Puma bites girl, forces closure of Rancho Preserve

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Town Crier File Photo
Signs warn Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve visitors of mountain lion activity in August.

Update (4 p.m. Feb. 20): The mountain lion has been captured and killed. For more, check out our updated story.

Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve remains closed days after a mountain lion attacked a 6-year-old girl there, as California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers search for the animal there. 

The child’s injuries – two puncture wounds and a scratch to her leg – were considered minor, and she was treated at the scene, according to Captain Todd Tognazzini of the DFW.

“She was very fortunate that an adult friend of her father was there,” Tognazzini said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “He violently pushed it off of her.”

The attack occurred at approximately 10 a.m. Sunday (Feb. 16) on the Wildcat Loop Trail approximately 2 miles from the preserve’s main parking area, according to a joint DFW-Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District press release.

The girl was part of a group of six adults and four children walking on the trail, Tognazzini said. A group of approximately 20 hikers passed them just before the incident.

“There were a lot of people on the trail; the weather was good,” Tognazzini said. “They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

When directed to a 110-pound taxidermy mountain lion specimen at the park visitor’s center, the girl’s family members said the suspect lion was at least that big, Tognazzini said. DNA analysis of clothing and medical supplies later confirmed a lion caused her injury, but there wasn’t enough genetic material to determine the sex of the animal.

DFW officers will continue to search the preserve until they’ve exhausted all resources, Tognazzini said. If the animal is captured, wildlife professionals will determine its fate. In January, law enforcement officials shot and killed a mountain lion in Orange County after it bit a 3-year-old boy on the back of the head, but that animal acted strangely after the attack. The boy was hospitalized with severe injuries and has recovered.

Wildcat Loop was among several Rancho trails temporarily closed in August after more than 20 reported sightings of a mountain lion family. A viral video taken by one park visitor at the time showed a mother lion with two playful cubs between 9 and 12 months of age. Eventually, officials closed the entire preserve as a safeguard until the animals self-relocated to an area less frequented by humans.

Mountain lions generally avoid people, but they require large habitats, and the recent encounters could be a testament to their shrinking territory, said Leigh Ann Gessner, a spokeswoman with Midpen. Currently, her organization is developing a wildlife crossing/recreational trail for animals and humans to access 30,000 acres of wildlands fragmented by Highway 17.

“It’s really important for animals like mountain lions to access the habitat they need,” Gessner said.

In fact, the hemming in of mountain lions by human development threatens the animals’ genetic diversity and could eventually lead to their extinction, Chris Wilmers, principal investigator of the Santa Cruz Puma Project, a partnership of DWF and U.C. Santa Cruz.

Visitors of parks and open space should remain vigilant when in mountain lion territory, Midpen urges. If an encounter occurs, remain calm, appear as large as possible, make loud noises and back away slowly.

Read updates on Rancho San Antonio County Park’s closure by visiting openspace.org/preserves/rancho-san-antonio. Check newsstands and the Town Crier website tomorrow for an article about recent mountain lion visits to Los Altos Hills homes.

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