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In the Shadow of the Big Cats

Aug. 30, 2004
Aug. 30, 2004

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Aug. 30, 2004

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In the Shadow of the Big Cats

I went for a run with a friend last week. He took me to the Cactus Trail in Orange (Calif.) County's Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. Last Jan. 8 Mark Reynolds was on this trail. The speculation is that Reynolds was squatting over his bike repairing a snapped chain link when the mountain lion attacked. The animal dragged him off the trail and hid his dead body in the underbrush. Reynolds was 35.

This is an article from the Aug. 30, 2004 issue Original Layout

Standing at the spot where the big cat stashed Reynolds, one feels remote and far from help, which, interestingly, one is not. Just over a nearby hill is an equestrian center. On a ridge to the south, a half mile away, is a row of expensive homes. None of these trappings of civilization made Reynolds any less vulnerable.

Several hours after Reynolds was attacked, the same animal ambushed Anne Hjelle, a 30-year-old ex-Marine and fitness instructor. Knocking her from her bike, the lion took her head in his jaws and began pulling her into the brush. Riding partner Debi Nicholls grabbed her friend by the feet, engaging in a tug-of-war with the big cat. Five other riders pitched in, shouting and throwing rocks until the lion released Hjelle. The lion was shot that night. After six hours of surgery to repair damage to the nerves and muscles in her face, Hjelle was back on her bike in April.

In June, California's Department of Fish and Game rolled out its most comforting statistic: There have been just 15 certifiable mountain lion attacks on people in the state since 1890. It is slightly less reassuring to note that 13 of those attacks have occurred since 1986. Of the six people killed by big cats, three have died in the past decade. The truth is, while your chances of being mauled by a mountain lion in California remain remote--"You're more likely to be killed driving to the trailhead," notes DFG spokesman Steve Martarano--they're less remote than they used to be.

Some see this as an ominous sign. Steve Edinger, an assistant chief with the DFG, points out, "More and more, people are moving into mountain lion territory. They may be adapting to humans." Other experts dispute that. It isn't mountain lion behavior that's changing, says Walter Boyce, director of the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. "There's no data to suggest [the increase] is related to lions becoming habituated to people," he says. "But the opportunities for encounters are much higher, because there are more of us in their shrinking habitat."

The advice remains the same: If you see a mountain lion on the trail, make noise, throw rocks, make yourself appear as large as possible. Don't run away--you'll seem like prey. And please, do not, as have a number of Southern Californians in the wake of the Whiting Park attacks, take up arms. In May the Los Angeles Times cited the example of a jogger who pulled a pistol out of his backpack and drew down on a mountain lion in Modjeska Canyon. (He didn't shoot, and the animal went away.) Paul Shelton, who manages the Supergo Bike shop in Laguna Hills, reported a surge in customers asking for Mace. "I don't carry it and don't plan on carrying it," he told me. "I told people to check their local gun shop."

Yeah, that's just what we need. Fat-tire freaks amped on adrenaline and packing heat. I tracked down one man who sometimes rides with a weapon. Gary Gosper is a member of the Huntington Beach Police Department's SWAT team. If he's biking someplace remote, he likes to have a gun along. "But it's not for animals," he says. "It's for humans."

Gosper knows that if a mountain lion jumps him, his Beretta isn't going to do him much good. "If he hasn't already killed you from the first bite, you're fighting for your life," he says. "So now you're gonna get to your firearm, which is in a backpack or fanny pack? Good luck."

Even if she'd had a gun in her hand--seldom advisable while mountain biking--it wouldn't have done Hjelle any good. She has told friends that all she saw when she was attacked was a blur over her shoulder; there was no time for her to react. Hjelle, who underwent further surgery on Aug. 5, has been posting updates on her progress on her website, www.AnneHjelle.com, which displays these verses from the Book of Timothy:

"But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so the message might be preached.... Also, I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion."

The next SI Adventure will appear in the Sept. 13 issue.

There have been just 15 certifiable mountain lion attacks in California since 1890--BUT 13 OF THOSE HAVE OCCURRED SINCE 1986.
COLOR PHOTOJOHN HAYES/APON THE PROWL As hikers, runners and bikers invade the big cats' habitat, dangerous encounters become more likely.COLOR PHOTOGEORGE D. LEPP/CORBIS (INSET)ON THE PROWL As hikers, runners and bikers invade the big cats' habitat, dangerous encounters become more likely.