Outside magazine, October 1995
Nanse Browne pulls the parchment-colored skull of an adult male cougar from her briefcase and proceeds to hold forth on the recent spate of mountain lion attacks on humans in California. "I resent it being put on a pedestal," the 42-year-old artist says calmly but passionately. "We have a much more aggressive animal on our hands than we ever thought we had."
The skull-out-of-a-handbag trick couldn't seem more out of place here at the Chamisal Tennis and Fitness Center in Salinas, California. But it was just over the hills to the south that, 12 years ago, Browne was stalked by a mountain lion while out for a run. She wasn't hurt, and now she's doing the stalking. Toting the skull to town meetings and legislative hearings, Browne has become one of the leaders of an unlikely new force in California politics: people who've had run-ins with big cats. This month, the coalition of trail runners, mountain bikers, and worried suburbanites--the movement even includes a support group for attack victims, called California Lion Awareness (CLAW)--is poised for a big celebratory group hug. S.B. 28, a bill that would mandate a referendum on whether to eliminate the "protected" status of the mountain lion, rendering it fair game for hunters, is expected to clear the state legislature any day, and Governor Pete Wilson has hinted he'll sign it. If approved by the public, Browne argues, the legislation would help curb the number of mountain lions in the state and, in turn, reduce the number of man-versus-beast conflicts.
Of course, cougars and Californians have always had run-ins. But there hadn't been a fatal attack for 104 years until two highly publicized maulings in the last year and a half--those of a 40-year-old runner in the foothills near the town of Auburn and a 56-year-old birder in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, east of San Diego. All told, there have been seven attacks on humans in the last three years, including three involving children.
While two deaths hardly point to an epidemic, clearly they've proved to be hysteria-provoking. And that worries Mark Palmer, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, an outfit dedicated to keeping the cat on the state's protected list. "Obviously, mountain lions rarely attack humans," says Palmer, "but the idea of being stalked is scary to say the least. It can cause you to think irrationally."
Palmer and other opponents of S.B. 28 argue that California's state parks--where all of the recent attacks on humans occurred and among the places where hunting would be allowed under the bill--will actually be more dangerous for humans if hunters are allowed to traipse through them carrying high-power rifles. He adds that there is no evidence that hunting will reduce the number of attacks on humans.
But as S.B. 28 rolls on, the wave of hysteria seems to have buried an important question: Are there too many mountain lions out there? No one disputes that there are more than there were 20 years ago, and complicating matters, more people now live and play in mountain lion habitat. Nevertheless, Paul Beier, a wildlife biologist at Northern Arizona University who's perhaps the foremost expert on California's mountain lion population, thinks all the political maneuvering is a little knee-jerk, if not ridiculous. "I'm not convinced this recent increase in mountain lion attack activity is anything more than a blip," says Beier. "Two deaths, while tragic, isn't much to base a trend on--let alone a full-scale change of policy."