Mountain lion killed in California wine country sparks anger

In this Feb. 5, 2019, photo provided by the Audubon Canyon Ranch is the collared mountain lion P15 Jupiter that was part of a research project near Mount Veeder Road. The animal was shot last week by a resident on Redwood Road who was defending his sheep, setting off angry criticism and leaving a family defending its actions. 

A young mountain lion trapped last week and fitted with an electronic collar as part of an Audubon Canyon Ranch research project was shot dead Saturday outside a west Napa home, where it already had preyed on two sheep on successive nights and was trying to snag a third when it was killed by a resident.

The incident set off a round of angry criticism aimed at residents of the Redwood Road home for choosing to kill the wild cat rather than better secure their livestock — a central tenet of the nonprofit conservation organization’s Living with Lions program.

It’s proved painful, too, for the Napa family now feeling the need to defend actions driven by concern for the safety of three young children and their small family herd amid a slew of hateful social media comments — not to mention gawkers parked on their rural lane recording video and, in one case, calling out hostile remarks.

With a cougar pilfering sheep three nights running about 20 feet from their front door, shooting seemed the only solution, said Alejandra Calderon, whose husband, a hunter, took the fatal shot.

“As a parent, I hope that they understand how scared we were in the moment,” she said. “It was a scary experience.”

It’s the third time in the 2 ½-year history of the Living with Lions program that one of the study cats has been killed after preying on domestic livestock, with each occasion giving rise to increasingly intense public reaction, given growing awareness and popularity of the program, particularly in Sonoma County.

In each case, those killed were young lions still learning to hunt and believed to be only recently dispersing from their mothers. Forced to fend for themselves, they preyed opportunistically on animals improperly secured for mountain lion territory, said Quinton Martins, a South African biologist and big cat expert who runs the program.

Martins and other conservationists say the onus is on those who own domestic animals to keep them properly enclosed and secured, especially between dusk and dawn, when mountain lions do most of their hunting, given the importance of preserving dwindling numbers of cougars, the apex predator in the region, and maintaining ecological balance of some kind.

“There isn’t anybody who can give me a single good reason about how the killing of that cat does anything good,” Martins said.

State Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Lt. Jim Jones said two officers have investigated the incident and verified that the sheep were killed and that the family had reached out several times to the agency. He said the family didn’t know to ask for a permit to kill the animal, but also did not need to have one if the livestock is in imminent danger.

Martins, who studied leopards in his home country, has since 2016 been working to understand the dominant animal species in much of California, mapping individual lion’s territories and travels in the Sonoma Valley, identifying key habitats and migration corridors and promoting conservation.

He recently was permitted to expand the study into much of Mendocino and Lake counties. The study area also extends into Napa County.

The newest lion, known as P15, is the 15th to be collared during the program’s run and first came to Martins’ attention on Feb. 4 in what was, even then, a stay of execution.

Patricia Damery of Napa, who posted about the lion’s death on social media, said she doesn’t like that the family responsible for its death is being ostracized. Damery herself once thought of having the same lion killed after it killed one of her goats.

She called state Fish and Wildlife personnel to trap and kill the lion, and it spent three or four hours dismembering her goat to bait the trap, she said. Damery said she got ahold of Martins as the sky began to darken. He deactivated Fish and Wildlife’s traps and set up his own.

Around 1 a.m., Martins received a cellphone alert that the lion had entered the trap. Watching him collect samples and take measurements was a transformative experience, Damery said.

“I felt really in shock finding my goat in the shape it was in,” she said. “Martins’ group teaches you how to secure your animals (and) how important it is not to shoot these animals.”

While commenters on Damery’s original post overwhelmingly decried the lion’s death, others came to the family’s defense, saying they would do the same to protect their children.

The polarizing debate isn’t getting anyone anywhere, Damery said. When her goat was killed, she had help moving her animals while she built a new shelter for them.

The family’s sheep, however, are “sitting ducks for the next predator,” she said.

“They’re emotional arguments without too many facts,” Damery said. “The facts of the situation are somewhere in between.”

Anyone wishing to contact Martins for help with a mountain lion can call 707-721-6560.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Register reporter Courtney Teague contributed to this report.