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Mountain lion killed after stalking family on O.C. hiking trail

Wildlife officials fatally shot an aggressive mountain lion in the foothills of south Orange County after it "stalked" a mother and her children hiking along a trail in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

Authorities said the cougar was hiding in the brush near a grade school when they arrived and walked directly toward them, seemingly unafraid. The animal was shot and killed by a game warden.

There had been sightings in the area near Lake Forest in February and the wilderness park was the scene of a fatal mountain lion attack in 2004, when a mountain biker was mauled to death and a woman attacked and dragged into the brush.

Madison Smith, 35, of Mission Viejo said she heard rustling in the bushes as she hiked with her children on Sunday on the trail near Foothill Ranch Elementary School when the 1-year-old, 60-pound male lion suddenly pounced behind them, coming up within several yards of her 5-year-old son.

Another hiker, Joe Fleischaker, unsuccessfully attempted to scare away the mountain lion by yelling, putting his arms up and holding a branch.

Smith said when the cougar didn’t retreat, 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 kids 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 jumped onto the trail but was scared back into the bushes by a passing mountain biker, Smith said. A ranger called Smith and told her to make her way up the trail. By then a group of about 25 people had stopped to aid the family.

“With safety in numbers and the bravery of [Fleischaker], we were able to get out of there,” Smith said. “It was just terrifying, I won’t be hiking again.”

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 California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It was five 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.”

[For the Record 5:44 p.m. PST April. 1: An earlier version of this post said Fleischaker threw rocks and sticks at the lion. He did not, he yelled, put his arms up and held a branch.]

 

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adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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