Circle of Life — Cougar Women Dealing With Actual Cougars.

28 11 2016
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Puma Project traps many of their mountain lions by baiting traps with road kill. #79 was lured with skunk meat.

Our second night in Connecticut (visiting my father for Thanksgiving), the kids and I had just returned from the hotel pool and were getting ready to turn in for the night. I got a call from Danae. She was in tears. We weren’t able to get a house sitter (at a reasonable rate) for the trip, so she stayed home to care for the animals. She had just gone up to milk the goats, she said. She could barely get the words out.

“What is it” I insisted.

“It’s Om Shanti,” she said,  “she’s dead.”

Om Shanti is one of our most beloved goats, and one of our oldest. Om Shanti was a dream to milk. Not only did she have big, easily graspable teats, she had this wise and calm demeanor, an intelligence, that made it impossible not to connect with her.

Several years back, she was pregnant with twins and the first baby got stuck in the birth canal. I worked on her for three hours trying to free the baby until Om Shanti, exhausted, gave up and the baby began to turn blue and non-responsive. All that I could free of him was his snout. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth and off to the side. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t make it. I called Danae and told her to get someone to cover her class and to rush home with the mini-van. We dragged this gravid goat on a picnic blanket across our back yard to the van, then realized we didn’t have the strength to lift her in. It was the first moment Gwen realized that she was the same size as we were and could offer assistance.

“I can help,” she said. And she did.

The three of us picked up corners of the blanket and lifted her in. I had called ahead to the vet’s office and they had a team waiting. I told Gwen to get in the back of the van and to not stop slapping the baby goat’s face until they arrived at the vet. He needed the adrenaline to survive.

In the end we were able to save Adobe, his twin, a girl we named Sukhi and Om Shanti — even if it meant bottle feeding Adobe (who could not swallow on his own due to swelling in his throat) and having the three goats live in our laundry room for a week or two. Ever since, Om Shanti had a certain regard for me. She knew that I had tried my best to help her. I had earned her trust and respect, something I could always see in her eyes.

I couldn’t believe she was gone.

“What happened,” I asked Danae.

“I think it was a mountain lion,” she said. “There are two puncture wounds on her neck and there’s a lot of fur on the roof of the goat run. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

I could tell Danae was feeling responsible. She knew there were weak spots on the wire fence roof of the run, but we had read that cougars don’t like roofs, and they really don’t like unsteady ones. They also hate enclosures of any kind. In theory, a cougar would never intentionally enter a cage if it was healthy and well fed. The only thing I could think of was that the cougar jumped on the roof of the milking shed, then tested the weight of the wire roof and actually fell in.

“What do I do? I’m really freaked out,” she continued. “I dragged her to the compost pile, but I don’t feel safe up here milking.”

“No, definitely,” I said, “get back to the house. That cougar is still around because it will want to return to its kill. Call the Puma Project, they’ll come and, if this animal isn’t already collared, they’ll trap it and collar it. But, at the very least, they might be able to confirm that this was, in fact, a cougar kill.”

There are two organizations that track pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond, the Bay Area Puma Project and the Santa Cruz Puma Project. The Santa Cruz Puma Project is an organization out of UC Santa Cruz that traps and collars mountain lions in order to study their behavior. I have been obsessed with mountain lions for at least a couple of decades. It’s a fear/fascination thing (I have the same relationship with sharks). I used to log onto the Puma Tracker even before we moved to the mountains. I had remembered reading that if a lion is hanging around your property or has made a kill on your property, you can call them and they will come with either dogs (to tree the lion so they can tranquilize it) or a trap that they will bait (often with the exact kill from your property or with fresh road kill), and which they monitor remotely.

Danae called the Santa Cruz Puma Project and they agreed to come the following day to set the trap and that they would camp out in their truck and wait for the alarm to sound on their receiver, indicating the trap has been engaged.

The morning following the kill, I asked Danae if she would drive up the hill in the Polaris to check on the goats and whether the shoring up of the run she had done the night before had been effective. She called me immediately after descending the hill.

“Om Shanti is gone!”

Not only had the cougar returned, but it had rammed the fencing in several places to try and get to the other goats. Humans are not the only animal to kill for sport. One attack on record has a single mountain lion killing 132 sheep in a single night. When the cougar failed to re-enter our run, it found Om Shanti’s carcass and dragged it away.

That afternoon, when Danae returned home from school, she saw truck tracks going up the logging road, the researchers had been there. They found Om Shanti’s carcass about seventy feet up the logging road past the goat run. They set a trap where they found her and told Danae they would sit in their truck on our road that night and would call her if they trapped the animal.

The first time the alarm went off, they caught a fox. One researcher was ecstatic. He had never seen a live fox. This was huge for him. When I heard this story I couldn’t help but cock my head. Dude, you trap cougars for a living! Our house is surrounded by foxes. We hear their gekkering in the night and our property is dotted with fox poop.

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Researchers (yes, chicks!) work on the puma. As intimidating as #79 is while awake, during his time under sedation, Danae said he looked like a hot sleepy puppy that she wanted to cuddle with.

Then, at 12:50 a.m., Danae got the call. They had the cougar. Danae got out of bed (not that she was sleeping), put on her boots, grabbed some coffee and hiked up the to the hilltop where two trucks were parked. There were five researchers total (one being a volunteer photographer). Three of the researchers were up with the cougar, while the other two asked Danae to wait with them until they were sure the animal was subdued. One researcher filled a syringe with drugs, then went up the logging road to tranquilize the animal. The needle had a sheath around it to help prevent it from bending, as a cougar’s skin is so thick. People who have reported trying to fight off mountain lions with knives have also reported that stabbing at the animal only served to bend the blade.  They poked at the caged animal from the front with a sort of pole to get the animal to back up toward the rear of the cage, making it easier to get the needle in his rump. The first needle bent straight away. The researcher walked back to the truck on the hilltop, filled a new syringe, and repeated the process — including the bent needle fail. The third time ended up being a charm. The animal was out and Danae was permitted to walk up the road with the researchers. As they tried to drag the groggy animal out of the cage, it kept using its claws to grab at the wire of the cage, preventing them from getting him fully out. Danae said that, even after they got him out and onto a tarp, he was still moving his paws as if he was grasping at something, suggesting that he had some awareness, even in his drugged state, that he needed to defend himself.

The tarp they put him on was then used to cradle him as they held him up and took his weight, 125 pounds. For two hours the researchers took blood samples, a fur sample, a whisker sample, measured him — stature, teeth, etc., all the while he pawed at the ground in his sleep, as though gathering forest duff to cover his kill. He was a five year old male, 53 inches from nose to rump (add another 31 inches for tail). His canines, used to puncture Om Shanti’s throat and to close her airway to suffocate her, were a little over an inch in length.

The animal was healthy and well fed. The researchers couldn’t understand why he would have risked entering our goat enclosure. They corroborated my theory that he must have fallen in by accident. He was definitely stalking the goats, but falling in was a lucky accident. Or was it?

Danae and I were in agreement that our big male goat, Adobe (the one who almost died when he was stuck in Om Shanti’s birth canal) had attacked the cougar with his massive horns and scared it out of the hole it fell in from. Danae later discovered that another goat, Rainbow, also had puncture wounds to the neck, but survived. Adobe may very well have saved her life, even if he couldn’t save that of his mother.

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Danae, coffee in hand, joins the researchers on the top of the hill before they sedate #79.

The researchers hung around long enough to see that the cougar was rousing from the drugs. They told Danae that cougars who have been trapped and collared tend not to return to where they were captured because they associate the place with trauma. We can only hope. He would be around for another day or two until the drugs totally wore off, then he would likely be on his way to find a new territory.

Male cougars tend to have 100 square mile territories. In populated ares, it becomes increasingly more difficult for young males to establish themselves. This is one reason you might begin to see groups of young males hunting in packs, not expected behavior for these typically solitary animals. It is also why you find the young males walking the roads of our communities in search of easy prey — house cats and unattended small dogs.

In Santa Cruz County, you can get a nuisance permit to hunt an animal that returns repeatedly to kill livestock, but it is only good for 48 hours to prevent people from pulling such permits just for trophy hunting. I have no interest in hunting, and I recognize that these animals are part of a complex, healthy ecosystem. Still, I won’t lie, the thought did occur to me, what do we do if this guy is persistent? Back in East Palo Alto, the biggest threat to our goats were our Latino neighbors who were constantly offering to buy an animal to throw on the bar-b-q. This was so vastly different. What if he does come back? What if he poses a threat to not only our livestock, but to our pets, our children, ourselves? We do have a large can of bear spray and several air horns that we have stashed in various places on the property.

Danae and I sit in our hot tub each night and enjoy the peace beneath the trees. Sometimes, when the jets go off, we take in the silence. Frantic scurrying in the duff, while startling, is usually just a forest rat. Clumsy crunching on the forest floor (usually coming from way up on the hillside) is a deer. One soft footfall, then silence, is “get out of the hot tub now and go into the house”. We’ll get out, make our bodies tall, talk loudly as we put the cover back on the spa then go inside. We know we’ve been stalked, maybe once every two weeks we get spooked and go inside. But we’ve never had confirmation. This isn’t a game of Marco Polo. I may call out in a firm voice to the animal, “I know you’re there,” but it’s not like the puma calls back, “OK, you got me. I’m outta here.”

Before the kids and I left for Connecticut, one of our dogs, Olivia, was going crazy out in the dog run. There was something up on the hillside. In retrospect, it was likely our big cat stalking our dogs. I know of two instances where a mountain lion has walked right through a pet door. Bullshit they don’t like roofs. Bullshit they won’t go in enclosures. You have to be aware and vigilant, but not afraid.

Our cougar will be known as #79M.

I felt it was important to turn a personal tragedy into something positive. Om Shanti’s death will at least contribute to research which not only tells us something about Mountain Lions, but also about our entire ecosystem here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Researchers have recently discovered that local cougars have alarmingly high levels of mercury in their systems — something they believe is due to the mercury content of the fog that lingers here. The fog is absorbed by creatures at the bottom of the food chain and works its way up to the top.

The juxtaposition between what Danae and I were coping with on either coast of the country was so vastly different and, were I not dealing with the state of my father’s health, the loss of Om Shanti would have felt far more grave and important. Instead it became prioritized, as it should have been, as just something that needed to be dealt with.

The reality of the situation is that, while we live in cougar habitat, it does not make us more susceptible to attack. There are no known cougar attacks on humans in Santa Cruz County and, while we live in an area where more pumas are present, we also live in an area that has an abundance of naturally occurring prey for these animals. They have neither the need, nor the desire, to encounter us.

In 2014 a cougar was captured in a parking garage in downtown Mountain View. Talk about the least likely place you’d expect to encounter this top-of-the food chain predator. We cannot live our lives as though a puma might be around every Prius in a heavily populated city center, nor can we spend our lives looking up at the horizontal boughs of the madrone tree with a fear and expectation that our well-fed middle-aged bellies might be on tonight’s menu.

On the plane I was nervous about coming home. Would my feelings toward Faeriewood Hill change after the cougar attack? Or would my understanding of the place deepen and sharpen?

We arrived at the house in the dark. Holding my little boy’s hand, I took a flashlight up the stairs of the deck to the front door. My dogs greeted me, soft bluegrass music was playing on Pandora through the soundbar beneath the TV. The house was warm — embers of a fire recently gone out glowing through the window of the wood stove. This was home. The relief I was feeling after a very difficult trip back east was overwhelming. My resolve strengthened and my connection to our little haven felt stronger than ever. Yes, a cougar was on the prowl, and yet, stepping through that door, I felt a safety and a belonging like I had never experienced at any other point in my life. This was Faeriewood Hill. We were Faeriewood Hill. And, yes, even #79M is a part of Faeriewood Hill and of us.

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