Today, we collared our newest puma, 39M, a young, dispersal-aged male in the most bizarre capture scenario imaginable. Instead of finding him using hound dogs among redwoods or trapping him in a cage with some road-kill deer, we found 39M in downtown Santa Cruz, near Ocean St and Soquel Ave, trapped in a narrow aqueduct that flows to the San Lorenzo River. We were alerted to his presence by Santa Cruz police and by the media, and quickly rushed to the scene to help in any way that we could. Working together with the police, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Wildlife Emergency Services, we successfully tranquilized and removed the puma from the crowded city neighborhood and released him into a location nearby with much more appropriate habitat.
I want to emphasize that today’s rescue of 39M would not have been possible without the cooperation of several agencies and the new Fish and Wildlife policy that encourages using non-lethal responses to mountain lions found in inhabited locations. Today’s capture and release of 39M was one of the first tests of this new policy, and we are all very pleased with how well it worked out for everyone involved. Throughout the entire process, all of the agencies at the scene prioritized both the welfare of the animal and the safety of human inhabitants. 39M also made the fortuitous decision of jumping into the aqueduct, a fenced-off area that separated him from city streets and made it possible to capture him without further human interactions.
After we examined him, we saw that 39M was a very young male, probably around 18 months and newly separated from his mother. Young male pumas have a difficult time surviving the first few months after leaving the proverbial nest, but not many of them are unlucky enough to end up in the middle of a populated town. Put yourself in 39M’s paws: you’re on your own for the first time and the world is both strange and dangerous. You follow a green path that increasingly narrows until you’re suddenly in a backyard, and the next thing you know there are sirens and bright lights around you. Not knowing where to run, you spot a small bush and hunker underneath it, trying to shrink yourself down and wait for the cover of nightfall, when you can return to the woods you came from.
While some human witnesses who observed 39M’s journey through Santa Cruz may have interpreted his actions as an incursion by a vicious predator, 39M’s actions reveal that he was almost certainly trying to avoid detection and conflict with humans. Pumas who live near humans sometimes inadverdently follow greenbelts which end in neighborhoods. Young males are more likely to wander into urban areas as they travel far distances to explore new territories. In the past, many cases such as this one would have resulted in the puma being quickly shot. However, the California public has become more empathetic to the plight of pumas and recognize that their presence is not generally a threat to human safety, and are now willing to give lost individuals a chance to return to life in more open spaces.
Before releasing him, we outfitted 39M with a GPS tracking collar so that we can follow his progress in the coming months. We hope this experience in the city teaches him not to wander into Santa Cruz again. Regardless of the direction he travels, however, it is likely that he will encounter human neighbors in the future — the Santa Cruz mountains are nearly surrounded by development. While he has many future challenges to face, we are glad that today he was given the chance to live. We look forward to seeing where this young male travels in his quest to find and establish a territory. His capture may have been unconventional, but we’re glad to have him nonetheless.
Welcome to the project, 39M!