A Mountain Lion Far From Home

Times Staff Writers

A mountain lion has taken up residence in Griffith Park, one of the nation's biggest and busiest urban parks eight miles from downtown Los Angeles, park officials said Wednesday, prompting them to begin posting signs that warn visitors of dangerous animals living in the area.

After receiving several reports of lion sightings by hikers and horseback riders in the last month, rangers say they found evidence of a lion bedding down in the higher reaches of the park. They said they also found the partially eaten leg of a deer nearby.

For now, however, park officials say they are not going to try to capture the animal or curb recreational activities.

"If there's not an attack, there's not going to be any killing" of a lion, said Tom Cotter, the senior park ranger for Griffith Park and the San Fernando Valley.

Southern California's most recent lion attack occurred in January in Orange County's Santa Ana Mountains when a man was fatally mauled while repairing his mountain bike in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. The man was found partially eaten. Another mountain biker was also attacked but survived.

Mountain lions in the state have attacked 14 people, killing six of them, since 1890, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

Griffith Park straddles the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of downtown and is virtually surrounded by densely populated urban neighborhoods. It hosts about 10 million visitors annually. The 4,100-acre park is home to museums, a zoo, an observatory, golf courses, tennis courts and an outdoor concert hall.

The park rises from an apron of lawns to a web of canyons, steep, brushy slopes and small summits -- all served by an extensive network of horse paths and foot trails.

It has also served as the setting for hundreds of television shows and movies, including the 1960s television program "Batman."

Wildlife experts are puzzled over how the lion got there. Experts suspect that it may have wandered south from the San Gabriel or Verdugo mountains, and used drainage channels -- possibly including the concrete-lined Los Angeles River -- to navigate at night around the tangle of streets in Burbank and Glendale.

On Wednesday morning, park officials began erecting signs at several park entrances that warn "Dangerous Animals May Be Present, Including Mountain Lions and Rattlesnakes." Similar signs can be found in many other parks across Southern California.

Mountain lions are managed by the Department of Fish and Game. Although there is no public hunting season on lions in California, the department may kill any lion that is deemed a threat to public safety, or authorize another agency to shoot them.

Lt. Martin Wall, a state game warden based in Los Angeles County, said his agency has not been notified that the lion seen in the park has threatened any people or displayed dangerous behavior. "Just its presence is not a threat," he said.

Cotter said the presence of the lion is a new challenge for the park, and rangers will attempt to monitor its activities.

"The mountain lion is a protected species regardless of the fact there was a recent fatal attack by a cat in Orange County," he said. "If you look at the long-term statistics, [the lions] don't give you a reason to react differently."

Wall said a mountain lion was found dead in Griffith Park in 1996 or 1997 after being hit by a vehicle. He said he wasn't the least bit surprised to hear about the latest lion. "Nature finds a way," Wall added.

The park's most recent sightings have been on the northwest slopes near the old Toyon landfill, which has been closed since the mid-1960s and covered over, although the area is still being cleaned up and replanted. Most of the park's attractions that draw the largest crowds -- the zoo, the Travel Town miniature train and the Greek Theatre -- are much lower. The lion has not been seen near those areas.

The latest sighting occurred Monday morning, when Keith O'Kray, the site superintendent for the landfill, was sitting in his SUV trying to pick up a signal on his radio. He saw the lion walk from the landfill into the brush and then onto a fire road.

"Apparently it didn't see me or care," he said. "It just turned around and then went back into the brush."

Cotter said that after the sightings were reported, rangers found an "oval pattern" in a patch of brush next to the landfill with deer prints in it -- which they took to be an open denning area or day bed used by the lion. They also found remains of a deer nearby.

The favorite meal of lions -- mule deer -- can be found in abundance in Griffith Park and, experts said, that is the likely reason a lion would set up camp in the area. Generally speaking, an adult lion will kill about one deer each week, although lions also eat smaller game such as raccoons and rabbits.

The landfill is easily reached by a sandy trail from a parking area within 15 minutes walking distance. Cars cannot reach that area of the park.

Recent park visitors differed on what should be done about the lion. "My concern in Griffith Park is still of the two-legged kind," said Virgil Shields, the chairman of the executive committee of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. "I want to make sure that people don't create a climate of fear, because there shouldn't be. This is a natural resident of the local mountains out there and ... it's probably only folks who spend a lot of time out there see them."

Lynn Brown, who said she acts as a liaison between equestrians who use Griffith Park and the city parks department, said that she has received reports about a mountain lion in the area for the last 1 1/2 years. She said that she tried to inform park rangers, who did not believe her.

"My feeling very strongly is that common sense tells you that it needs to be moved somewhere else," she said. "Even though that park is considered urban wilderness, it's not. It just takes once -- does it have to eat someone's leg off" before something is done, she added.

Cotter, the park ranger, said that he had not heard about Brown's warnings.

Lions are present in much of Southern California, including the Santa Ana Mountains, the Simi Hills, Chino Hills and the western Santa Monicas. Wildlife biologists for years have feared that urban sprawl is encroaching on the last lion habitat in the region, but many residents now wonder if it's the other way around -- that the animals are encroaching on human habitat.

Lion experts disagree on what should be done when a lion appears in a populated area.

Walter Boyce, the director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, said he worries about lions that live in close proximity to people.

"I don't want to overplay the risk to people. It's easy to say the lions were here first," Boyce said. "But on the other hand, we really do have to find this balance between people and wildlife and in some situations the balance needs to tip toward people."

Officials in some areas are using extreme caution when a lion is present. The sighting of a mountain lion in Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano in Orange County last weekend prompted park officials to close a part of the park on Sunday and Monday. It reopened to the public Tuesday.

Many experts said that mountain lion behavior continually perplexes them.

"Honestly, I'm surprised" about the lion in Griffith Park, said Ray Sauvajot, the chief of planning, science and resource management for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "It's certainly possible that a lion could get there, but based on what we know about how lions move about in fragmented habitat, it's not something I would expect to see frequently."

On Wednesday, David Cowley was hiking near the landfill in Griffith Park along with several friends. Cowley, 23, who bikes in the park, said he didn't worry about being attacked because he thought a lion would rather eat a deer.

"There's a lot of deer up here," he said, "so I don't think it's too dangerous."

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