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Mountain lion captured in O.C. park after several sightings

July 17, 2012 |  9:50 am

More photos: Orange County mountain lion
Game wardens trapped a mountain lion Tuesday that was spotted several times in an Orange County park, and officials were trying to determine why the cat showed such "very unusual behavior."

The roughly 100-pound male mountain lion was trapped in a cage about 3 a.m. Tuesday, hours after a warden shot it with beanbag rounds and a pepper ball, said Capt. Dan Sforza of the Department of Fish and Game.

More photos: Orange County mountain lionThe mountain lion, which is 18 months to 2 years old, had been spotted several times over the last week along the Serrano Cow Trail at the Whiting Ranch Wilderness, Sforza said.

PHOTOS: Mountain lion captured in O.C. park

Park officials contacted Fish and Game after a video posted online Sunday showed a coyote barking at the cat as it crossed the trail.

O.C. Parks spokeswoman Marisa O'Neil told the Orange County Register the mountain lion was first spotted July 9, prompting rangers to close the trail and set up a video camera to catch the cat on tape.

Rangers found mountain lion tracks in a nearby creek bed, but after the camera didn't capture any activity and no new tracks were spotted, officials reopened the trail Friday.

But after the video was posted Sunday, park officials closed the trail again Monday and brought in the Department of Fish and Game, O'Neil told the Register.

A warden was walking the trail with a park ranger Monday when he spotted the mountain lion about 10-20 yards away, Sforza said. Instead of running away, the cat stayed put, giving the warden enough time to walk to his truck and get his beanbag rifle.

"The lion didn't seem to be disturbed by the whole thing," Sforza said. "He shot it several times with the beanbag rounds and a pepper ball, and the lion moved around but never really took off like he was expecting it to do."

Instead, the cat crawled into some brush, at which point the warden baited the trap with roadkill and waited for the animal to emerge.

Sforza said officials are now trying to determine why the animal stayed in one area for so long. The fact the cat didn't run from humans — even after it was shot with beanbag rounds — is "very unusual behavior," he said.

Initially, officials thought the cat was a mother who kept a litter of kittens nearby — but that's clearly not the case, Sforza said. Male mountain lions typical roam areas up to 100 square miles, making the cat's reluctance to leave the park even more strange.

A health issue, including rabies, could be to blame, Sforza said, which is why wardens have yet to decide what to do with the cat.

"We're evaluating the situation at this point and trying to determine the health of the animal," he said. "It's very unusual. Very unusual behavior."

"We care about wildlife," he continued, "but quite often we're put in the position where we have to weigh public safety against the welfare of the animal. When that comes down to it, public safety is always our priority."

Rangers at the park said the trail would remain closed through the morning in case the juvenile mountain lion was traveling with its mother. They are continuing to keep an eye out for other cats, they said.

Mountain lion sightings are not unusual in the park. In 2004, a 120-pound lion killed one bicyclist and mauled another at the park, marking the state's first fatal mountain lion attack in a decade. Authorities shot and killed the cat four days later and later determined through forensic tests it was the animal responsible for both attacks.


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Photo: A 100-pound male mountain lion rests in a cage at the Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest.  The young cat was trapped near the Serrano Cow Trail in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Foothill Ranch. Signs are posted on the Borrego trailhead at the entrance to Whiting Ranch warning hikers and mountain bikers of mountain lion sightings. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times