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Chris Long steered his SUV past the tall pepper trees and horse corrals at Day Creek Ranch. He had come to investigate the report of a big cat — possibly a lion or tiger — roaming in the semirural outskirts of Simi Valley, and he was dubious.
A patrol lieutenant and tracker with the state Department of Fish and Game, Long had seen many animals before and was most accustomed to cougar sightings, but anything larger seemed highly unlikely. Still, the soil was soft and moist from a previous rain, ideal conditions for animal identification and tracking. Ranch hand Luis Romo led him to a clearing near a stock pond and pointed to a series of imprints left in the soft soil. Immediately Long knew something was wrong. Cougar prints usually are no larger than a baby's fist, and these were nearly as large as his outstretched hand. "This," he thought to himself, "is not a good situation." Long's discovery quickly launched a search for an escaped exotic cat. That no one knew the exact species — or where it came from — only galvanized Long's efforts and those of the dozen or so government trackers brought in on the case. They wanted to catch the animal before it did any damage. It had to be prowling among the farms, neighborhoods and parks that stretched between Simi Valley and Moorpark.
Bad weather, broken leads and a near-perfect terrain for cats — brush-covered hills and shallow stream beds — frustrated their efforts, but on Feb. 23, when a Moorpark homeowner spotted a tiger pacing behind his backyard, trackers knew they'd found their prey. They quickly descended and didn't hesitate in shooting the animal. They didn't want to take chances.
"Some [tigers] are big pussycats, like pets, and some live to kill someone. You can see it in their eyes," said Long's colleague, Fish and Game Lt. Marty Wall.
Three weeks later, federal officials arrested Gert and Roena Hedengran on charges that they had lied to investigators. The Hedengrans, who have yet to be arraigned, deny that the shot tiger came from their facility, which at one time housed 22 exotic cats, including three lions, two tigers and a snow leopard.
Long, who was present at their arrest, felt bitter at the turn of events. If only the trackers had known what they were up against, the tiger might still be alive.
As big as a Harley
As storm clouds closed in on that first day at Day Creek Ranch, Long covered the tracks with an empty plastic flowerpot and called in a biologist. The saucer-size prints were pressed so deep in the soil, and the distance between the front and back paws was so long, that the biologist estimated the animal weighed between 400 and 600 pounds — about as big as a low-slung Harley.
The trackers called their quarry "the cat." Self-assured, they thought it would only be a few days before they captured it. Tracking is a craft passed on from expert to novice, an accumulation of lore and technique transmitted through experience and trial and error. It is a skill not taught in the classroom but learned through years of shuffling along dirt trails and poking at pine needles.
Trackers like Long, a 23-year veteran of the state Department of Fish and Game and a former California Highway Patrol officer, never stop learning. His father taught him to track on camping trips in the Sierra Nevada. Later, veteran game wardens taught him the finer points of following an animal.
Government trackers are part detective, part bounty hunter and part steward. They rely on analytical skills, studying prints, creating a hypothesis and revising it with new information. These days they are busier than ever as urban development presses deeper into wildlife habitat across California and the West.
But a Siberian tiger is not a native predator that has strayed too far into the paved sprawl. This was an exotic cat — one of thousands of animals kept in sanctuaries and private homes throughout the nation — that had escaped into the backyard of the nation's second largest city.
That a creature as large as a Siberian tiger was loose for at least three weeks raises questions about our abilities to care for and control such animals.
The story of its ordeal opens a window not only on the specialized skills of trackers but also on the wildlife now living among us.
The day after Long first spotted the tracks at Day Creek Ranch, several federal Wildlife Service officers — considered the best government trackers in the nation — and more than a dozen state Fish and Game wardens rushed to eastern Ventura County. They studied maps pinned to the wall and developed strategies each morning at a command post a quarter mile from the horse ranch.
Long, 51, tall and with the sunbaked face of an avid outdoorsman, was in charge. He had never pursued an exotic cat, but he knew how to track mountain lions and coyotes.
At the outset, the trackers combed the hills east of Highway 23, west of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Armed with shotguns, pistols and Vietnam-era M1 rifles, they wore yellow slickers and sped through back roads in ATVs and pickups.
A Ventura County Sheriff's Department helicopter, equipped with an infrared sensor, circled overhead.
Each tracker team carried a Pneu-Dart tranquilizer rifle, a weapon with a range of 10 to 100 yards but unreliable in heavy brush. They also deployed "live traps" — big cages baited with meat — near Day Creek Ranch, hoping the cat would retrace its steps. It never did.
At one point they tried to lure the cat to the traps by spraying them with urine from an African lion in heat. Federal trackers even brought in a pack of bloodhounds.
On the first day of the search, trackers found a fresh print on the median of Highway 23.
"The tracks were so good, I felt we would find [the cat] at some point," he said later. "But we need three or four days without rain."
No sooner had the trackers started than a new storm arrived. Nearly five inches of rain fell over several days, obliterating nearly every paw print and scent left by the cat.
A mysterious quarry
After Long spotted the paw prints at Day Creek Ranch, authorities alerted the news media and warned people to keep pets indoors and to keep an eye on small children. Soon the public deluged investigators with cat sightings, many spurious, others useful. The trackers began to piece together a timeline of the cat's movements.
The cat probably escaped before Jan. 31. Soon thereafter, it sauntered by a large culvert beneath Highway 23 that bobcats, coyotes and bears use to pass under the freeway. The cat wandered back and forth through the culvert, perhaps uncertain which way to go, leaving several prints in the soft mud at the eastern opening.
About a week later, the cat reached a storage area behind Baron Bros. Nursery in Camarillo, eight miles from the freeway culvert. He may have followed the Santa Rosa Arroyo, a shin-deep creek between Simi Valley and Camarillo. Startled nursery workers found big paw prints around potted roses, trees and shrubs.
A few days later, about four miles east of the nursery, two horses bolted out of their corral bordering the Santa Rosa Arroyo in Moorpark. The owners suspect something spooked the horses — perhaps the large cat — spurring them to crash through a wooden fence and gallop onto Santa Rosa Road, causing a car accident that killed a motorist and a horse. Although investigators found no cat prints near the corral, they are looking for a possible connection.
The following week, the cat rambled back among some weeds in an oak grove near Highway 23, but it slipped away when a construction crew moved into the grove with chain saws and bulldozers on Feb. 16. A foreman spotted the cat's prints under a tree and told his wife it "sent shivers up my spine."
Long and his fellow trackers may not at first have been certain what they were looking for, but from the evidence they gathered, two facts became clear: The cat had been loose almost three weeks and had been ranging freely in a 16-square-mile area, roughly the size of Costa Mesa.
As the search continued, Long remained confident. He separated the trackers into five teams and assigned them quadrants of land in a sparsely developed region called Tierra Rejada. Teams inspected stables, toolsheds and doghouses, hoping to catch the cat asleep during the day. Trackers proceeded methodically, urgent but not panicked.
But rain kept pouring, making it nearly impossible for the trailing hounds to sniff scent in the mud, and the trackers became fatigued. As a new tactic, they dumped piles of stillborn calves and other meats near tracks, hoping to lure the cat, but this too was ineffective.
Successful tracking takes a bit of luck, but the weather would not cooperate. "It's like an Etch A Sketch," one game warden recalled. "You got a nice set of prints, and it rains and they are all gone."
By the third day, the pursuit had "hit the wall," a term Jim Lowery, a tracking instructor and outdoor survival expert from Frazier Park, uses when few if any clues remain. Lowery, 60, has spent nearly two decades teaching trackers to rely on knowledge of the animal and intuition when a trail goes cold.
Sometimes recovering the trail means getting on your hands and knees and marking prints with Popsicle sticks to glean the animal's movements. Lowery teaches trackers to study the pattern formed by the sticks. A tilt in the prints, a subtle compression of blades of grass, and suddenly the trail reappears.
"Tracking is always on the edge of the unknown," Lowery said. "It's how much passion and effort you put into it."
Days of uncertainty
BY the fourth day of the hunt, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department warned the public that the cat could be anywhere between Highway 23 and Camarillo. Running out of tracking tricks and stymied by weather, state Fish and Game officials feared the search would last several weeks. They told Long to knock off the 18-hour shifts and take time off. They wanted to give someone else a shot.
State officials put the job in the hands of Fish and Game Lt. Marty Wall, a 13-year veteran of the department. Wall, 47, was a logical choice. Years earlier, Los Angeles police officers called on Wall when they rushed into a Studio City home to investigate a report of a dogfight and instead came face to face with a full-grown tiger. Wall tranquilized the cat without incident.
Long was disappointed to leave the search unresolved. He had hoped one day to pose next to the cat, alive and secure in a cage. But that was not to be.
Shortly after 6 a.m. the next day, insurance broker Kenneth Tucker checked the weather from the second floor of his house on Coffeetree Lane in Moorpark. Behind his wrought-iron fence, he spotted a tiger, eyeing his neighbor's yapping dogs. He dialed 911.
Operator: "911 emergency, this is Gloria. What are you reporting?"
Tucker: "Yes? Hi. I live in Moorpark, and there is that tiger that is loose in our backyard. Behind our yard."
Operator: "You say he is in your backyard?"
Tucker: "He is behind our backyard."
Operator: "OK, do you see him?"
Tucker: "Yeah, we took some pictures of him
. Anyway, we are looking at him right now."
Operator: "OK, what color is he?"
Tucker: "He's just a regular-looking tiger."
Sheriff's deputies rushed to Tucker's house, but by then the tiger had moved north into a brushy ravine between a park and Highway 23. An elementary school across the street from the park was scheduled to open in a few hours.
The rain stopped, and a sheriff's helicopter dipped beneath low gray clouds and zeroed in on the tiger. A news chopper swooped down, and within minutes the trackers, game wardens and deputies surrounded the tiger as it hid in a clump of coastal sage scrub near the bottom of the ravine.
The trackers and deputies approached from the ridge top and surrounded the tiger. There was no discussion about what to do next. They opened fire. Four rounds hit the cat, killing it instantly. Wall was in a patrol car, heading for the scene. When he heard the news, he called his boss, assistant chief Mike McBride, the regional patrol chief. "Mike, we got him," he told McBride. "It was a tiger, and we had to take him out."
Measuring the cat
They took the carcass to a San Bernardino lab for a necropsy. It showed that the cat was a healthy 3- to 5-year-old male Siberian tiger, 352 pounds, about 55 inches from head to rump. It had a brilliant orange, black and white coat. Its claws had been removed, but its teeth were intact. It hadn't eaten in days, maybe weeks, and its stomach contained only bits of hair, grass and a plastic bag, emblazoned with the words "Du-par's fresh and delicious pies."
On the same day federal authorities snapped handcuffs on the Hedengrans, Luis Romo, the ranch hand who had first shown the tracks to Long, tended to a herd of cows and a few riding horses at Day Creek Ranch. He drove a John Deere tractor to the place where he had first spotted the cat. "Ya no están," he said, scanning the dried dirt, thinking the rain had erased the tracks. Then he stopped and spotted prints in the dirt.
"Mira, aquí están," Romo said, squatting to run his finger into the heel and toes of the prints. "Están grandes, que no? Muy grandes."
Hugo Martín is a Times staff writer.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.