Our land or theirs?

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Apr 21, 2004 12:00 AM

 The warm season approaches, Earth Day comes and goes, and major dailies in the West are advising readers on how to avoid deadly encounters with man-eating lions that might be lurking along suburban trails or near backyard swing sets.

 "Jogging or cycling after dusk in the mountains is not advised, as that is near feeding time for the cougars," warns the San Francisco Chronicle.

 "Clear low, scrubby vegetation on your property to remove hiding places for cougars, especially around children's play areas," advises the Orange County Register.

 The Modesto Bee published the protocol for communicating with a predator that is pondering its lunch. "Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase," says the Bee. "Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact."

 But for the most authoritative advice, potential human prey can turn directly to the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). Under the heading, "If You Encounter a Mountain Lion," a DFG pamphlet lists several key points beyond the fundamentals of facing the hungry beast and looking him straight in the eye.

 "Observations of captured wild mountain lions," says DFG, "reveal that the animals seem especially drawn to children." Furthermore, it is clear this is not a matronly instinct.

 "If you have small children with you, pick them up so they don't panic and run," says DFG. "Although it may be awkward, pick them up without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion. . . . (A) person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal."

 Although this bit of advice sounds like it is targeted at the two-armed parent with 1.7 children, it is nonetheless of value to families of all shapes and sizes for its underlying scientific insight: Mountain lions may be "especially drawn" to bipeds -- like your toddler -- but they are even more especially drawn to quadrupeds -- like your dog.

 "Do all you can to appear larger," instructs DFG. "Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one. Again, pick up small children. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. The idea is to convince the mountain lion you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it."

 DFG offers still more advice. But a parent possessing both the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the moves of Fred Astaire could not perform the choreography already prescribed.

 And, conspicuously, two simple steps that for generations kept Westerners safe from lions are not recommended. They are, of course: Aim carefully. Squeeze trigger.

 This is because California state law forbids pre-emptively killing cougars. From 1907 to 1963, the state paid a bounty for dead lions. But in 1972, California banned hunting the big cats; and, in 1990, voters made them a "specially protected species." Now, authorities can kill a lion only after it has demonstrated it is a safety threat, and private citizens can kill one only (with a special permit) after it has damaged property or livestock.

 This lion coddling comes with a price. "Prior to 1986," DFG reported in its Outdoor California magazine, "there was very little concern for public safety threats from lions. Although historic records reported fatal attacks on humans in 1890 and 1909, no further attacks occurred until March 1986. That year a lion seriously injured a young girl visiting an Orange County park."

 This January, a lion killed one mountain biker and wounded another in separate incidents at an Orange County wilderness park. A few days later, a study released by U.C. Davis said there had been six mountain lion attacks and two deaths in California in the previous 10 years. Meanwhile, reported mountain lion incidents proliferate along California's coast -- from a golfer being stalked in San Diego County, to children being warned in posh Marin that a lion was sighted near their school.

 When Californians hunted lions, lions didn't hunt them. Now man and beast are switching roles.

 Nothing more starkly exemplifies how environmentalist ideology has turned upside down the way man views his relationship with nature. When Americans first went west, we unabashedly went to conquer the wild things and bring them under our dominion. Now we aren't sure if this is our land or theirs.