The reverberations in the Valley continued into the night on Christmas Eve, 2003 after the day's shocking event. They were attributed to the fact that we had awoken to find one of our sheep lying up against the pasture fence, 60 yards from our house, with half her flank chewed off, a leg missing, and her throat a bloody mess — slaughtered, it was soon determined, by a mountain lion. Such news travels throughout the area very rapidly.
Mountain Lions are an endangered species, and as such are protected, but as a result of this policy their numbers have been dramatically rising over the past decade along with the inevitable increase in their appearances amongst "civilization." Only the Government Trapper is allowed to kill them, and then only if they are a threat to humans or livestock — it seems a valid policy to me. Most of the grazing land in our region is used up by vineyards and to see evidence of a lion was quite a rare occurrence at this end of the Valley where there are less sheep and cattle than further south. However, apart from us and a few others with small flocks/herds, our one neighbor has many, many sheep and lambs at this time of year and is in a constant battle with the threats posed by coyotes and wild pigs — and now a mountain lion had turned up.
At about 8.30am on Wednesday, Dec 24th, I had stepped on to our deck with a hot cup of coffee in hand to be greeted by the remains of a dead bird (just a few feathers and a beak) courtesy of one of our cats, O.J., appropriately!
Ahh, the sight of death in the morning, I thought. Little did I realize that this was just the beginning. I glanced out towards the sheep pasture and did my usual knee-jerk reaction of a head count — only six, not seven! No real surprise to me as it is ridiculous how often one miscounts sheep and I was just about to recount when I noticed another woolly mound against the far fence, about 40 yards from the others, not moving and on its side. I feared the worse and immediately ran down to the pasture and hurrying through the gate, whilst making sure our four inquisitive border collies stayed outside the fence, I approached the scene.
There was quite a lot of blood, although I'm told that coyotes (unlike lions who kill just for food) do this for fun and make a real mess when they get hold of their prey. There was torn wool where the lion had attempted to drag the 130 pound ewe off through the fence to bury it, but this had proved too difficult and he had been unable to get it through and into the woods on the other side.
The animal would have been planning to return at nightfall and dig up the sheep to continue with the feast. Fortunately (easy for me to say), the elderly ewe would have died very quickly, either from having her throat ripped out or from a heart attack brought on by sheer panic.
I returned to the house and announced to my wife, Patty, "One of the old ewes has been killed," and promptly called the Trapper. He said he'd be here in an hour which was surprising to me having only just become familiar with "Boonville Time." Sure enough he was here at the appointed time and on his arrival at the "crime scene" he immediately deduced that the culprit was indeed a mountain lion and began to plan for its capture. He decided not to use his dogs as he was convinced the lion was only a matter of yards away in the woods and "staring at us right now." The dogs would only chase the lion down through the woods to Highway 128 and who knows what might happen at that point. No, a trap would have to be set and the waiting game would begin. Shortly after, the Mendocino County Fish and Game Warden showed up and issued a permit to kill the lion and informed me that the lion would not be saved and released back into the wild — that policy is not adopted when livestock has been killed. I said I understood, although perhaps I didn't.
The Trapper continued to set up the trap — unfortunately using the ewe as bait. As I stood nearby, acting as if I had seen this hundreds of times before rather than never, the Trapper removed her innards, stomach, bowels, etc. before they began to decay and smell — not very tempting even for the hungriest of lions. He then dragged the ewe's body to the back of a cage about 12 feet long with a four-foot wide and high opening and a latched door which is only released if the lion gets to the body at the end of the cage and steps on the release device. The trapper said he would come out tomorrow to shoot the lion if we catch it.
"But it's Xmas day tomorrow," I said, thinking he would be with his family and friends all day. "It's what we have to do," he replied.
Apart from Hugh the Ram, that particular ewe was the most "aggressive" of our sheep and was the "lead sheep" amongst the ewes — each flock has one. Having seen her refusing to back off and trying to stare down our sheep dogs, Grace and Rose, we believe she died as a result of bravely standing her ground at the front of the other sheep and confronting a large, wild, hungry lion — the two situations are hardly similar. She had by far the loudest "baaaaaahhhh," and was very pushy — nudging and bumping into me each day as we brought them their alfalfa pellets and oat hay — not pleasant when she represents a 130 pound soggy sponge after it has been raining.
As we left the scene, I mentioned that Patty and I were having a leg of lamb for our Xmas dinner. The Trapper grinned and said, "You're not the only one!" Despite a sense of sadness, I cracked a smile as the Trapper and Warden laughed loudly.
As darkness fell we waited to see what would happen. There was torrential rain and very strong winds. The dogs came inside, the remaining sheep huddled in the corner of their field, no doubt extremely fearful. And for us it was time for a bottle of wine — at the very least.
At about 10pm we let the dogs out and in a couple of minutes they were back at the door. We knew something was up. I grabbed a torch/flashlight, and we went onto the deck to be confronted by a thick, damp mist. I peered out through the black night across the land towards the cage where I shone the light. Two very large, golden yellow eyes stared right back! It was quite a shock.
I scanned across the land and saw the six remaining sheep huddled even closer together than normal in the near corner of the pasture. It appeared that the lion was in the cage with the remains of the ewe although Patty thought he might be on top of the cage, not in it.
Should I walk out to the pasture and confirm either way? Being a city boy and having no idea whether the lion, if not in the cage, would either run off or attack, I decided another glass of wine was preferable to ending up like the ewe. It was just too difficult from our vantage point and with the mist to confirm where the lion was. So we decided not to call the Trapper until daylight when we could inform him of the situation either way. We went to bed and I couldn't stop thinking about the lion and whether or not it should be killed. I have supported over 20 animal charities over many years and this was a very strange situation for me. I had been an animal-loving city boy all my life and now this.
I awoke at 7am, immediately grabbed the binoculars (even before coffee) and went outside into the bright, early morning sunlight — yes, we had a lion in the cage. I walked across the land and approached the cage. The lion was in wonderful condition — big round eyes, huge feet, sleek coat, weighing in at about 80 pounds of rippling muscle. It was a little agitated by my presence but more scared than aggressive, avoiding eye contact, and pacing gracefully from one end of the cage to the other. It had not touched any more of the ewe and the Trapper later informed me that it would have spent the whole night since its capture trying to get out of the trap and would have lost all interest in the sheep the moment the gate had closed behind it.
I stayed at one end of the cage for about 15 minutes, repeating over and over, "It's OK, it's OK," as I kneeled down. He calmed down and sat at the opposite end of the cage, occasionally looking at me with those huge eyes. I had nothing but admiration for this wonderful animal and really hoped there was another way of dealing with this. For a brief second or two I thought about releasing him — if only he would just leave our land and catch some of the deer, jack rabbits, and wild hogs way back in the woods instead of killing our sheep — and the livestock of others now that he had the taste. I returned to the house, feeling very subdued, and called the Trapper.
He showed up about 40 minutes later with his son and a friend. They immediately walked to the cage. I followed. In seconds he had deduced it was a two-year old male most likely ostracized by the rest of its pride and now hunting alone. He aimed his rifle from about 20 feet away and shot the lion in the head. The beautiful animal reared up and fell in a heap on top of the ewe — blood pouring from his wound and mouth. The magnificent beast shuddered for a few seconds, heart still beating, and then he expired. I was shocked at the suddenness of it all and felt very sad indeed.
The Trapper and his friend carried out a brief necropsy, measured the lion, took blood samples, and carried it, and the ewe, to their truck to take them for a more detailed exam which would enlighten the authorities as to where the lion had been and what it had been eating recently, etc. We chatted for a time about his job and the continuing battle between man and nature. He told me that the lion would have been hunting alone out there, covering an area of about 100 square miles, and there was a chance I would never see one again — very few people ever do despite living up here.
We wished each other a "Merry Christmas" and I thanked him for dealing with the problem so quickly and efficiently and we said goodbye. It was a Christmas morning I will never forget and for days later I continued to feel very ambivalent about the whole episode despite the fact that two local farmers with livestock (cattle and sheep with lambs) had already called to ask about what happened and both were in no doubt whatsoever that the lion had to be killed.
Despite friends from the City expressing somewhat different points of view, particularly those who had gathered signatures in the 80s to "save the lions" in the first place, I realize that there was only one way of dealing with such a situation.
Later on Christmas Day we tucked into a beautiful leg of lamb with the usual "fixings" and the irony of eating such a meal only hours after a dead sheep had left the land with only three legs was not lost upon us.
All day long the remaining sheep were quiet and that behavior continued for many days thereafter. They repeatedly stared across at the fence area where the ewe was found and would not walk down that way. We gave them some apples and extra alfalfa but they seemed very skittish and the smallest one was particularly frightened for a couple of weeks. We have not had any more sightings or evidence of any predatory animals on or around our land since then, but with the winter months here once again, and food a scarcity in the hills and forests where they reside, it would not shock me to have a repeat visit. But what do I know? I'm just a confused city boy in the country.
R.I.P. The Mountain Lion — and the Ewe.