A mechanic and a mountain lion were both startled to discover each other early Friday morning in Palmdale, California. The young female lion had most likely wandered out of Angeles National Forest sometime during the night on her trek to find a home range. As the sun rose, she sought shelter to sleep through the day among some boxes in a quiet, storage alcove by the entrance to LJ Automotive.
As employee Hank Barkefelt came to open the auto shop in the morning, both got the shock of a lifetime.
"I just opened up the shop like I do every morning, and he came out from a little cubby hole we have back there and just stumped me against the wall and took off," said Hank Barkefelt. "She wasn't aggressive at all, no teeth, no nothing."
Barkefelt called 911 who notified the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Wardens in Region 5 are experienced at resolving mountain lion encounters, partly due to working with two local lion research projects, and the few times each year that lions wander into urban areas around Los Angeles.
These wildlife officers realized the lion was lost, frightened, and not acting aggressively. The cat simply wanted to get away and there was no reason to shoot her.
"In general, a healthy mountain lion that isn't injured or cornered doesn't represent a huge risk to people, as long as they stay clear of it," said Marty Wall of Fish and Wildlife.
It took some searching for wardens to eventually locate the mountain lion on the auto shop's property. But by 11 a.m. she had been tranquilized and loaded into the back of a pickup truck. Officers even poured a little water on her to try to keep her temperature down in the rising summer heat.
Two years ago California became the first state to enact a law protecting mountain lions that accidentally wander into human-populated areas. The law specifies the animal can only be killed if it is posing an imminent threat to public health or safety, which is defined as exhibiting "one or more aggressive behaviors directed toward a person that is not reasonably believed to be due to the presence of responders." Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no longer a death sentence for a mountain lion.
While state game agencies in Washington and Colorado also humanely relocate lost lions, California remains the only state to enact this policy into law. And meanwhile, states like Arkansas and Kentucky will kill the only lion within their state borders; and South Dakota and Montana have zero tolerance policies for lions.