The Carnivore Next Door

February 7, 2019

By Miguel Ordeñana

Similar to making it in show business, sometimes one's ability to document wildlife in L.A. is all about who you know. I ran into Hanna Mesraty, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum Guest Relations Manager, at the Natural History Museum and she excitedly shared that her friend and Bel Air resident, Georgina Huljich (Architect/UCLA Professor) had recorded a security video of two pumas chasing each other in her backyard. The Woolsey Fire just took place so she was concerned that this backyard puma sighting was a result of the fire.

Usually I am skeptical when I am alerted to third party puma stories, due to misidentifications of species, poor video quality or lack of familiarity with local wildlife. Even when the story is partially true, I am often later disappointed when I find out that the location was in a different city or state. However, Hanna happens to have a biological research background and is someone that I know and trust, so I was intrigued. I thought "Wow! These must be siblings playing with each other or a kitten playing with her mom." Play is very important for puma development; it is how they learn to hunt and fight. I asked if she could share the footage and exact location before I got too excited and set myself up for disappointment. Hanna said "Sure! I'll get permission from my friend and figure out a way to send it over!" She then sent me a video that definitely lived up to the hype and was even more interesting than I ever imagined.

Photo of a puma sprinting towards a deer in a Bel Air backyard.  photo: Georgina Huljich

The videos that she sent me were security videos of a puma dashing after another large-brown blur. My initial interpretation was that it was two young adult siblings chasing each other. But something didn't seem to add up. The brown blur had a distinct running motion and body shape that distinguished it from a puma. Watching it in my office, I shouted "This is a mule deer!"

To my knowledge, this is a rare event to capture on film in the wild, much less in someone's backyard because pumas are nocturnal, and secretive ambush predators. Motion-activated cameras have provided scientists and the general public with better insight on their activity at night and sometimes even a glimpse into their behavior in different habitat types, including our neighborhoods. According to L.A. area National Park Service puma research, GPS collar data indicates that local pumas rarely roam through residential areas and NPS biologists almost never find their deer kills in backyards.

This story actually also acts as a follow up on a previous post I wrote about a mysterious male puma that lives within the 405 and 101 gap within the Santa Monica Mountains. Based on this footage, it is very possible that this uncollared puma is continuing to survive in a state of limbo between the more expansive yet mostly charred western Santa Monica mountains and the very isolated Griffith Park, home of the famous P-22. Although this section of the Santa Monica mountains was spared by the devastating Woolsey Fire, it is a pretty small and narrow stretch of habitat. Therefore, this puma, if it is the same puma, is in a P-22-like situation where he is safe from the dangers related to competing with other territorial pumas over space, but is possibly more vulnerable to rat poison exposure and human-wildlife interactions.

Photo of P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion taken Dec. 2018 shortly before his 7th anniversary in the park.  photo: Miguel Ordeñana

With security cameras and camera traps becoming much more accessible and popular, some local residents may inaccurately interpret more YouTube videos of backyard wildlife as a sign of population spikes or increased use of neighborhoods by wildlife. But without more cameras placed out methodically throughout Bel Air, and without a GPS collar tracking this adaptive male mountain lion's use of backyards as kill sites, we may never know how often this puma uses backyards or how his movements and diet compare to pumas with less urban territories. Fortunately, many homeowners like Georgina Huljich are viewing this exciting wildlife observation as an educational moment. She shared the following in response to the video: "We have had other wild animals in our yard, but never expected to have a puma! We were very surprised about it being in such an urban setting; we live just 5’ away from Sunset Blvd., and the idea of having a puma encounter on the sidewalk is pretty scary actually. I guess nature is closer than what we think! Of course the first thought was our concern about wildlife in general and how it’s being displaced from its natural habitat due to the new normal of all natural disasters taking place lately in California (fires, mudslides, etc, etc)."

Many people ask me about the impact of the Woolsey fire on our local pumas and wildlife. My response is that other than the obvious direct impacts of the fire on animals unable to escape and at least two pumas that died as a result, it is too soon to tell until biologists are allowed some time to collect more wildlife data post-fire. Whether or not the fire is "forcing" pumas and other wildlife to use urban edges and backyards more often, we have a lot of work to do regarding making our backyards and neighborhoods safer for urban wildlife.

But so far so good for this particular puma, since his first being discovered in 2014. Although a puma chasing a deer through a backyard comes with its risks, this is also an example of pumas exhibiting their capability to make the best out of a range ravaged by habitat loss and fragmentation.

Although the footage ends anticlimactically with the puma's dinner escaping into the night, I learned in a LAist article that it is likely that the same puma ended up catching a deer in someone else's backyard somewhere between the 405 and 101 not too long after Georgina’s video. Although a puma has been known to live within that area since 2014, capturing this individual to GPS collar it has been a nearly impossible task, partially due to the lack of suitable capture locations. Therefore, this knowledge of a secure location that the puma would likely revisit a few nights in a row to complete its kill made the near impossible possible.

Tragically, due to the government shutdown, Jeff Sikich, the National Parks Service Biologist who manages puma research in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, could not act on this rare opportunity to capture and collar this elusive puma. Jeff highlighted that "Those opportunities don't come around that often, like hardly ever!" Hopefully, this puma will end up making a kill in someone's backyard again, or else we may never truly know how this puma is able to survive in this fragmented habitat bookended by two major freeways.

Similar to the fate of this male puma, this video further makes the case that the future of human-carnivore coexistence in L.A. has not been decided yet. Aside from preserving existing green space and improving connectivity, there are urgent practices that we could be acting on immediately such as removing rat poison from our backyards and urban ecosystems. My next article will focus on this silent killer that is devastating our local carnivore populations.

(Posted by: Miguel Ordeñana)

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