My dog treed a cat last week a few kilometres from my house in Los Angeles. No firemen were needed to get it down. The cat weighed 45kg.
Setting the scene: I own a Karelian Bear Dog. These dogs are bred to hunt bears, moose and other large game. Sansho is intense, determined, unbelievably athletic, fearless and a huge pain in the arse if he doesn’t get loads of exercise. Me: I’ve had lots of encounters with “man-eating” predators over my years in the woods and water, including practically stepping on a sleeping brown bear in Alaska (not a metaphor), but I didn’t expect a mountain lion last week in Los Angeles.
Here’s how things went down. The woman I’m dating offered to take Sansho for a hike. I gave Rachel directions to the Verdugo Mountains which are a short 12-minute drive from my house in Highland Park. The Verdugos are a range of mountains just north of Griffith Park, where the famous “P-22″ mountain lion calls home and iconic “Hollywood” sign stands. They rise up 600m above the San Fernando Valley, topping out at just over 900m in altitude. As their name would suggest, they are relatively lush in comparison to both the Santa Monica mountains to the south and the San Gabriel mountains which lie to the north. Large Bay trees and even sycamores line the bigger drainages. At the top you will find the typical desert scrub and each highpoint is occupied by multiple radio and TV tower complexes.
Since moving to LA less than three years ago I’ve probably been here with Sansho 200 times or more. From the trailhead, two fire roads snake up to the top of the mountain, forming a nice 10km loop and connecting to trails and other roads. The trailhead is not well known and recreational traffic is almost non-existent on a weeknight. Off-leash dogs are the norm. This is a truly hidden gem and one of two places easily accessible from my home that make owning a Karelian Bear Dog possible in a jungle of concrete and motor vehicles.
As Rachel made her plans and waited for her friend to show up, I talked her through what to expect from Sansho should she choose to take him off leash, which he desperately needed. In summary I said, “Don’t worry about him, AT ALL.” This means Sansho is more of a trail partner with an intense streak of independence than a companion animal to be responsible for. I’ve never lost him, but he’s certainly lost me more than a few times. When that happens he’ll rendezvous back at the vehicle; sometimes he beats you, sometimes you have to wait. This was quite disconcerting when he was five months old, but after four years of these shenanigans I’ve grown to trust him to return, the only variable is when that will happen.
Two hours after Rachel left I get a call. “We are having a ‘Where the f**k is Sansho’ moment.” “No worries,” I say. I gave her the A-OK to leave him up there and I’d come get him; I was on my way out of the house anyway. Besides, how far away could he be? They said they could hear him barking.
Twenty minutes later I’m hiking up Beaudry Motorway North in the full moon, a high power Black Diamond headlamp in my jacket pocket. I’d assumed Sansho would be in one of the wet drainages about a mile or so up. The cool air, big bay laurel trees and intermittent standing water after rains, which it just had, tend to attract wildlife of all types.
As I approach the first of the two big drainages I hear Sansho barking incessantly. Without going into the nuances of my dog’s bark frequency and pitch, I can tell you I was pretty certain he had something treed. I strap on the headlamp and resign myself to a steep hike on soft ground, just two weeks after destroying the ACL in my right knee, stability compromised.
I hike up the hillside until I can see Sansho’s eyes reflecting as I shine my light up the drainage. I put my head down, determined to make the final 45m or so without falling or further injuring my knee. I cross a deep, but narrow ravine, then look back up to determine my course for the final approach. That’s when I realise there are two sets of bright green eyes reflecting. The larger pair is maybe 9m above the other and now I know there’s a mountain lion. Deer don’t climb trees and bobcats aren’t this big.
The next 15 minutes are spent sitting on the ground below the cat observing its demeanour, watching it as it watches me, totally unperturbed by either Sansho or my presence. I snap some pics with my cell phone from the ground, then decide I want better images. That cat is sitting in a bay laurel tree and I scale one of the shared trunks to get closer. This puts me 5m off the ground and 6m-7m from the cat. As I do my best to get lighting right, hold my phone steady and not fall, the cat continues to watch me closely, but never shows signs of aggression or fear. It must be nice to feel so in control of your circumstances 7m off the ground, with a dog barking and a strange human shining a bright light in your eyes.
Thirty minutes later I drop out of the tree, corral my dog, and cautiously make my way down the hill — checking back over my shoulder to confirm the cat hasn’t decided to stalk us (unlikely, but I needed the peace of mind).
That evening I spent a bit researching lion occurrences in LA. Sightings in the Verdugos are uncommon, but they happen. Over the last year there have been mountain lions throughout the foothills and mountains that surround LA. Griffith and Verdugos are both bordered on all sides by freeways, so even 10 lane highways aren’t an insurmountable barrier to egress. That means mountain lions exist here and you might very well see them.
What should you know about mountain lions? Well, yes they can kill you, but attacks are very infrequent and fatal attacks happen only a few times a decade. There have been three fatal attacks in California over the last 30 years. Like all cats, they stalk their prey and actively avoid confrontation — as evidenced by my 30kg dog treeing one. Chances are if you see a mountain lion you’re not going to be attacked. It just doesn’t happen like that. If you’re lucky enough to come in contact with one of these magnificent creatures, soak it up and be thankful.