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Wildlife officials explain: What brought a mountain lion to Santa Rosa mall?

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One day after a mountain lion was shot with a tranquilizer dart as it cowered in a planter box outside the Macy’s department store at the Santa Rosa Plaza, Quinton Martins had lost track of the number of media interviews he’d done.

Martins, a South African biologist and big cat expert who runs a local research project called Living With Lions, had come to this conclusion:

“I think we might need to get more lions in malls,” he said — the better to highlight the plight of big cats who live, and often die, in close contact with humans.

Monday’s surprise visitor to Santa Rosa Plaza was a juvenile male who weighed around 40 pounds and was under a year old, according to Greg Martinelli, state wildlife lands program manager. Based on the animal’s size, Fish and Wildlife officers used a smaller dose of tranquilizer. As a result, the mountain lion “didn’t stay under very long, and recovered fairly quickly,” Martinelli said.

After “tagging” one of the cat’s ears to identify him, the officers decided he was too young for a tracking collar. Martinelli would not say where the mountain lion was released, citing department policy.

“We don’t want people looking for it and disrupting it, especially as it’s recovering,” he said.

Asked what a mountain lion was doing in the heart of downtown in the first place, Martins deadpanned, “Maybe he was going to the Apple Store to upgrade his Sierra.”

Then he turned serious. Between the time they’re 10 to 18 months old, lions “disperse” to new territory, he said. That is, they leave their mothers — or are forced by their mothers to leave. Those animals, like the cat at the mall, are far more vulnerable than adults. They’re on unfamiliar turf, their hunting skills aren’t yet fully honed, and the adult males in their new area are not pleased to see them.

“Older dominant males are more tolerant of females,” said Martinelli, “but they will kill the younger males.”

To avoid that fate, younger males sometimes range into what he described as “odd areas” — like a shopping mall on a Monday morning.

Drainages and creeks provide ideal habitat and cover for mountain lions. The cat that brought several square blocks of Santa Rosa to a standstill probably ranged down either Matanzas or Santa Rosa Creek.

“Even though it flows through a lot of urban area,” Martinelli said of the latter stream, “it still has a lot of trees and a lot of cover.”

Martins speculated that the mountain lion was wandering the area near the mall, possibly looking for a house cat or feral cat to feed on, “and just got caught out, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Fish and Wildlife officers missed with two of the four shots they took, as darts ricocheted off vegetation behind which the cat had hunkered down. The fourth dart did the job, and the lion was placed in a carrier.

But where to take him?

“This is a new animal,” said Martinelli, “so we didn’t want to move him any farther than we needed to. But we also needed to move him to a good habitat, where he won’t get into trouble.” Any more trouble, that is.

Another challenge was finding landowners — Martinelli declined to specify whether the feline refugee was relocated to private or public lands — willing to accept the animal.

“Not everyone wants lions on their property.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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