As trackers try to hunt down a mountain lion accused of threatening humans at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County, a clamor has arisen to save, not shoot, the errant animal.
Park rangers and state Department of Fish and Game officials have been inundated with calls from people urging that the cougar be captured and relocated rather than killed.
Fish and Game spokesman Bob Schlichting said trackers will capture the mountain lion if possible but will shoot it if it threatens them or if there is no other way to catch it. If it can be captured, a decision will be made later on whether it will be put to death or released.
“If this animal just disappeared into the desert (on its own), we would be happy,” Schlichting said. “Relocating an animal exhibiting this type of behavior is very difficult. More than likely, it will be killed. If you don’t do something about it and someone gets hurt, how do you live with that?”
Still, sentiments to leave the cat alone remain strong.
“This is the mountain lion’s home and we should respect that,” said Donna Killman, 40, of San Diego. “The mountain lion was only acting naturally, showing curiosity. Why should he be killed? How can they be sure they’ll get the right one?”
Killman and her husband, Bill, 50, who run a solar power company, are staying in a converted bus in a private parking lot just outside the park, which has been closed since the cougar was seen over the weekend.
“People are panicking,” Killman said. “If you kill an animal that hasn’t hurt anybody, then everybody loses.”
Rangers and Fish and Game officials insist that a mountain lion that stalks humans is probably diseased or immature and unable to hunt and thus likely to become even bolder. Mountain lions are known to run away when a human approaches.
“He is testing people, running up to them, seeing if they are going to fight back,” Schlichting said. “If a small child was by himself, the lion might try to attack him.”
Supervising Park Ranger Laura Itogawa said the public has to realize the true nature of the mountain lion. “They are not big cats,” she said. “They are big predators. They are at the top of the food chain.”
Trackers using horses and dogs have been scouring the forest nightly since Sunday looking for the nocturnal animal, which is accused of stalking and harassing, but not attacking, park visitors twice in three months.
The most recent incident was early Saturday evening when a mountain lion stalked and chased two visitors riding horses. That led park officials on Sunday to order the evacuation of 1,000 campers and day visitors.
If the park is reopened Sept. 18 without the lion being caught, there may be restrictions imposed on bringing children or animals to the 26,000-acre park 50 miles east of San Diego.
The park, which has 100 miles of horse trails and hiking trails in a wooded setting, is booked solid every weekend through Thanksgiving. Refunds are being offered.
As part of a rising concern about mountain lions, park rangers had established a system just days before Saturday’s incident to decide when a lion sighting is serious enough to warrant closing the park.
Times researcher Kate McCarthy assisted with this story.