Last week, a car or truck killed a mountain lion named P-89 on the 101 Freeway in Woodland Hills. About 60 years ago, that driver would have been eligible for a reward of up to $75 (more than $730 today) from the government as a “thank you.”
As long as you killed a mountain lion, California didn’t care how you did it. From 1907 to 1963, which is almost 60 years, the state paid out more than $500,000 for 12,461 dead mountain lions.
Today, when even one Felis concolor is killed by a person or, much more often, by a tire, we mourn in public.
P-22 is the most well-known cat in Hollywood since the MGM lion. He is a beloved pop culture phenomenon and the top cat of his species. He’s been poisoned by rat poison. He was caught, given medicine for mange, and set free to show off his good looks in Griffith Park.
He has been the subject of songs, paintings, T-shirts, and even an “ugly Christmas sweater.” At least two books have been written about him. One is called “The Cat That Changed America.” He changed America so much, at least in Southern California, that most of the $90 million needed to build a wildlife crossing over the “death zone” 101 Freeway, which had kept mountain lions in small areas, came from small and large private donations.
The crossing is named after Wallis Annenberg, an animal lover who gave $25 million through her family foundation to help build it. In April, P-97, another mountain lion, was hit and killed not far away on the San Diego Freeway, just hours before the groundbreaking.
And in the Legislature, the same state that paid out bounties for dead mountain lions is looking at a bill that could build at least 10 more wildlife crossings across California.
In the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, the mountain lion went from being a “predator” with a reward on its head to an animal that could only be hunted with a permit, poisoned, shot, caught in fanged traps, or hunted with dogs, and then to a specially protected mammal. In short, as fewer mountain lions were left, they started to get more protection.
How did it happen? How did something that was once called a pest and a varmint and whose killing was cheered and rewarded by the state of California become a favorite and an icon?
Like wolves, mountain lions were portrayed in our Western stories as wild and careless killers. They’d rather stay away from people unless they’re feeding them sheep or cattle. This is because sheep and cattle are easier to catch than deer, which mountain lions usually hunt.
There were many reasons for hunters to shoot first. Kill it before it kills you or your animals, kill it for its beautiful fur and head or the food is brought, or kill it because humans, not mountain lions, had the right to kill deer first.
The Times made this argument several times, but perhaps the cruelest was in 1925: “Nowhere have students of animal life found mountain lions doing any good, unless to keep deer from getting too many, and in California that is the special privilege and prerogative that the sportsman-hunter pays his dollar license for.”
Attacks on people by healthy mountain lions that were not provoked were so rare that they made the news. In 1901, the magazine Forest and Stream defended the reputations of wolves and mountain lions in North America. It said, “There are no dangerous animals; there are creatures that can be made dangerous.” The wolf, the bear, and the cougar want to get away from people much more than people want to get away from them. Even so, newspapers still print bear, catamount, and wolf stories every day, and they probably will for a long time after the last bear, catamount, and wolf have left the land.
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“Catamount” is a great, unusual word for “mountain lion.”
In July 1909, a mountain lion that seemed to be mad attacked people in the town of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County.
The 14-year-old was playing with two other boys in Coyote Creek when a mountain lion jumped on him and tore at his head. Isola Kennedy, who had been watching the boys from a sandbar and was likely wearing the usual corsets and petticoats of the Edwardian era, ran to help. The 150-pound mountain lion turned on her, knocked her down, and scratched at her face. She fought with a hatpin that was 8 inches long while the other boys ran away to get help.
As the lion tore at Kennedy, a man with a gun ran after them and finally got a clean shot that killed the animal. She lost an ear and had deep cuts and gashes on her face and left arm. She and the boy who had been hurt seemed to be getting better, but the boy died six weeks later, and Kennedy died three weeks after that. Both of them seemed to have had rabies.
When the Gold Rush brought several natural disasters to California, there were too many mountain lions to count. Within 60 or 70 years, their numbers had dropped so low that they were almost extinct. Some estimates put the number at 600, while others put it at 2,000.
In 1925, The Times told a story about a local hunter who “knocked over a whole litter” of animals in one day. He killed a male mountain lion, a female mountain lion, and three cubs (called “young devils” because they were “about 50 pounds each”) while hunting with dogs. The man said he would next go after the mother. He promised that it would be “a good clean-up.”
People stood up for the mountain lion. Charles Lummis, a swashbuckling editor, writer, and champion of Southern California history and culture at the turn of the 20th century, wondered why the original California Republic flag had a grizzly bear on it instead of “the most beautiful creature in the New World,” the mountain lion.
(The last known California grizzly bear, which is the official state animal, was probably shot near Sequoia National Park in 1922. Two years later, when it was declared extinct, another bear may have been seen in the same area. They, too, used to live in groups of thousands before people caught and forced them to fight bulls for “sport” and hunted them to extinction.
Lummis never stopped being fond of his romantic view of California’s past glory. Scholar William Alexander McClung wrote about how Yankees in Southern California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to feel “nostalgia for a displaced civilization,” which was usually a civilization that they had moved away from. He said that this feeling was “safely insulated from any chance of reversing the past.” Native American culture and Spanish-Mexican-Californian culture are both gone, cleaned up, and safe.
We may have changed our minds about the mountain lion, the California condor, and other endangered species because we feel bad about what we’ve destroyed and because we now know more about how complicated a healthy ecosystem is. It happened too late for the California grizzly bear, but quickly for the mountain lion, whose population grew, it was protected, and people liked it.
It could be as few as 4,000 or as many as 6,000 right now.
California ended its decades-long bounty in 1963, but it didn’t seem to be about saving money; anyone could kill as many mountain lions as they wanted.
In 1970, when the first Earth Day was held, attitudes began to change. The California Fish and Game Commission changed the status of mountain lions so that they are now considered a game species. This means that you need a hunting license and a tag to kill one, and you can’t use traps or poison to kill one. New questions came up, like, “How few is too few?” How much is too much? A ban on hunting was taken up by the legislature.
In September 1971, a deputy director at the Fish and Game Department said he was against a moratorium because the only way to know how many there were was to count the dead ones.
Lawrence Cloyd said, “Studying dead ones adds to our knowledge, which you won’t have if you can’t harvest them.” In the same way, he said, without giving an example, that most animals that have gone extinct are “those that are not managed but are given full protection and nobody cares about them.”
The four-year hunting ban was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1971. Mountain lions are now being tagged and tracked by the state. With a permit that was only good for 10 days and only within 10 miles of where a person or animal was attacked, the predators could be killed. Between Reagan’s signature and the start of the ban, 35 mountain lions were hunted and killed in three months.
Over more than a decade, the ban was questioned, extended, and studied, but it stayed in place.
In the spring of 1986, a 5-year-old girl was attacked by a mountain lion in an Orange County wilderness park. After the tranquilizer dart didn’t work, that lion was shot and killed. A few months later, near where the girl had been, a 6-year-old boy was attacked and hurt. Later, someone figured out that six mountain lions were living in the rural parts of Orange County. This is a little tight since an adult mountain lion needs about 100 square miles of space to roam.
In February 1987, the Fish and Game Commission met to talk about the ban. This was a few months before the last wild California condor was caught for a breeding program meant to save the species. Mountain lion fans put on a show for the press.
One couple dressed up as mountain lions and held signs in their paws that said: “NO to trophy hunting!” Tippi Hedren, who started a big cat sanctuary in Acton, told the commission, “It is almost impossible for me to understand how someone could let the lights be shot out of one of these magnificent creatures.” A man from Garden Grove who is trying to get permission to hunt mountain lions said, “Few men are tough enough to be lion hunters.” People in the room laughed at him.
In the end, the decision was made by the voters. In 1990, Proposition 117 set up a state conservation fund to buy land for wildlife and made mountain lions a protected species by making it illegal to hunt them for fun. If they were attacking people or livestock, only fish and game officials could say it was okay to kill them.
The Times wrote that a poll of people who backed Prop. 117 found that people felt worse about lions when they heard that they often killed deer than when they heard that lions had attacked two children in Orange County. The head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Joe Edmiston, thought that “there was a real Bambi constituency out there” because maulings were rare and deer killings were common.
The fund hasn’t always done what it said it would, but this month, almost all of the 6,000 acres of land bought near Castaic for open space and wildlife habitat were paid for with money from Proposition 117.
Prop. 117 was pushed for by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s father, but the law’s restrictions have made a paradox for him. The Sacramento Bee said that since Prop 117 was passed, about 100 mountain lions are killed legally each year for attacking livestock.
This is more than before the measure was passed, which may be because their range is getting smaller. Still, most lion attacks on people happen in Orange County, but they also happen in other parts of the state. There have been a few deaths. In 2004, a mountain lion killed cyclist Mark Jeffrey Reynolds in South Orange County. Later that same day, the same mountain lion bit and killed a woman, but she lived.
In the summer of 1987, a woman named Jean King was in an Orange County Park bathroom stall late at night. A mountain lion stuck its nose out from under the door of the stall. King climbed to the top of the wall and held on for dear life until the lion walked away.
Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski wrote about the event in his poem “The Lady and the Mountain Lion.” We pick up the story after the woman screams and help comes, but the cat is nowhere to be found (stanzas and line breaks removed): “The story was in the newspapers and on TV. The part of the story that won’t be told is that the woman will never go to the bathroom again without thinking of a mountain lion. a truly beautiful animal.”