animals' behavior in real time," Wilmers said. "Is the animal running? How fast? We hope to identify when the animals are eating, drinking, sleeping, and where they are when they're doing this, and how they behave when they're near humans."

Increasing understanding

These technologies also help Wilmers and his team understand the challenges cougars face when living near an urban environment like Santa Cruz.

 "This is a very urbanized, human dominated area," he said, while mentioning that fragmentation of mountain lion territory can result in "habitat islands" with isolated, vulnerable populations.

He noted that Highway 17 slices straight through some of the animal's roaming area; he showed an alarming photo of a mountain lion with a gaping wound that reached 12 inches across its flank. Trying to cross the highway, the cougar got hit by a car and dragged. The audience gasped when Wilmers noted that the animal "managed to survive and is now doing quite well."

By the end of the evening, one audience member became so curious about mountain lions that he asked how he might increase his chance of an encounter.

"If you're driving remote dirt roads at night, that's probably your best chance of seeing one," Wilmers responded. "Mountain lions like remote."

While Wilmers said that humans in Santa Cruz County should not panic about the presence of mountain lions, he advised the owners of goats to consider keeping them in a "fully-enclosed mountain lion-proof structure."