Believing is Seeing

While working at Grand Canyon National Park, one of my duties was to catalog and -whenever possible-respond to mountain lion sightings in the Park. Sometimes this meant painstakingly reviewing all of the "wildlife sighting" observation cards turned into rangers throughout the summer. Other times it was more exciting, like the time I jumped in the car and raced out to Mojave Point, a popular view point along the West Rim where all of the tour buses stop and passengers get out to admire the view. The report, given third hand to me, was that there was a mountain lion standing astride a deer carcass, and that it seemed aggressive. My supervisor and I cruised out there, hearts pounding, wondering out loud how we were going to handle the situation. Would we have to close off the area to buses and visitors until the lion moved on? Move the deer carcass to encourage the lion to move on? And what did they mean by appeared to be aggressive?

When we arrived, we didn't see a thing, aside from the usual throng of tourists and a few buses parked along the rim. We gingerly stepped into the treed area, a triangle-shaped patch of land between the pullout and the main road. After about 10 minutes of searching the area for lion sign, I noticed a small bobcat underneath a bush, doing it's best to hide. I pointed it out to Elaine, and as soon as the cat realized it was spotted, the little cat ran for cover under another bush. We continued to scour the ground for additional sign, and came upon the deer carcass. It was not a lion kill, but it did appear that the timid little bobcat had been feeding on it. I kept an eye on Mojave Point for the next 3 to 4 days, making notes on the bobcat's behavior as it continued to feed on the deer.Photo caption: Bobcat with Elk Carcass on East Rim Drive, reported as mountain lion ( different story, same general theme), 2002. Photo by remote camera.

This experience was one of many examples of investigating a lion report that turned out to be false. In fact, the vast majority of sightings were cases of mistaken identity, and in some cases pure hype. That's not to say that all sightings are false. On occasion there were sightings reported by people traveling in remote areas like the river corridor, who found lion tracks, or came across a lion on a trail. These people would report the sighting as soon as they got back to civilization, sometimes 2 or 3 weeks after the encounter, so I wasn't able to race to the scene to verify their accounts. I sometimes led more credence to these backcountry sightings, which often came in singly, involved more detail, and weren't spurred by hype. There was a catchy phenomena I noticed that surrounded the "front-country" sightings. When one person said they saw a lion, suddenly everything that went bump in the night was thought to be a lion. They were contagious.

Once people heard that there was a lion sighting in an area, more subsequent sightings would come pouring in over the course of the next few days or weeks, in or around that area, regardless of whether the original sighting had been confirmed or discounted. When one person said they saw a lion, suddenly everything that went bump in the night was thought to be a lion.

Take Mather Campground, for example. Sure, there may have been a confirmed sighting once or twice in the 5 years that I spent with the Park Service, but there were infinitely more legendary sightings.

One Sunday morning, I was at home when I got a call from Park Dispatch. There's a lion in Campsite number 57 right now they said. Lounging comfortably under a bush. As usual, I raced over to investigate, heart pounding so loud that the sound filled my ears. How was I going to deal with such a brazen, and evidently, mellow, lion? The rangers working at the entrance kiosk to the campground assured me that there was a lion reported in the campsite earlier that morning, said to be "as big as a German Shepherd", and reportedly, it was still there.

They handed me a sighting form filled out by the European couple who had checked out minutes before my arrival, not because of the visitor in their campsite, but simply because they had to get on with their trip. I glanced over the meticulously filled in form. The couple had written simply that there was a "cat" in the campsite, which they described as being gray in color, and about 40 - 50 cm long. Now I'm not super familiar with the metric system, but I think that's like, a foot or more. The size of your basic house cat, let's say.

I arrived at the campsite on full alert and looked around for the German Shepherd-size cat said to be lounging around. Nada. After poking around the capsite perimeter for a bit, I came across a little gray feral housecat, softly mewling as it lay staring at me from under a bush. German shepherd my ass, I thought, who was it that reported this as a mountain lion anyway? Clearly the couple that reported it simply said there was a cat in their campsite, and from there the rumors snowballed out of control. The little gray housecat ran into a culvert under the road as I approached, so I left the campsite, stopping by the campground kiosk on my way out to let the rangers know that the coast was clear. No danger today folks, just a little kittycat.

But by then it was too late. The girlscout troop in the campsite across the road from the little gray cat's lair had already heard about the mountain lion sighting.
That night, as they lay terrified in their sleeping bags all in a row, they were reportedly kept up by the sounds of the wild animal throughout the night. On the sighting form that they completed, they said that it "sounded really big." Of course they heard a really big lion all night, after hearing that one was lounging less than 20 feet away from where you were camping, wouldn't you?

Sightings and other various reports of lion activity from the campground continued over the next few weeks. Rumors spread like wildfire throughout the park. Friends and coworkers would repeatedly ask me about the lion in the campground. Had I heard? What was I going to do about it? We set some humane cage traps for the feral kitty, hoping to catch and relocate her and stop the madness, but she was elusive. I couldn't catch her. I joked to friends that I wanted to catch her and make her my pet, taking her around to show people the lion that terrorized the campground. I never did. Eventually she moved off on her own, leaving the legend as her legacy.

Years later, responding to yet another lion reported in Mather Campground (I found bobcat tracks in the mud where the "lion" had been), the ranger working in the kiosk informed me that a few summers back there had been a lion hanging around in the campground for a while. In campsite number 57, she proclaimed. Oh yeah, I told her, I was there, and it turned out to be a feral cat. No, she argued, insisting that this was a different one. This one was as big as a German Shepherd....

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