By Jay Thorwaldson
On hunting imaginary lionsUploaded: Jul 22, 2008
Somewhere deep inside I've always been a lion hunter.
And the recent episode of the lion hunt in and around Palo Alto's Foothills Park and the Los Trancos Woods residential area evoked deeply buried childhood memories of when my family moved from Fresno to Los Gatos when I was 3 years old.
The three acres my folks purchased at the edge of town fell off in the back into an oak canyon with a small creek in one corner, and it was backed by a 20- or 30-acre wilderness owned by another family.
One day I came trudging into the house for lunch as if I were carrying something heavy over my right shoulder. I walked into the kitchen and in front of my mother (who recounted the story for years) threw the load onto the floor.
"Three lions!" I declared triumphantly -- not having a clear idea of how much real lions weighed at the time. I'm not sure I do even today, never having tried to lift one, alive or dead, African or American.
My older sister Marilyn actually made up a book about the great lion hunter, clipping pictures from magazines to illustrate it -- a precursor to the high-tech books of today they print with your kid's name as the hero.
So I'm familiar with imaginary lions, and to some extent with real ones.
For most of my life I've ridden horses, biked, hiked, jogged or actually lived in mountain-lion territory, and I've always been aware that usually they see (or hear) you long before you know they're anywhere in the neighborhood. The Spanish name for Los Gatos was originally "La Rinconada de Los Gatos," or "The Little Corner of the Cats." It meant the little corner of the big cats.
A friend lives within five miles of where a woman, Barbara Schoener, 40, was killed by a cougar while jogging on the Western States Trail above the American River, in the Auburn Lakes Trails area, on April 23, 1994. A memorial bench along the trail is a reminder of the danger the big cats can present.
But such attacks are really rare, and one 78-year stretch had no reports of any such attacks. Check out the Web site http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks_ca.html for list of cougar attacks dating back to the late 1800s. The official California Department of Fish & Game tally is at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion/attacks.html.
Country residents usually take the presence of the cats for granted, yet try not to jog at dusk or dawn, when lions typically hunt.
An example of the casual attitude: Several years back, two young girls, 11 and 8, who used a trail around a grassy hill as a shortcut to the school bus, were warned that someone had seen a cougar peering over the grass above the trail.
"Well so much for THAT shortcut!" the older girl said, taking the warning in stride.
So when the report came in of a 50-year-old man knocked from a trail in Foothills Park down an embankment above Los Trancos Creek everyone took it seriously. A federal tracker, several state Fish & Game wardens and lion-sniffing dogs joined local police and park rangers in a serious hunt.
They quickly shut down Foothills Park and the adjacent Pearson-Arastradero Open Space Preserve for several days and blanketed the area searching for sign of a lion.
A "lion profiler" of sorts speculated it might have been a young lion that was a bit clumsy in its attack, hitting the hiker at shoulder-blade level and falling down the steep hillside after him before running off up the creek below.
The story came to mind of the great African hunter who recounted how a large lion attacked him after his gun jammed but jumped over him when he ducked. The hunter came back the next day and found the lion leaping about -- practicing shorter jumps.
But in the Foothills Park lion hunt puzzlement set in. No tracks, no sign, no scent.
A state supervisor F&G warden took the "victim's" shirt to a forensic lab in Sacramento, and nary a hide nor hair was found. And there were no claw or teeth marks, either.
And the lion began to fade like the proverbial Cheshire cat, with not even a smile left behind. Police, who never identified the hiker, talked about citing him for making a false report and billing him for the $10,000 cost of the hunt.
But the hiker -- perhaps alerted by news stories about the potential $10,000 bill -- stuck to his story. What would YOU do, given the alternatives? Police and the district attorney's office decided there wasn't enough evidence to make a provable false-report case, federal, state or local. Officials deemed the attack "unsubstantiated," with a heavy dose of skepticism.
So everyone went home.
My hunch is that Los Trancos Hills neighbors know who the hiker is, and it would be surprising if he didn't get a dose of resentment about giving everyone a scare. But at least some innocent young lion wasn't shot or otherwise killed as the attacker.
The hiker, a Portola Valley resident, initially said he didn't report the incident until the next day because he feared being fined for being inside Palo Alto's Foothills Park, where only Palo Alto residents are supposed to be.
What he didn't know is that park rangers, knowing lions are fiercely territorial, have trained a team of "watch lions" to remind non-residents that they don't belong in the park with a friendly bump on the shoulder blades -- a sure way to put some teeth into the residents-only rule.
But my favorite mountain-lion story was the case of the hungry young lion that apparently wound its way down San Francisquito Creek from the foothills into residential Palo Alto in mid-May 2004 -- even though it had a sad ending for the lion. After prowling around the Newell Road and Walnut Drive area for some days, the lion was run up a large camphor tree by a neighborhood dog. Those hunting it never bothered to look up.
Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak even interviewed the dog's owner virtually under the tree where the lion was perched about 25 or 30 feet above. Don thought the dog didn't like him and was growling at him, but the dog didn't look up either.
When Don returned to his Jeep across the street to phone in the story, a woman police officer pulled up next to him, took out a rifle and shot the lion out of the tree, where it had been spotted by a TV crew.
Earlier, I called to check on a longtime friend and Newell Road resident, the late Ed Ames, then in his mid-90s but with his kindly humor and wit fully intact. I asked how he was doing with his walker with the lion prowling around the neighborhood.
"Oh, Jay, it wouldn't take a mountain lion to take me out," Ed replied. "Any good-sized house cat could do that."