Trapping Lions at the Grand Canyon, Part 2
(If this is your first time here, click here to start at Part 1)....
I was hiking along the eastern edge of a small plateau- well, small compared to the Grand Canyon anyway. I was following the ridge above a canyon on my left that would soon curve sharply to the right. If I kept going in the direction I was headed, I would end up at the tip of the plateau, with Rock Cave about 20 meters below me.
I wanted to find a vantage point that didn't put me quite so close to the cave, at least not right away. I hiked down into the canyon, crossed the drainage, and started a up the other side so that I was about mid-slope on the far side of the canyon, that would put me in a prime position to see under the ledge that makes the cave without having to climb right in.
All my senses were in high gear. My rapid pulse was deafening inside my head. I already knew that there were mountain lions around the bend, but not how many. Hopefully one would be in the cave, caught securely in a foot-hold snare. But where would the other(s?) be.... Just minutes earlier, I could hear the scratchy, echoey caterwauling of mountain lions calling to eachother. The sounds were like nothing I've heard before. They seemed to echo almost before they began.
But the came to an abrupt halt just as soon as I put my lips up to my hand-held radio to call my partner. In the presence of their greatest predator, they hushed.
I know, you're thinking, "mountain lions are solitary animals, why would there be more than one?" Lions tend to travel solo, unless they're still with their mother, have recently left their mother (young siblings will sometimes hang when they first leave their mom), or they're mating. A pair of mating lions will romp around together for a couple of days, copulating over one hundred times a day. Honestly. The first explanation that came to me was that this could be a family of lions. I have some photos of a mother and three cubs taken with a remote camera earlier that winter at Pine Cave, near enough that they could conceivably use this area too. I hope it's mom in the trap, I hope it's mom in the trap....
As I headed toward the bend, I was scouring the canyon for any sign of movement. I didn't know how I would react if I came face to face with a group of lions. I've probably seen lions in the wild upwards of 15 times, but they've all in traps at the time. Some were in foot-hold snares, some had been run up trees by dogs, others were in cage traps- there was one that crawled into a small cage made for bobcats that I got to help with when I was visiting a friend in southern California.
I spent all of my time day in and day out tracking lions, documenting their kills, their tracks, their latrines, taking their pictures with remote cameras and sometimes even video, but I never saw the lions themselves. Which is normal, their job is to hide. They are silent predators whose evolutionary advantage is their tendency to ambush their prey. They blend into their surroundings and stay out of sight. Well, most of the time. Theoretically, if you see a mountain lion, it's most likely not about to attack you. If you do get attacked, chances are you'll never see it coming. Generally speaking. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules.
I've read all the literature about how to react when you see a mountain lion. Don't run, make yourself look big, throw rocks and sticks, yada yada, but none of the literature addresses how to react when you see a bunch of mountain lions. Like if, for example, you walk into the midst of an adult female with three yearling cubs.
I walked softly, cautiously around the bend, barely even breathing, with all of my attention focused on the opposite slope. Suddenly I heard a noise as my eyes were directed to a creature moving so fast it was nothing but a blur across the canyon- a mountain lion quickly retreating from the slope in front of the overhang toward the back of Rock Cave. It happened so fast that all I really saw were the muscular hind quarters and a long tail swishing as the cat struggled to balance while it had one paw in the snare.
I saw only the one lion, and it looked big-- too big to be either the mother or any of her cubs. My theory about the family being in the area was presumably way off. What, or who, had I heard then?
I hiked back toward a two-track road to meet up with Eric and help him carry in the capture equipment. When you capture a wild animal, you become responsible for its welfare. You're taking its life into your hands. There are plenty of things that could go wrong. The animal could get hurt in the trap, they could have an averse reaction to the drugs, they could become hypothermic or hyperthermic, they could be attacked by another predator while they're in a sedated state. All kinds of unforseeable accidents could occur while their judgment or physical abilities are impaired. I heard about one study where a lion wandered off before its sedative had fully worn off. The lion fell head first into a small puddle only a few inches deep, passed out, and drowned.
We didn't take these risks lightly. Eric was a wildlife capture specialist with over 600 successful captures under his belt. He had an excellent track record with keeping captured animals alive, which is actually kind of a big deal. I mean, if anything goes wrong, you could end up in a Macho B scenario . Even worse, you'd have to live with yourself afterwards. Me? I was still in training as far as I was concerned.
We carried a large blanket we had sewn handles onto that was good for laying the lion on a clean surface and for carrying him; a thermarest to keep the lion off the cold ground on that chilly morning; a medical kit that contained everything from the sedatives to a thermometer for taking the lion's temperature, anally; the blowpipe and darts; cameras; a hanging scale; capture forms, and more.
We set our gear down in the canyon and hiked up toward Rock Cave to get a good look at the lion. We needed to gauge the lion's size and approximate weight so that we could prep a couple of darts with an appropriate dose of our mixture of med-ket to sedate him. We hiked back down to prep the darts. The cat in the snare was a large male, so large in fact, that we immediately dubbed him "P-Daddy."
Each cat we captured was given an alphanumberic code for name, starting with "P," for puma, and ending with a number that indicated which number capture this was for us on this particular study. Eric wouldn't hear of actually naming them, he thought it was better not to- in order to try to not to get too attached. Scientists must remain objective, or at least try to anyway. In this study, P-Daddy would technically be called P4. Eric and I had captured other lions together in various parts of California, but those are other studies all together.
Rock Cave wasn't really a cave at all, but a large rock overhang jutting out of the slope, boulders closing in on the west side that made it into a cave-like enclosure. As we advanced uphill, we split up slightly, hiking towards separate sides of the cave opening, with me in the lead. Eric had the blowpipe loaded and ready. My job was to try to keep the lion's attention focused on me, so that Eric would have a good clean shot while his eyes were focused on me. I walked closer, little by little. Here, kitty kitty.
P4 put on a good show. He growled and snarled, he laid his ears back (that's lion speak for "back off"), and he crouched back a bit so that he could spring forward to try to scare me off. I've always heard that old adage that wild animals are more scared of us than we are of them, and I believe it, even in regards to lions. They just might have a different way of showing fear than we've been taught to believe. A cat in a trap really wants you to leave it alone, and when they realize they can't get away, they act mean and tough to try to scare you away. Eric used a blowpipe to dart P4 in the right shoulder. He lunged toward Eric. He didn't get very far, he could only cover was about a 6-foot radius from where the snare was anchored to the cave floor before the cable stopped him.
We backed off, heading down into the canyon where we could keep an eye on P4 from a distance, but far enough away for him to relax and let the sedative take effect. I've heard that an animal's adrenaline can sometimes reduce the efficacy of the sedative, so its better not to keep them agitatedk. On our way up the slope, we hadn't taken our eyes off of P4. But on the way down, Eric and I were scanning the ground. He still didn't quite believe that I had heard lions vocalizing earlier that morning. That is, until he noticed the second set of tracks.
"Hey," he said, "whose tracks are these?"
There were two sets of lion tracks in the snow at our feet, one set belonging to P4, squared away in the cave, and the other belonged to a cat who apparently headed west down into the canyon. Eric volunteered to stay with P4 and nominated me to head down the canyon, following the tracks in the snow....
See part 3 for more....
Photo caption: P4 puts on a show. March 2005, Rock Cave.