Park rangers chased and killed a mountain lion Saturday at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County moments after the big cat boldly invaded a busy campground and attacked a 10-year-old girl.
The shooting occurred as the park reopened for its first full day since the Labor Day weekend, when a mountain lion scare forced its closure.
For two weeks, trackers had unsuccessfully tried to find a mountain lion that had menaced visitors in the 26,000-acre park, about 50 miles east of San Diego. The animal killed Saturday fits the description and abnormal behavior pattern of that lion, which had been seen twice earlier this summer.
Lisa Kowalski, a fifth-grader from Chula Vista, was playing catch with her father and brother at their campsite around noon Saturday when a 60-pound mountain lion approached her.
"Daddy yelled for me to stand still and then I looked around and saw the mountain lion and I screamed," she said. "The mountain lion sniffed me and then bit me real hard. I screamed again and it let me go."
Park Rangers Earl Jones and Laura Itogawa responded immediately and chased the lion in their four-wheel-drive trucks and on foot. Finding the predator in the thick forest about 120 yards from the Kowalskis' camp, Jones fired his shotgun twice and Itogawa fired hers once.
Both longtime veterans of the state Park Service found the experience emotionally wrenching.
"This is part of the job I hate," Itogawa, the park's supervising ranger, said while she still had her weapon aimed at the mountain lion. Tears fell on her cheeks.
"This goes against everything I believe," said Jones, his eyes glistening.
Both had shot and killed injured deer before but neither had ever shot a mountain lion. Itogawa and Jones embraced each other for support.
Lisa Kowalski suffered a bloody scratch on her buttocks and was taken to a hospital for a tetanus shot. Henry, the family dog, was also attacked and was bloody from neck wounds.
Ranger Shane Coles, who arrived shortly after the shooting, said the cat, a full-length female, was grossly underweight, probably a sign that it was diseased and unable to hunt and thus forced to stalk easy prey such as people. Mountain lions are nocturnal creatures and usually hide at the sight of humans.
"We never wanted this to happen," she said of the shooting. "We didn't have any choice."
The area where the cat was shot is in a direct line between the sites of the two previous incidents, further strengthening the belief that it is the same animal that had forced closure of the park for the first time in its 60-year history.
After the German shepherd-sized cat lunged at his daughter, Bob Kowalski yelled for his wife, Kathy, to untie their dog, a 4-year-old mixed Labrador and terrier, in hopes the dog would divert the cat.
The mountain lion attacked the dog. The two snarled and snapped at each other for several minutes before the cat stalked off and hunched down about 20 feet away.
The Kowalskis--Bob, Kathy, Lisa, 8-year-old Brian and 8-month-old Michael--dashed to their van, along with their dog. Bob Kowalski, a quality assurance worker, turned his video camera on the cat.
"The cat was just watching, like it was waiting for us to get out of the van so it could attack again," Kathy Kowalski, 37, said.
After about 10 minutes, Kathy Kowalski slipped out of the van and made her way carefully to a nearby camp and asked for a ride to the ranger's station to report the attack.
Rangers had spent the morning investigating other mountain lion sightings. The park had reopened at noon Friday, although hiking and horse trails were still off limits.
Before confronting the Kowalski family, the mountain lion had walked past about 60 campers from the Torrey Pines Ski Club, who were about a quarter-mile away in the Paso Picacho campground.
Some campers barked like dogs, others jumped on picnic tables and some froze in fright as the lion walked through. As she was talking to the ski club campers, Itogawa received word of the attack on the Kowalskis.
As she sped off, Itogawa reached the park superintendent on her cellular phone and received permission to kill the lion.
Jones, leaving his truck and walking into the forest, reached the animal first and fired his shotgun from about 30 yards. All three shots apparently struck the animal.
The decision to close the park on the Labor Day weekend was criticized by animal rights activists, people with businesses near the park and callers to talk radio shows as an overreaction. But rangers had feared that the lion might get more desperate and attack a child, and thus took Saturday's incident as a vindication of the closure decision.
"This is what we were worried about," Itogawa said.