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Visitors Wary, Not Worried, at Park Where Lion Attacked

Times Staff Writer

It seemed like everything was back to normal at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park just five weeks after a young girl was attacked by a mountain lion on one of the park’s hiking trails.

But the signs and leaflets that greeted visitors to the park’s open house Sunday reminded them that the word “wilderness” in the park’s title was not to be forgotten.

County authorities, who reopened the park April 15, erected paper signs last week, warning visitors of mountain lions as well as other wild animals like rattlesnakes. Rangers also passed out leaflets with similar warnings.

Senior Park Ranger Bruce Buchman said he did not expect news of the attack to keep people from coming to the park for the open house, which had been scheduled before the attack.

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And indeed it did not. More than 1,200 drove through the gates of the 7,500-acre county park on Sunday, more than double the 500 who attended the park’s last open house in 1984.

Many of the people who visited on the warm, breezy afternoon came in family groups with small children. Ted Evans of Laguna Hills, who was sitting shirtless at a picnic table with his wife, Jody, and their two daughters, said he was aware of the March 23 attack on 5-year-old Laura Michele Small, but was not scared for his children.

“It’s a real rarity for something like that to happen around here,” he said. “I think the people who drive on the roads up here are more dangerous,” he said, referring to the frequency of accidents on Ortega Highway, the winding state road that leads to the park, located in rugged terrain east of San Juan Capistrano.

Still, Evans said he warned his children not to wander away.

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Other parents had similar feelings. Dale and Chris Tatum of San Clemente joked that they were going to glue their children to themselves, but they did bring their two sons, ages 5 and 7, to the park. “It’s the first time anything like that’s happened,” Dale Tatum said of the attack on the Small child. He also said, though, that he would not be taking his children on one of the nature hikes led by rangers as part of the open-house festivities.

Senior Ranger Buchman said the park’s staff did not get special instructions regarding visitors’ concerns about the attack, and many rangers said no one had even inquired about mountain lions in the park. “I haven’t even been asked about (the attack),” said Ranger Mike Brajdic.

Donald Small of El Toro, the victim’s father, expressed wariness Sunday about the park’s reopening. “I’m bothered by the fact that (the park’s administrators) are not warning the people adequately,” he said. Although some officials have characterized the lion, which was later killed by hunters and examined by veterinarians, as a “rogue” that may have been hungry or ill, Small disagreed.

The lion was “a normal, healthy 2-year-old lion with no signs of disease of any kind,” he said. Although the attack on his daughter was the first known attack of its kind in California, Small said that there recently had been five attacks on children by mountain lions in the United States and Canada.

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Laura Michele, who underwent an operation to save her right eye Friday night at Mission Community Hospital in Mission Viejo, has a 25% to 50% chance that her eye will be saved, her father said. It was her fourth operation for head injuries since the attack.


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