Up the Valley: On the Prowl

November 6, 2013

The State of California’s advice to those encountering dangerous animals in state parks?: “You’re on your own!” Today’s column in the Star newspaper

A Napa park was briefly closed one early morning last month, after a city worker spotted a mountain lion roaming there.

The spotter was a public works employee. The spotee was nowhere to be found, having wisely skulked off before the Napa County Sheriff’s Office — which apparently fingers four-legged criminals when not shadowing Wal-Mart shoplifters — arrived on the scene.

But the scary part of the story was what happened when the city’s Parks, Trees and Facilities Manager called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for help. As reported by the Napa Valley Register:

“Fish and Wildlife did not respond to the incident because mountain lion sightings are common and do not typically signify a public threat, said department information officer Janice Mackey.”

“Also, reported mountain lions often turn out to be golden retrievers or large cats, she said.”

To be clear: this was not a sighting by an intoxicated teenager or nearsighted vagrant. It was reported by a city public works employee, communicating up the chain of command to park management. Presumably, if it was just some crazy guy from the maintenance department who regularly spots dangerous imaginary creatures while picking up trash in the park at 6 a.m., his superiors would not have reported the matter to state officials.

Which raises the question: when did it become discretionary for state wildlife authorities to respond to emergency calls? Should public officials feel free to ignore any claims of impending catastrophe they find implausible? Nature-loving citizens prefer to believe that if, while traversing some remote and darkened path, they are confronted by a coiled rattling snake, their panicked pleas for help will not be greeted with the response: “It’s probably just a shoelace.” Perhaps there should be a website where terrified citizens cornered by wild animals can Instagram photos of the beast, as documentary proof of their imminent risk of becoming said animal’s next meal.

This incident perhaps unfairly portrays the State Department of Fish and Wildlife as another useless expenditure of state tax dollars, not unlike the Office of Lieutenant Governor, or the California State Legislature. At least state legislators respond to constituent calls with the recorded message: “Given the Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, control of every statewide office including the Governor’s, and dominance of our U.S. congressional delegation, we no longer see the point in debating anything. We’ve gone fishing with our buddies at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

But fear not; the Department is available to dispense potentially life-saving advice. According to the Register’s reporting:

“If a person does encounter a mountain lion, the Department of Fish and Wildlife advises not running from the animal. Instead, people should face the lion, make noise, wave arms to look bigger, throw rocks or other objects at the lion and pick up small children. If attacked, the department says to fight back.”

Good to know. Although this type of confusing, multi-part instruction could be misapplied in a panic situation, leading frightened citizens to first throw their children at the lion and then pick up a pile of rocks. Or they might try throwing their cell phones at the animal, since the gadget’s effectiveness as a rescuer-summoning device is suspect. Still, the Department’s direction to fight back is well-taken, unless the victim is a Republican in the State Legislature, in which case they should probably just turn and run.

Clearly the Department is playing the odds. The Register reports that the Sheriff’s Office receives three to four calls per year regarding mountain lions in that part of town; one call per year in that particular park. And Ms. Mackey reassures us that “mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare, particularly given the number of sightings” — only 16 in California in the past 100 years; six of them fatal.

If you or a loved one are among the unlucky 16, it’s a statistically significant number. And for all we know, the actual incidence of fatal mauling may be much higher, with death by mountain lion often misclassified by county coroners’ offices as “a nasty slip-and-fall after being startled by a large cat or golden retriever.”

Here in hyper-aware St. Helena, however, all reports of potential attackers are taken seriously, whether they pertain to menacing predators prowling popular city parks, chain store advance teams scouting Main Street locations, or low-income housing developers cruising residential neighborhoods.

Our public officials may not always be able to tell a potential affordable housing site from a hole in the ground, but they can darn well distinguish between a large cat, a golden retriever, and a mountain lion.

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One Response to “Up the Valley: On the Prowl”

  1. Marvin Humphrey Says:

    Laura, this is one of your best! The truth is funny.


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