Police were keeping a watchful eye Thursday on the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, where an adult mountain lion and its cub were reportedly seen in a large tree early this morning.
The sighting was reported to police around 6:20 a.m. in the 1700 block of Webster Street, police said.
Police officers and rangers from Palo Alto Opens Space patrolled the neighborhood near the sighting but as of 4 p.m. had seen no signs of the mountain lion. Officers also had a "heavy presence" during the afternoon school commute to both ensure students' safety and to "hopefully provide a peace of mind to our residents," police said in a statement.
A resident who lives nearby spotted the animals in a large redwood tree and called 911, police Capt. Zach Perron said. The resident is a credible source and has experience with mountain lions.
"Often people both here and in other cities believe they have seen a mountain lion and it's either a really large tabby cat or a golden retriever or something like that, so we have no doubts as to the veracity of this claim based on the experience of the reporting party," Perron said.
There are no photos of the animals and no other reported sightings, he said.
Police are maintaining a patrol in the area and are doing their best to see if there are additional reports, he said. The department is keeping California Fish and Wildlife Department officials informed, he said. The Police Department does have a tranquilizer gun if it is necessary to use it, he added.
"An adult mountain lion, this far into the community, inherently by its very presence is a danger to public safety, so we're prepared to do whatever we need to do. Hopefully, we're going to be able to tranquilize this animal if we are able to see it again, which remains to be seen. Our goal is to protect public safety, and, if we can, to protect the cats' lives, too," he said.
"What makes this case unique, to my knowledge, is this is the only case in the area where there was a kitten that was spotted too in a suburb and in a neighborhood, blocks from schools, for example. Parents are always going to be protective of their children, regardless of the species, so that's another concern," Perron said. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, the terminology for a young mountain lion can be kittens or cubs -- either term is correct.
Police, park rangers and animal control officers are patrolling the area where three schools fall within a half-mile radius: Castilleja School, a private all-girls school; Walter Hays Elementary School; and Jordan Middle School.
In light of the sighting, police advise parents to drive their children to school today as the investigation continues. Perron said the department has reached out to schools in the area and has advised schools nearest to the area that they could choose to limit outdoor activities today. Patrols will continue into the afternoon as school lets out.
Stuart Bernstein, who lives in the 600 block of Lowell Avenue, said he spotted the animals a little after 6 a.m. He went into his yard after he heard much rustling in the large redwood tree behind his home. It was still dark outside as he entered his backyard to investigate the commotion. Bernstein expected to find a raccoon or smaller animal, since wildlife had been eating the fruits and vegetables in his garden, he said. Instead, he was met with a loud, deep growl.
"Then I heard a second animal. It sounded more like a cat, but it was bigger. I thought it was a cub."
Bernstein's wife, who is a veterinarian, confirmed the growl came from a large animal and was likely a mountain lion, he said.
"I could see the smaller of the two go up on the lower branches of the tree. I saw one go down on a branch. It bowed," he said, noting the lion was probably moving around because the branch could not sufficiently support its weight. He figures the animals were scaling the tree to escape his neighbor's dogs, which were barking loudly at the time. He gestured with his hands to indicate the cub was about 3.5 feet long.
Bernstein went into the house to retrieve a flashlight, but it wasn't working. He called police to report the sighting, but the animals were gone when he went outside again, he said.
He was not afraid nor disturbed by the big cats' close presence in the neighborhood, he said.
"I am on the board of the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which has experience with mountain lions and at one of our board meetings we discussed, among other things, the plight of mountain lions in urban areas. I've seen maps in Southern California where the mountain lions ranged into people's backyards and garages all the time. They don't really want to attack humans. If they were on the ground and I was between the mother and the cub, I would be concerned," he said.
The large trees are on a flag lot of a property in the 1700 block of Webster Street. The owner of that property, who declined to give her name, said she was not aware of the lions and she has never seen them in her yard or tree in the 26 years she has lived in the home. She did hear her neighbor's dog bark. The yards of several homes back up to the tree.
She first heard about the lions when police called to warn her of their possible presence and that officers might come to her yard to search for the animals.
"There was a policeman with a rifle in my yard," she said, and animal services officers were patrolling the neighborhood.
George, an Old Palo Alto resident who declined to give his name, said he learned of the lions after receiving a robocall alert from the Police Department. He lives about three blocks from where the lions were spotted and has extensive experience with them as a researcher. He studied mountain lions for about 10 years in Idaho while working with the nonprofit Earthwatch where he sometimes radio-collared lions and tracked them.
"They purr very loud. Their eye color is incredible. You definitely know they are a predator when they look at you. I tracked one with a radio collar, and they would go amazing distances over really rough terrain," he said.
"People panic but there is nothing much to worry about. They are elusive. They could be in the lower bushes or in a smaller tree," he said.
George said he has seen the big cats on hikes. Most people will walk by them and never know they are there, he added.
The lions often travel up and down creeks, but they typically travel alone, he said. It is unusual to see a cub with a mother, and he speculated they might have been pushed out of their territory by competition.
"(I) hope they will tranquilize them. You can dart them easily," he said.
Fish and Wildlife department staff typically check the area to make sure there's no public safety threat, department spokesman Peter Tira said.
It's not unusual to see mountain lions in the South Bay and the Bay Area, where the natural habitat is inviting for animals and people alike, Tira said.
Mountain lions and their cubs usually keep their distance from people and have been seen on security cameras traveling through neighborhoods from natural areas, Tira said.
"Animals will always see us before we see them. For the most part, they'll stay hidden long before they get close enough to interact with," he said.
"It's not completely unprecedented. We have mountain lions passing through the middle of the night passing through a populated area," Tira said.
Because mountain lions are typically found in open spaces that have plentiful prey, a sighting in an urban area is highly unusual. Even so, according to the city of Palo Alto, interactions between mountain lions and humans have been on the rise in recent years.
The city attributes the increase to -- among other things -- an increase in mountain lion numbers and expanded range of travel, as well as more people hiking and running in the mountain lions' habitats.
According to the Animal Services website, mountain lions are generally "calm, quiet and elusive," and the potential for getting killed or injured by one is quite low (there is a greater risk of getting struck by lightning than of being attacked by a mountain lion).
Anyone who encounters a mountain lion is encouraged not to run (which may trigger the lion's instinct to chase) and to do anything he or she can to appear larger, whether by waving arms or opening a jacket, while speaking firmly in a loud voice.
Police plan to remain vigilant throughout the late afternoon, evening and overnight and will "respond immediately to any additional sightings that may occur," police said in a statement.
Persons who see the mountain lions are asked to call 911 and stay at a distance from the animals.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
• Mountain lion shot and killed (May 17, 2004)
• Decision to kill lion correct, police say (May 18, 2004)