A Wildlife Oasis in Suburbia

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The 88-acre canyon is a wildlife oasis, regularly visited by puma, coyote, deer and other animals, located in the middle of a suburban landscape. It is shoehorned between homes and businesses, perched on the rim of the canyon, bordered by busy roads and separated from other similar, small wild spaces.

Fragments of the Wild

Although 88 Acres may seem like a large area to the people who live on the rim and walk the trails, it isn’t large enough to successfully supply enough food, territory and mates for many of the wild animals who are regularly filmed there. This small wildlife oasis is only a small part of a network of other wild spaces in this suburban-scape. These natural places are separated from each other by busy roads, highways, fences and structures. In addition to these splintered, wild areas there is a large open space managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. In order to obtain enough food and to find mates, the animals have to travel between these green pockets. It’s dangerous for them; many do not survive past their first year, becoming victims of vehicles.

Share the space, avoid humans

Because of the size of the canyon, animals, including bobcats, coyotes, deer and mountain lions share the habitat with each other as well as the people who have discovered this small slice of paradise. Over the past 4 years, my wildlife cameras have recorded 1,000s of vignettes of wild animals hunting, patrolling, raising their young and living their lives along the trails that crisscross through the little wildlife oasis. Amazingly, the animals are mostly successful at avoiding people who hike, walk, jog and exercise their dogs on and off leash.

Mountain lion family

It is never predictable. Weeks can go by and only a few animals are captured on film, but then there are other times when the memory cards are full of extraordinary wildlife. Recently, the little canyon has been in for a treat. Along with the regular wild residents, mountain lions are visiting. Although we1 regularly film pumas, this is the first time in 4 years that we are privileged to glimpse a little mountain lion family—a mom with her cub.

Lions in the hood

As a rule, pumas don’t want anything to do with humans and will attempt to time their visits to avoid us. Unfortunately, because of the increasing pressures of urbanization, it’s becoming harder for them to avoid detection. Their wild environments are shrinking, fragmenting and disappearing. As their habitats are squeezed, animals have little choice but to venture into nearby neighborhoods, seeking food, water and territory. Deer feast on plants around homes and the predators, including mountain lions and coyote, follow them. Felidae/Bay Area Puma Project conducted a study in the San Francisco Bay Area to predict the habitats that mountain lions occupy in these highly fragmented urban and suburban landscapes. The study found that instead of pumas being partial to areas with a high density of prey (deer), they prefer forested habitats that have sufficient cover that supports their stalk and ambush hunting strategies.

Human residents are seeing wild animals with increasing frequency. Recently, a home security camera located near the canyon filmed a large male mountain lion killing a female lion early in the morning and then dragging her down the street.

Mountain lions are highly territorial; males especially do not tolerate other lions in their territory. If their habitats weren’t shrinking and becoming increasingly splintered, the two may have never encountered each other. It is possible that both lions followed the deer into the neighborhood where the fatal confrontation occurred.

This may be a video of the male lion, crossing the busy road that borders the canyon a week after the deadly battle.

Usually our local mountain lions visit the canyon late at night, when people aren’t around. A study was conducted about five years ago that showed that even the sound of human voices was enough to startle them away from their meals. Confrontations with humans are rare. According to California Fish and Wildlife, there have been 19 attacks since 1984. Of those 19, three were fatal. The last fatality in the Bay Area occurred in 1909 in Morgan Hill and that mountain lion had rabies.

Although encounters between mountain lions and people are rare, it’s important to be cautious. Children should always be accompanied by adults and it’s safer to not hike alone. If you do happen to see a puma or a coyote, don’t run. Instead morph into a large, fearsome human—wave your arms, do jumping jacks and yell. Minimize your chances of crossing paths with predators by enjoying the wild areas only during the day. Pumas are generally the most active between dusk and dawn. Thousand of videos from trail cameras show wildlife activity occurring predominantly at night and in the early morning, before first light.

We are fortunate to have natural habitats adjacent to our communities as well as small wild pockets within some of our towns. Unfortunately, because of the increase in urbanization and the growing population, these habitats are disappearing, becoming increasingly fragmented and reduced in size. By themselves, they are not large enough to support and sustain healthy ecosystems—but, together they form a network. Wildlife has no choice but to travel across dangerous roads and sometimes into the neighborhoods in order to access these wild areas for food and mates. Although they want to avoid people, expect to occasionally spot wild animals on the roads, in your yards and on security cameras2.

  1. Years ago I started monitoring cameras in this canyon solely for the Bay Area Puma Project (Felidae Conservation Fund)–one of our scientists identified it as good location for research. After a few years, BAPP turned it over to me and although it’s still part of our research, it is the primary focus of my articles. 
  2. Thank you Zara McDonald for fact checking.  

Marilyn is a certified cat behavior consultant (The Cat Coach, LLC). Not surprisingly, she’s fascinated by feline behaviors. This started with household cats and then after witnessing a puma being killed a few blocks from her home in the suburbs, expanded to include local mountain lions and bobcats. A few years after the tragedy, she joined the Bay Area Puma Project/Felidae Conservation Fund, maintaining trail cameras, writing and helping wherever she can. Her focus is on how urbanization is affecting apex predators’ behaviors.

She is also an author and educator. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior issues through clicker training, environmental changes as well as other positive reinforcement techniques. She gives presentations throughout the United States as well as writes columns and articles for a variety of venues. She is also frequently interviewed for podcasts, print and on line publications. Additionally Marilyn is a frequent guest on television and radio and has appeared, along with her Bengals and Savannah Cat on Animal Planet, CBS, ABC, KGO and others.

Join Marilyn for lively discussions about all things feline on her Facebook page.

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