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Cougars Not Seen as Threat Before Attack : Trial: State biologist in Laura Small suit testifies that mountain lions are shy and have an aversion to humans and were not considered a menace before mauling the girl.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two state wildlife biologists testified Wednesday that mountain lions in California were not considered a threat to humans until Laura Small was mauled by a cougar at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.

Terry M. Mansfield, an assistant chief for the state Department of Fish and Game’s wildlife management division, said that before the March 23, 1986, attack, authorities believed that mountain lions were “shy, secretive, seldom seen and had a healthy aversion to humans.”

Paul Beier, a University of California wildlife biologist, who is currently studying cougars in Orange County, agreed with Mansfield’s description, adding that mountain lion attacks “are extremely rare events.”

Both men testified that many experts still believe that cougars tend to avoid humans but realize now that attacks do occur. Before 1986, the only reported attack by a cougar in California occurred in 1909.

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Laura was attacked by a mountain lion while looking for tadpoles in a stream with her mother. The 10-year-old El Toro girl was partially paralyzed and blinded in one eye by the cat.

The Small family is suing Orange County, contending that officials were negligent because they knew that mountain lions posed a danger in the park but failed to notify the public.

Both biologists testified that the attack on Laura could not have been predicted by county officials and that many experts even now believe that cougars naturally try to avoid people.

Beier said a study he conducted confirmed only 53 such attacks in the United States and Canada over the past 100 years. He said the likelihood of being killed by a black widow spider, rattlesnake, dog or lightning is greater than being attacked by a mountain lion.

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Defense attorney Barry Allen has maintained since the trial began three weeks ago that the county could not “be held responsible for the acts of a wild mountain lion.”

In addition, Allen disputes the claim that county officials were aware of the threat of mountain lions to humans. The biologists’ testimony on Wednesday was presented to bolster the defense’s argument and rebut the statements of two county rangers and a state wildlife biologist who said there was a definite concern about several “unusual” cougar sightings at the park before the attack.

The county rangers testified that at least twice, a cougar had appeared to threaten hikers in the park. One ranger, Darrell Bennett, said he discussed the sightings with a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, who advised him to warn the public.

After learning of the biologist’s recommendation and seeing a cougar himself, the senior park ranger, Bruce Buchman, said he discussed the possibility of posting warning signs at the park with his supervisor. But Laura was attacked before anything had been done.

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Buchman also testified that county and state officials scheduled a meeting to discuss what should be done about mountain lions in the park, but it never took place because Laura was attacked a few days later.

On Wednesday, the two state biologists disagreed with the earlier characterizations of the cougar sightings. They said the cougars might have been “curious” and “inquisitive” rather than threatening.

Also, Mansfield and Beier said that reports of cougar sightings are erroneous about half the time. Beier recalled one incident in which six witnesses were convinced that a mountain lion was in a field of grass, but it turned out to be only “a large, yellow house cat.”

Under cross-examination, Beier admitted that the sightings as described by the rangers appeared to have been valid. He also said that in the past 20 years, attacks by cougars in the United States and Canada have increased and most of the victims were children.

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Out of the courtroom, Beier said that he felt it would have been “appropriate” to warn the public about the previous mountain lion sightings but that he did not think that it was the county’s “obligation” nor was it responsible for the attack.

He said that if the county is held liable for the acts of a wild animal, it would probably have a chilling effect on the county park system.

“There would be no incentive to operate a county park,” he said. “It’s a terrible can of worms that would be opened.”


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