An aggressive mountain lion that had lurked in the brushy hills of southern Orange County was shot and killed after it began stalking a mother and her two children after they set off on a day hike.
The woman, and a growing number of fellow hikers and passing mountain bikers, were unable to scare off the cougar, which at one point came within yards of her son.
Authorities said the cougar was hiding in the brush near a grade school when they arrived and then marched directly toward them, seemingly unafraid. The animal was shot and killed by a game warden.
The popular hiking trail, shaded by towering oaks and head-high brush, was the site of a fatal mauling in 2004, an incident that forced animal control officers to seal off the wilderness park. The wilderness park, which sits on the edge of suburban Lake Forest, was posted with warning signs again in February, when a cougar was spotted along the trail.
Madison Smith, 35, of Mission Viejo said she heard rustling in the bushes as she hiked with her two children Sunday along a stretch of trail near Foothill Ranch Elementary School.
She said the animal, described later by game officials as a 1-year-old, 60-pound male lion, suddenly pounced behind them, racing up within several yards of her 5-year-old son.
Another hiker, Joe Fleischaker, said he unsuccessfully attempted to scare away the mountain lion by yelling, putting his arms up and holding a branch. Rangers tell visitors who encounter cougars to hold their ground, stretch out their arms to appear big, yell or wave their arms.
But when the cougar didn't retreat, Smith said, she told her son Jackson to come toward her.
"As soon as Jackson moves back to me, the lion moved into a crouching position, bares its teeth and is ready to pounce on him," Smith said.
Smith called 911 about 3:30 p.m. and was told a ranger would call them back. With her children in tow, Smith started to sprint up the trail, but Fleischaker yelled at them to stop because the lion had jumped around him and leaped into the bushes.
"I did everything wrong," said Smith, who said the 911 operator failed to offer any advice on what she should do.
Again the lion leaped onto the trail. By then Fleischaker was standing between Smith and her two children.
"It wasn't running away. The cat was just standing there looking at me and we kind of just held our ground," Fleischaker said. "The whole thing was really surreal, to say the least."
A group of passing mountain bikers stopped and were able to scare the lion back into the bushes, Fleischaker said.
A ranger called Smith and told her to make her way up the trail. By then about 25 people had stopped to aid the family, Smith said.
Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff's Department and a California Department of Fish and Wildlife game warden arrived and located the animal hiding behind some bushes.
The lion walked right up to them, said Andrew Hughan, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It was 5 feet away and showed no signs of fear, so the warden killed it," Hughan said.
The mountain lion's body was taken to a lab in San Bernardino for a necropsy.
"This is actually pretty typical behavior in the late afternoon, early morning," Hughan said. "It's hunting for prey, and unfortunately a family happened to be walking by at the wrong place and at the wrong time."