Big Cat People

By RJ Daniel Maher PhD


Mountain lions (Puma concolor) are remarkably reclusive apex predators adept at avoiding humans.  When hemmed in by paved roads and high fences, however, mountain lions are often forced to interact with us—along with our vehicles, poisons, bullets, and centuries old misunderstandings about their true nature—and such encounters seldom end well for the cats.  The good news is that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the impacts we are having on our fellow travelers, and efforts are being made to reduce puma mortality in certain locales.  The fact remains, though, that space and time is running out for our American lions, and more needs to be done to ensure their survival.  Recent events involving the life and times of a puma living in the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area above Malibu, California, serve as a good example.


Just after Thanksgiving in 2016, a GPS collared mountain lion (aka P45) implicated in the deaths of eleven penned alpaca (Vicugna pacos) was marked for death by the alpacas’ owner.  Before the lion could be taken, however, news of the attack on the alpacas and the cat’s impending death compelled hundreds of local community members to demand a halt in the proceedings, pending a fuller situational review.

In response, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) agreed to hold a ‘public workshop’ the following day, during which a human-wildlife conflict special response team member presented scientific findings from ongoing mountain lion studies involving the lion in question to the overflow crowd in attendance.  Other wildlife professionals, policy makers, and public representatives then contributed their perspectives on the matter, followed by input from local community members.

In the process, a wide variety of related points of view were expressed; alternatives to depredation were forwarded; a free lion-proof livestock enclosure was provided to the alpaca rancher by The Mountain Lion Foundation; the alpaca rancher squashed her right to have the lion killed; and P45 was granted a pardon.

The question then became: given the long history of similar disputes between comparable types of stakeholders in the area, including the various bounty, game, and depredation programs traditionally relied upon to resolve them, why was this mountain lion spared the fate of its antecedents?  Was it the threat of its species’ extirpation?  The type of ranch upon which the attack occurred?  The gift of a lion-proof enclosure?  The CDFW’s management of the conflict?  Or were the arguments that held sway emblematic of new ways of thinking about living in human-wildlife interface areas?

Why We Do What We Do Toward Big Cats

The truth is, we know very little about why people behave the way they do toward carnivores.  And while wildlife management professionals are expected to develop a full appreciation for the functional role such ‘flagship’ species play in the ecosystems of which they are an integral part, comparatively sparse training focuses on the political and social-emotional dimensions that significantly affect the quality and duration of such animals’ lives and genetic lines.  Which is to say that despite the good work that has been done on the subject, we have gleaned little in-depth knowledge of the competing and overlapping wildlife values held by the stakeholders involved in human-wildlife conflicts.

Mountain lion kitten
Photo by National Park Service (Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, applying categorization schemas derived from such studies to an analysis of the basis of people’s views expressed in the P45 debate,[1] for example, suggests a shift is underway in people’s perceptions of big cats.  To wit, more people in this case study expressed adherence to ecologistic-scientific values for mountain lions than people polled in similar studies in the past.  More people were of the opinion that such animals had intrinsic value, and less viewed the cats in simple utilitarian ways.  Significantly, too, less expressed negative opinions about the presence of the big cats than in comparative studies, while the percentage of moralists, aesthetes, and symbolists remained about the same.  It is important to note as well that none of the expressed views analyzed were found to be decidedly naturalistic or dominionistic in value orientation, as that, too, is a big change.

What Might All This Mean?

It appears that, for at least the people who expressed their views about mountain lions in the P45 debate, most of whom lived in or close to the home range of the big cat [i.e., a marginally rural area that is home to approximately 150,000 mostly liberal, non-Hispanic white, upper middle class men and women in nearly equal number of average early middle-age—all of which are predictors of the more ecologically inclined], mountain lions are slowly coming to be viewed as, in the words the alpaca rancher in Malibu, “biologically and ecologically important.”  So, when one of the estimated 250 mountain lions targeted for extirpation via depredation permits in California last year was allowed to live after preying on farm animals, it seemed fair to say that progress was made.

[1] Results based on a computer assisted coded content analysis of 446 public expressions of wildlife value statements relating to the above events involving the puma known as P45 in news articles, television and radio newscasts, talkshow segments, social media sites, direct participants in the public workshop, and online public comments sections appearing beneath news posts. These statements were edited to eliminate redundancy in contributions from individual contributors, leaving 214 discrete statements for final analysis from 189 individually identified event participants. See sample content.