Cats and Dogs

Last week I thought I had a boil on the back of my neck. There was a hard swollen area that was sore to the touch and what felt, perhaps, like crusted puss at its apex (euwh!). After a couple of days and no improvement I asked Lorrie to take a look at it. It turned out it was a wood tick, not yet engorged, burrowing its way down to my blood supply. She was able to remove it and still alive we put it in a plastic baggie in case it was needed to id any strange after effects. The back of the neck is a favorite haunt for ticks as anyone with dogs knows. It turns out, that at just about the same time, a larger creature with a penchant for attacking necks was on the loose in Upper Ojai.

Clarissa Cornwell, our neighbor across the way, found pieces of deer vertebrae strewn about the hillside below Sulphur Mountain; later her dogs discovered the deer carcasses which were then inspected for telltale heamatomas and puncture wounds around the neck. The Mountain lion asphyxiates it prey by clamping its jaw around the neck. Their range is typically over 100 miles. The evidence was on the Sulphur Mountain side of the 150. South of the ridge, a little above the Cornwell's house, Wheeler Canyon drops down into Santa Paula and then the alluvial Oxnard plain stretches out beyond - unlikely terrain for a mountain lion. The south facing foothills on our side of the 150 back up to the Topa Topas and thence to the outskirts of Bakersfield in uninterrupted wildlands. The cat came from the north. Its wilderness corridor extends, just within the Los Padres National Forest, to north of San Luis Obispo and if we take its limits as the freeways then it and its ilk can roam west of the 5 all the way to the 580 that runs east west between San Jose and Oakland.

California still offers a remarkably open environment for a rich array of flora and fauna. It is not completely removed from its primal past. By way of contrast, Britain is one of the most extensively re-worked lands on the planet. Effectively deforested during the Roman occupation, and, after a six or seven hundred year respite known as the Dark Ages, consistently patchworked on an ever expanding scale as farmland from the medieval 'strips' of serfdom to the factory farms of today; be-ribboned with transportation networks from Roman roads to motorways, canals, railways and flightpaths; increasingly urbanized from hamlet, village, market town, city to conurbation; industrialized from Cornish tin-smelter to the coal mines and dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution to the present post-industrial age of nuclear power plants, hi-tech clean rooms and the office sprawl of financial services, Britain is a land entirely re-made from its arboreal beginnings. Perhaps it is some sort of atavistic imperative that impels the English, in significant numbers, to flee their patchwork land and find their bliss in Ojai and, more broadly, southern California - for this is a land upon which the hand of history has rested lightly.

The great threats to wildlife rangelands in California are freeways and exurbia. We on the Wildlife/Urban Interface don't help much either. As a top-predator, the mountain lion is key to the survival of southern California as one of the most biologically rich natural landscapes in the world. Because of the pressure that rapid growth has placed on its habitat, southern California has also been the focus of pioneering research into the science of habitat fragmentation and wildlife corridors. Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute, ( spoke eloquently on the issue in his talk at the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy recently entitled, Chaparral, Grizzly Bears and Condors, the Secrets of Ojai's Remarkable Shrubland Wilderness, February 20, 2010.

Richard is on a mission to raise Chaparral awareness and has now dedicated his professional life to its study, preservation and advocacy. A former fire fighter and high school Biology teacher, he is both an amusing and erudite champion of the elfin forest. His goals include the re-introduction of the grizzly to southern California (please tell me you were serious Richard) and the re-naming of the National Forests in the area to National Chaparral Preserves. He understands that his description of the landscape as a 'shrubland' while technically accurate, can be seriously misconstrued by those of us familiar with the Monty Python's use of the word shrubbery in their Holy Grail movie.

The state of California began working toward identifying priority conservation areas when Assembly Bill 2785 (Ruskin, 2008) was signed into law in August 2008. AB 2785 requires the Department of Fish and Game to identify and compile a database of California’s most critical areas for maintaining habitat connectivity, including wildlife corridors and habitat linkages. It's a start. Locally, Highway 150 is the southernmost of the state highways that currently imperil the mountain lion in its range from Ojai to Bakersfield. To the north is the 166 which runs between El Camino Real (101) at Santa Maria and the 5 at Bakersfield.

I believe I saw a young mountain lion one winter in Will Rogers State Historical Park in Los Angeles. I most definitely saw a full grown specimen outside of Great Barrington in western Massachusetts when it emerged from tall grasslands to run across the trail a few yards ahead of me.They are large animals. I am accustomed to seeing deer carcasses along the 150, killed by passing trucks. I do not want to see a mountain lion similarly destroyed.

Between the mechanical gauntlet that the these two highways represent, any number of hysterical, armed citizens imperil the big cats; and Department of Fish and Game Wardens are understandably risk averse when it comes to 'protecting' local human populations. As we saw with the Signal Street Bear, they err on the side of euthanasia. Upper Ojai Chaparralians live at the southern end of this grand wildlife corridor that supports a creature upon whose broad shoulders rests the health of our entire chaparral eco-system. This is both a privilege and a responsibility.

Clarissa has sensibly put her safety in the hands of her Kangal, the Turkish breed of dog renowned for their ability to mix it up with the big cats.