Standing Up for Mountain Lions

A mountain lion in a Sea View Estates backyard

Although she’s never seen a mountain lion in the wild, Lynn Cullens has devoted her adult life trying to save them. Presenting her program “Living With Lions in Malibu” last Friday evening at the Malibu Playhouse, Cullens asked the 50 or so in attendance how many have seen a mountain lion in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and many hands shot up. With recent reported sightings, including late September in the Sea View Estates neighborhood, the curious came to hear Cullens speak about the big cats she’s studied and advocated for over the past three decades.

As the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, Cullens explained she once was the person sent out when there was a public safety problem in an area. 

“The joke around the office was, I would fix the problem because as soon as I arrived into town all the mountain lions would take off,” she said, but now, “It’s getting tougher and tougher to be a mountain lion.” 

Now, human population and widespread development are taking over mountain lion territory. In Southern California that’s especially true, as Cullens explained the mountain lions once lived not only in the hills, but in the valleys, where their prey, deer, lived. In addition, since the 1970s, there has been much more human recreation in the wilderness. 

Development and freeways are confining the lion population that needs genetic diversity to survive. A soon-to-be-built wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon over the Ventura (101) Freeway is expected to facilitate new lions coming to the Santa Monica Mountains to avoid inbreeding. 

“Those mountain lions are being born with crossed eyes and kinked tails,” according to Cullens, who added, “They really need your help.” Many animals that make it across the freeways get hit by cars—one of the leading causes of their deaths.

Another major cause of their mortality is rodenticide. Many big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains are full of poisons that make their way up the food chain resulting in sicknesses and deaths of all types of wildlife. Depredation permits given by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are another cause. A permit to kill a lion is given to someone who has lost livestock or a pet. Two years ago, in a highly publicized case in Ventura County, a woman was issued a depredation permit after some llamas on her property were killed. That permit was never used because the Mountain Lion Foundation stepped in to help secure the livestock in a lion-proof enclosure.

“Mountain lions are taken for chickens and chickens are easy to protect,” Cullens said. She reminded those gathered that mountain lions are vulnerable, too. When a mother lion is killed her orphaned kittens will also likely die. 

While there is some public pressure not to kill big cats, Cullens reported 3,000 big cats are killed each year in trophy hunts throughout the western United States. 

“The next time you worry about lions killed in Africa, I’d like you to think about that—because in the whole continent of Africa, they kill 500 lions a year,” the executive director said. California and Florida are the only states where are there breeding populations but hunting is illegal— although poaching occurs often.

As far as mountain lions endangering humans, Cullens explained the chances are small. 

“You have more chance being bitten, injured or die from a domestic dog in your own neighborhood,” she described. “You’re 100 times more likely to die of a vending machine falling on you than being attacked by a mountain lion—not dying, just attacked. So, avoid going for the next soda.” 

If you do encounter a mountain lion, expert advice is to try to make yourself look big, wave your arms, yell, back up or throw something. If you’re on a mountain bike don’t ride off. Mountain lions sense movement and may give chase. Cullens suggested dismounting using the bike as a shield.

On October 27, to celebrate P22 Day (honoring the only known big cat to have crossed both the 101 and 405 freeways) in Griffith Park, Cullens’ organization will help people fill cans with pennies that can be used as noisemakers to scare mountain lions away.

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