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Ask The Naturalist: Why Would A Mountain Lion Attack a Child?

by on September 13, 2014

Credit: Bay Area Puma Project

Q: I hear lion attacks are rare. Why would a mountain lion attack a child in the midst of a large group, as we’ve seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains last weekend? Are food sources running low this year? Was the lion sick?

Answer from Zara McDonald, president of the Felidae Conservation Fund and leader of the Bay Area Puma Project:

The last attack on a human being in the San Francisco Bay Area was in 1909, and that attack involved a rabid mountain lion that attacked a mother and her daughter, who both survived the attack but then died from rabies. The theme for almost all mountain lion attacks is a similar one: usually a sick, weakened, elderly, or very young mountain lion as yet untrained to avoid human as prey.

Indeed, state wildlife officials are trying to get to the bottom of what might have provoked this rare attack. On Wednesday, CDFW officials identified a young, male mountain lion near the scene of the attack and reported that it was exhibiting highly aggressive behavior. It was euthanized, and a full forensic inquiry is being done to confirm it was the same lion, as well as test for rabies. We may never know, however, what provoked the mountain lion.

Our social media pages have received hundreds of thoughtful comments and expressions about this incident. As we are left to ponder the reality of co-existing with wildlife and living with lions just beyond our backyards, we must also be prepared for the natural world to throw us curveballs, and every once in a while jolt us awake to keep us from becoming complacent. As hikers and runners and bikers, our day to day trail visits constantly remind us that YES, lion attacks are statistically as rare, and rarer in fact, than being struck by a bolt of lightning.

This may be comforting if you are an adventurous type and you like to push the edges of any envelope. However, the very remote possibility does still exist that you will encounter a problem cat. The natural lands we love to hike and pride ourselves of in the SF Bay area and throughout the state also bring a real unknown and mystery and, yes, some risk. What would nature be without it? It does require that we pay attention, all the time when we are out in so called ‘lion habitat’, and be present to our surroundings. Fortunately those present during the recent encounter acted swiftly and the damage was contained.

This occurrence presents an important opportunity for our Bay Area communities to raise our awareness levels and see wild animals for what they are, survival experts. Yes, the lion was doing what it does naturally, but the unnatural behavior of this particular lion is potentially concerning. Over the last hundred-plus years, lions of all ages have seen humans hiking and running, alone and in groups, on many of our trails. Is it luck that a human has not been attacked? No. Humans are not a normal prey item for mountain lions. Deer are plentiful and lions still have ground cover and access to water, despite our serious drought.

UPDATE: CDFW officials obtained the results from the forensic tests that positively identified the euthanized mountain lion as the attacker. This cougar tested negative for rabies, leaving open the mystery of why the cat acted so out of character.

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Sheri on September 13th, 2014 at 9:06 am

Reading this, it occurs to me that there must be rogue wild animals just like there are rogue humans — people who prey on people — due to mental illness, psychopathic or psychotic tendencies, etc. We generally expect non-human animals of the same species to all act the same way, but there are always outliers having positive or negative aspects. On the positive side, think about our California/Oregon wolf who, so far, has been the only wolf to venture into our state.

Maggie on September 13th, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Please stop misusing the word euthanize. The lion was killed. Euthanasia is different & shouldn’t be used in this manner. Everyone is doing it, but why?

Eric on September 14th, 2014 at 7:28 pm

I agree with Sheri, and it is something I’ve thought about a lot. Not only must there be animals with mental chemical imbalances, but there must also be young animals that exhibit behavior that involves risk taking and is atypical. Young humans do all kinds of things that aren’t acceptable in adults, but we don’t generally kill them for it.

fred on September 27th, 2014 at 8:05 am

Thanks Zara, am visiting your beautiful country and have 6 and 7 year old kids so this had me interested. Particularly as we’re planning to visit one of your national parks soon. Good to know attacks are rare, though a little concerning to hear of rogues, hopefully the bay area puma project sheds more light on that behavioral aspect. Otherwise Maggie is right, say put down or killed, rather than euthanized.

Kathy on September 28th, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Spoke with someone from the Puma Project yesterday. Seems the lion was very small, indicating that it may have been separated from its mother much earlier than usual. The young, less skilled animal may have taken a risk out of desperation or ignorance. Also, I read in one article that the child in question was ahead of the adult group. No indication as to how far but, if correct, the child was not in the midst of a group of adults, which means the lion was not behaving quite as oddly as we may have thought. BTW, I suspect that if we tally up the number of people who have been the victims of violence out in nature in the last 100 years, mountain lions will certainly be way down the list perps.

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