Our View: Cougar attack shouldn't lead to fear reaction

January 30, 2007 12:00 am

It's not surprising that when any of us hear of a mountain lion attack, primal fears kick in. Such was the reaction most of us had after a mountain lion mauled 70-year-old Jim Hamm while he and his wife hiked last week through Prairie Creek State Redwoods Park, about 25 miles south of Crescent City.

But there's no need to stay away from local parks. And there's certainly no need to spend hundreds of thousands a year hiring cougar hunters as Oregon counties have done recently. Rather than a fight or flight reaction, we ought to approach the subject rationally – and that means being armed with the facts.

First, mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. There have been a mere 16 of them in California since 1890 with only six fatalities. Indeed, until last week a cougar attack had never been reported at the park or in Humboldt County. Putting these numbers in context, far more Californians have died in that same period from lightning strikes or bee stings. In fact, there have been just 14 fatal mountain lion attacks in the United states during the past century, yet 40,000 died on our highways just last year alone.

In any case, the offending mountain lion likely is dead. Following the attack, wildlife officials trapped and killed two cougars in the area. One of them had human blood on its claws and likely was to blame for the attack. The blood is still being analyzed to see if it was Hamm's.

Mountain lions typically avoid people, explaining why there aren't more attacks despite that humans increasingly encroach on the big cat's space by building new new homes in the foothills outside of Los Angeles and taking more hikes through protected woodlands. Mountain lions typically prefer small, easier to catch prey, whether it be house pets in Southern California's suburbia or deer, raccoons and rabbits in the Redwoods. So long as we maintain large enough protected areas for the cougars' primary prey to flourish – which we've done on the Northcoast – attacks will remain uncommon.

There's simply no need to flee from our our parks or to gather armed parties and fight some imagined mountain lion scourge. While attacks occur, they are rare, which is exactly why they're big news.

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