The Day the Mountain Lion Came to Santa Cruz

from Wildlife Promise

As someone who avidly follows California wildlife issues, a tweet grabbed my attention one morning last month.

I immediately retweeted and started following the story, both with a sense of amazement over a wild cat in Surf City, and a sense of dread as urban encounters with mountain lions don’t usually have a happy ending.

The story caught fire with social media, perhaps not at the Game of Thrones-Red Wedding level of intensity, but across the country people started taking an interest in the fate of this Puma concolor who found himself trapped in an aqueduct in the middle of Santa Cruz. People all over the globe expressed sympathy for the lion and rooted for him to survive.

The Santa Cruz mountain lion hides behind some brush as officials decide how to return him to the wild (Photo Courtesy Shmuel Thaler/ Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The Santa Cruz mountain lion hides behind some brush as officials decide how to return him to the wild (Photo Courtesy Shmuel Thaler/ Santa Cruz Sentinel)


#SPOILER ALERT: This isn’t a George R.R. Martin story. The mountain lion made it out safely. Yet the true happy ending to this incident is how he survived: a community rallied around the well being of this lion.  Their actions serve as a success story, and one that demonstrates how to safely—for both the animal and people—deal with urban encounters with large predators.

The rescue of the visiting lion did take a village, and in Santa Cruz the stars seemed aligned for cooperation between the Santa Cruz Police Department and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as wildlife nonprofits like UCSC’s Puma Project and Wildlife Emergency Services, all who contributed immensely to a commendable show of teamwork that resulted in the lion, now known as #39M, roaming wild and free again.

#39M waking up after his rescue and wandering back into the wild (Photo Courtesy California Fish & Wildlife)

#39M waking up after his rescue and wandering back into the wild (Photo Courtesy California Fish & Wildlife)


To recognize these efforts, Larry Schweiger, National Wildlife Federation’s President, sent a commendation letter to both California Fish and Wildlife and the Santa Cruz Police. “Your departments set a gold-star example for how to manage a challenging situation while still valuing the importance of wildlife protection.”

Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel told me in an interview that the “mission of the day was to ensure the safety of the lion—as well as balancing this with the safety of people.” From the first report of the sighting, his officers were committed to a non-lethal solution for the animal. “One of the values of our community here is compassion and it spills over into the Police Department. This shows how we do business.”

One of the first reporters on the scene, Jason Hoppin from the Santa Cruz Sentinel (aka @scnewsdude), also commented on the attitude of law enforcement.  “I think the police are also to be commended for quickly removing killing the lion from the list of likely outcomes. That would have been the easy way out, though I’m sure it would have caused a pretty big outcry among residents as well.”

Santa Cruz Police, Puma Project and California Fish & Wildlife staff help load the drugged lion. Photo Courtesy Chief Kevin Vogel

Team Effort: Santa Cruz Police, Puma Project, Wildlife Emergency Services and California Fish & Wildlife staff help load the drugged lion. Photo Courtesy Chief Kevin Vogel

This commitment by local officials isn’t always the case, but a new policy issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in March offers guidance for non-lethal methods of intervention when a cougar enters a populated area. Senator Jerry Hill, along with supporting groups like the Felidae Conservation Fund and the Mountain Lion Foundation, hope to make the policy of nonlethal options when a lion poses no threat to public safety a law with the approval of SB132, which passed the state Senate last month.

“The recent mountain lion incident in downtown Santa Cruz was a timely opportunity for emerging public safety protocols to be tested and evaluated.  Overall the outcome was a success, however there are many details yet to consider and refine when we entertain the prospect of capturing and moving mountain lions, as every situation differs, and it is becoming more and more difficult for mountain lions to navigate around our communities and roadways. New DFW guidelines will be furthered by the passage of SB 132, which will authorize the DFW to partner with NGOs that can bring needed expertise, equipment and personnel to assist in public safety events,” said Zara McDonald, Felidae’s Executive Director

Public safety is an issue when dealing with encounters with mountain lions. Yet the automatic fear—and the killing of cats that simply appear on the urban landscape—is usually due to a lack of education, not maliciousness. If you’re not a carnivore biologist and accustomed to mountain lion behavior, then a hissing, snarling, 130 pound cat can easily lead to a state of panic.

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Paul Houghtaling of the UC Santa Cruz Puma Project holds the lion’s head upright while waiting to transport it for a medical examination (Photo Courtesy Dan Coyro/ Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Learning about normal lion behavior would help dispel some of the fright and help people realize that the majority of encounters with lions end without incident. As California Fish and Wildlife Lt. Kevin Joe observed: “Just because you find a mountain lion behaving normally, but in an unusual location, it doesn’t mean it’s a threat to public safety.”

Both public officials and non-profit groups believe that education holds the key to more success stories like the one in Santa Cruz, especially since not many incidents are going to possess the advantages this one did—the animal contained in an aqueduct, a wildlife-friendly police department, and a mountain lion research project located in the city.

“Every situation is unique, but it’s hard to imagine that everything would come together like this,” said Lt. Joe. Hoppin echoed this view, “If that lion had been trapped in another spot, or in another town that didn’t have local experts nearby, I can’t say that the outcome would have been the same.”

Researchers drew blood samples and fitted the lion with a GPS collar before release. Photo Courtesy Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Researchers drew blood samples and fitted the lion with a GPS collar before release. Photo Courtesy Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel

As part of research for my book, When Mountain Lions are Neighbors: Wildlife in Today’s California, I’ve been immersed in California cougar lore. I agree that education holds an important part in developing our relationship with the animal. It might surprise some to know that over fifty percent of California—the most populated state in the nation—is mountain lion territory. And as our population grows, encounters will inevitably increase.

Many in Santa Cruz seemed to appreciate this chance encounter with a wild animal and Hoppin reported that, “By and large, the public’s reaction was awe. People rushed to the scene, not away from it. There was no fear. None. But you also have to understand that this mountain lion basically jumped into a giant zoo exhibit. The aqueduct walls are about 18 feet high, topped by several more feet of chain-link fence, which is topped by barbed wire.  Once you secure either end of the aqueduct, he wasn’t going anywhere.”

In fact if anyone was frightened, it seemed to be the lion according to those on the scene. Hoppin sympathized with the animal, “He just looked like he wanted to back out of whatever situation he’d gotten himself into.” Chief Vogel agreed, “The cat looked scared to death.”

The lion after receiving one tranquilizer dart. Photo Courtesy Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel

The lion after receiving one tranquilizer dart. Photo Courtesy Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Californians possess a complicated relationship with mountain lions. In 1990 residents passed ballet measure Prop 117, which reclassified the lion as a “specially protected mammal,” and as a result banned sport hunting of lions in the Golden State. Despite this protection, our rapport with mountain lions in California remains an uneasy truce at best, and for every person expressing awe and wonderment at seeing the trademark flicker of a puma’s tail, there is a certain NIMBY quality to the ideal—mountains lions are fine to roam the countryside, except in my neighborhood.

More awareness and education, and positive stories like the Santa Cruz rescue may help people become more comfortable with the reality of living among mountain lions. This is Lt. Joe’s wish. “I hope this helps people understand and appreciate our wild heritage in California. With more people in the state, this means more sightings and hopefully most of them will be great sightings that inspire admiration.”

At the end of the day, I was relieved to be able to share with my followers the news of the happy ending. After tranquilizing the cat, the team examined the healthy 18 months-old male, fitted him with a GPS collar, transported him to an undisclosed location, and then released him back into the wild. For many involved in this rescue—as well as those watching from afar—this provided a rare and cherished encounter with wildness.

“I’ve been with the city twenty-six and half years,” said Chief Vogel,  “and this will definitely be one of the highlights of my career—the day the mountain lion came to Santa Cruz.”

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The tranquilized lion being examined before release (photo by Chief Kevin Vogel)