Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Here kitty, kitty, kitty

Unsubstantiated. That’s how the state Department of Fish and Game concluded their investigation of a reported mountain lion attack in Palo Alto’s Foothills Park last weekend.

Of course, that was only announced after I spent hours Monday out in the woods, looking for a big, scary kitty.
But the incident made me wonder – how likely is a mountain lion attack, really? With so many recreational hikers in the Bay Area, is it just luck that more folks aren’t targeted by wild cougars as a walking snack?

To backtrack briefly: the man who reported the attack said he was hiking the Los Trancos trail Saturday when he felt a shove from behind and tumbled down a hillside, according to police Agent Dan Ryan.
He slammed into a tree trunk and stopped falling, but saw a lion continue to scramble down the slope, across the creek, and into the woods, Ryan recounted.
Into those very same woods Ryan and I ventured Monday.

We weren’t hunting for the cat, exactly. Rather, Ryan was gracious enough to show me and our trusty photographer, Darlene Bouchard, the section of trail where the man crossed a residential neighborhood to enter the park.
We were also attempting to cross paths with the Fish and Game wardens and professional animal tracker brought in to locate the feline.
Perhaps foolishly, I secretly hoped to catch a glimpse of the animal itself. The policeman, Darlene and I formed a nice trio of human catnip, I figured. Maybe the king of the jungle would venture out from between the madrone and bay laurel. After all, a lion was spotted prowling Palo Alto streets a few years back. And when I was a student at Stanford, a lion was seen prowling around outside dorms.

No such luck. After a hot but pleasant time in the semi-wilderness – does it count as true nature when it’s surrounded by the gorgeous homes just outside Portola Valley town limits? – Darlene and I headed back to the office.
I was just wrapping up the story with a description of Fish and Game’s plan to shoot the lion with a rifle, courtesy warden Patrick Foy’s explanation, when the phone rang.
It’s over, Ryan said. Fish and Game are calling the report unsubstantiated.
No traces of the cat in the woods nor in a forensic analysis of the hiker’s shirt were found, Foy added.

So how likely is a kitty attack?
It happens, Foy said. Even though this report couldn’t be confirmed, Foothills Park is full of deer, prime target for mountain cats with the munchies, he pointed out.
And endangered they ain't -- there are 4,000 to 6,000 cougars prowling the the Golden State, the Fish and Game site says.
Yet Ryan said this attack would have been the first in recorded Palo Alto history.
And there have only been 16 substantiated attacks since 1890 in California, according to Foy -- and only six were fatal, according to a Fish and Game chart from 2007.
So perhaps we can conclude the cats are a bit like Web 2.0 startups. They're everywhere, but we just don't see them all -- until they successfully prey on us.
Or maybe I should just scrap the forced metaphors and stick to what I know best, which at this moment is watching YouTube videos about mountain lions. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty...

Update on Wednesday: the man could face fines of $10,000 or more if it turns out he made the whole thing up. Me-owch.
Lion image licensed to Creative Commons.

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