The Sign of the Cat

Last January, my community on a hilltop became internationally famous after an ignorant trail biker presented himself as the main course for a mountain lion. Immediately following the attack, a pair of born-agains came down the trail and were attacked by the same beast. The survivors went from church to church afterwards, drumming up the name of Saddleback Church in their testimonies about the attack. Their faith community had saved them instead of the biker, they implied, because they had gone to that church and met each other there.

Thank you, Jesus, put your money in the plate so we can save more people from wild beasts and liberals.

Other than this brief steambath of free publicity for the local church-which-doesn’t-follow-Matthew-6-very-closely, the attacks had little effect on matters in my neighborhood. The number of trail bikers diminished for a few months. Then they returned. Housing prices continued to rise in adjacent Portola Hills. No one called for the hunting of lions: the visits of a mother lion and her cub to the large property held by Saddleback Church have been treated with at worst, disinterest by local residents.

“It’s their country, too,” said the wife of a night watchman at Saddleback Church who met the she-puma face to face and lived to tell about it. That’s the attitude up here on the hilltop, too. Most parents don’t let their children go down into Whiting Ranch, though one Whiting volunteer told me of seeing a couple pushing a double-stroller around the loop, through meadows and woods infested by deer and rabbits, the mountain lions’ principal prey. Either of those tots would have made a tasty meal for the two cats now roaming the territory.

Photo by Joel Sax, Copyright 2004I have seen tracks in the mud near the waterfall in my condominium complex. You can tell that they don’t belong to dogs or coyotes because they lack the toe-claw marks that canine imprints display so prominently. They often appear on the dirt road just beneath the rim of Concourse Park. Few residents have seen the cats. I am one of the few who has. Pumas do not like the company of humans. When they do walk among us, it is under cover of darkness. A few are caught on camera or by night watchmen. The hikers and bikers who frequent Whiting’s steep slopes and deep arroyos seldom report the beast. Volunteers and rangers who have worked the park for many years know the track, but not the sight and the scent of the cougar.

Every time I enter Whiting, however, I feel the risk. I know that I would not make myself an opportunity. It’s the bikers and the hikers who have not familiarized themselves with the ways of the mountain lion who worry me. The guy who was killed last January made himself attractive to the cat by stooping to fix his bicycle. The woman who the cat mauled subsequent to this slaughter blundered into the area. It is these with whom I identify. If I had decided to go for a walk that afternoon, if I had chosen the Cactus Trail, that might have been me on national television talking about fighting off the predator. If it hadn’t killed me outright.

Nevertheless, I still hoof about the trails of Whiting. It remains one of the best places in the county for easy access to the chaparral. When I go there, I watch the trail and the bushes for signs. Often at the junction of Whiting Road and the Serrano Cow Trail, I see deer. Sleepy Hollow is another fine place, one that is especially attractive to me because it is bike-free.

Most of the hikers I know do not strike me as future mountain lion meals simply because they know the land intimately. If or when there is another attack, it will not surprise me if it is a trail biker. In their chase for the thrill of plummetting down the Sage Scrub and rocketing along the Serrano Cow Trail, they remain unaware of the dangers around them. When they stop, they do not take the time to investigate their surroundings. They don’t know the land as anything but a ride of grooves and bumps.

Today, when I re-entered Whiting for the first time since being grounded by my cardiologist, I saw puma tracks on the Line Shack Trail. They led down the hill, through the intersection with the Serrano Cow Trail, and up the Whiting Road. I followed them as far as I could, noting when they crossed the tracks of the deer, photographing them when they were most clear. As I stood viewing one specimen, a trail biker zoomed by. “How’s it going?” he shouted without waiting for an answer. “There’s a mountain lion track here,” I said. But by the time I said it, he was gone.

That’s the attitude which may get him or another like him killed some day. You can’t afford not to take time to know the sign of the cat.

1 Comment so far

  1. Meridian (unregistered) on August 17th, 2005 @ 7:02 am


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