Promptly at 7:30 a.m. Monday, groundskeeper Donna Krucki walked through the morning sun and, for the first time in three weeks, opened the main gates to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.
Then she walked back to the little entry booth, raised the American flag and began waiting for the first visitors to the park, just east of San Juan Capistrano.
"Mondays are always slow anyway," Krucki said an hour later when no cars or camper rigs had turned in from the Ortega Highway.
This Monday was no exception, although the park had attracted nationwide attention and had been closed to all visitors since March 23 when a mountain lion pounced on and severely mauled a 5-year-old El Toro girl.
Some wildlife authorities say it was the first fully documented attack on a human by one of the big cats in California. A lion believed to have been the one that attacked the girl was shot and killed the next day.
Another hour went by Monday before Krucki admitted the first visitors, a group of five residents of Laguna Hills Leisure World, led by 84-year-old Victor J. Van Lint.
They parked and began hiking along a trail in Bell Canyon not far from where Laura Michele Small was dragged into the bushes and bitten about the head.
But the group, including Ann Gahiner, Ellen Rose Miller, Herb Thelan and Robert W. Knickrehm, showed little concern.
"I've been leading hiking parties here and in other parks for more than three years," Van Lint, a retired mining engineer, said. "I've seen lots of mountain lion tracks but never a lion. We just don't think there's any danger."
By midafternoon, one overnight camper and four more day hikers had checked in. It was Krucki's idea of a perfectly normal Monday.
"They were most all regulars, people that come here often," she said.
One of the hikers, C. Lewis Houston of Anaheim, said the fact that there had been a mountain lion incident "had nothing to do" with his being there.
"Sure, I had heard about it, but I figure it was a fluke and not likely to happen again," he said. "I didn't come here to look for lions, just to enjoy the wilderness."
During the weeks that followed the attack on Laura, park rangers scoured the canyons and creek beds, according to Tony Gimbrone, district supervisor for the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department.
"We found tracks of at least one other cat--you'll always find tracks--but made no actual sighting of one," he said. "A sighting is the important thing, because if they don't want to be seen, you won't see them, so if one does let you see him, it could mean trouble."
In the event of a sighting, Gimbrone said, the state Department of Fish and Game and the county Animal Control office would be notified immediately. Whatever action they would take would be governed by circumstances, he said.
State and county officials decided last week to reopen Caspers Park, concluding that the attack on the girl was made by a "rogue" cat, that the discovery of new tracks of other lions "was a natural event in such a wilderness environment" and that Caspers was no more dangerous than any other park in a similar environment.
It also was decided to issue new information sheets to visitors beginning Monday, advising them that they are "entering a wilderness sanctuary that is characterized by native vegetation, rugged terrain and wild animals," and that these features should be treated "with caution and respect," while minor children should be under adult supervision at all times.
Gimbrone said metal signs with similar wording will be put up in about two weeks at Caspers, O'Neill, Arroyo Trabuco and Wagon Wheel regional parks, all of which are in wilderness areas of the county.
At Mission Community Hospital in Mission Viejo, where Laura has been under treatment since the mountain lion grabbed her by the head as she hiked along Bell Canyon Creek with her parents, the child was said to be showing steady improvement. A nursing supervisor said Monday that she continues to regain movement on her right side, where partial paralysis apparently was caused by puncture wounds in her skull. There was no word on when she might be released from the hospital.