Children will be allowed unlimited use of Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, where a mountain lion mauled a 5-year-old girl nearly 12 years ago, county supervisors decided Tuesday.
The park was closed to minors in 1992 after the family of Laura Small won a $2.1-million judgment, later reduced to $1.5 million, in their lawsuit against the county for a mountain lion attack. In March 1986, Laura had been kneeling beside a creek looking for tadpoles when a mountain lion jumped from the bushes, grabbed her by the head and dragged her for several hundred feet before her mother and a passerby rescued her. She suffered head and neck injuries and required plastic surgery.
A few months later, a second child, Justin Mellon, was attacked by a lion at the park and suffered bite wounds. Both children eventually recovered.
In 1995, minors were allowed back into the park with restrictions. Children up to age 18 weren’t allowed on trails except under direct supervision, and adults had to sign a form acknowledging the dangers of the wilderness area.
Recently, the Caspers Wilderness Park Volunteers Assn. and environmental groups asked the county to open the park completely. Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, whose district includes Caspers, the largest of the county’s 10 wilderness parks, supported the move.
“All wilderness areas demand visitors’ respect and caution,” Wilson said.
The county Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to reopen the park entirely, with Supervisors Charles V. Smith and Todd Spitzer dissenting. Smith said he couldn’t support allowing children to run unsupervised on trails where lion attacks had occurred.
John Sibley, director of public facilities, said mountain lions roam all of the county’s wild parks, which stretch over 30,000 acres. There actually are more confirmed sightings of lions at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, he said, where there are no restrictions on use.
The county will continue to post signs warning of dangers and advising parents to supervise their children.
No warning signs were posted when Laura Small was attacked, despite several reported sightings of mountain lions in the area.
Susan Small said Tuesday that the issue of supervision was moot in the attack on her daughter. She was standing just a few feet away when the child was snatched “in a quarter of a second.”
“The lion came from behind both of us,” Small said from her Mission Viejo home. “There’s absolutely nothing I could have done to prevent it. I know that’s hard for people to accept.”
She said the point of the family’s lawsuit was to make sure that park visitors “got the same information” as county officials about lion sightings and other wild animal activity. That should continue even with the park open again to children.
Laura, now 16, recently wrote a school paper about the attack and has said “it seems like it happened to a different person,” her mother said. The family never returned to the park.