By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
It was around 3 a.m. on Sept. 18 when strange noises roused residents of Audiffred Lane in Woodside, a small cul-de-sac off Miramontes Road a few blocks from Woodside Elementary.
Bob Sawyer, at one end of the cul-de-sac, says he thought it was "a very confused person." Randall Schwabacher, at the other end, decided it was animals riled up by the full moon.
Janet and Bob Self, who live in between, were more disturbed. "The sound was very loud, low, and unworldly," Janet Self says. "I couldn't tell if it was human or animal, but I was pretty sure I would learn that someone or something had been murdered."
It had been. With daylight the neighbors discovered blood and hair splattered on the curb and pavement, and tucked into some bushes about 15 feet away, a deer carcass. Bloody pawprints crossed a nearby driveway and drag marks led to the deer.
Marc Kenyon, senior environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that photos the neighbors took of the deer and bloody pawprints "are typical of a (mountain) lion's kill and a lion's footprint."
Less than a week earlier, about a mile away on Olive Hill Lane near Albion Avenue, the Gilbert family had two face-to-face meetings with what they are certain was a mountain lion.
The first came when Willie Gilbert and a friend left the house at about 9 p.m. and noticed what they thought was a pit bull about 10 feet away. When it hid under a car with its distinctive long tail sticking out they realized it was a mountain lion, says Willie's father, Bill Gilbert, who noted that mountain lion tracks and scat had earlier been found on their property.
The two young men took another car on their outing.
Later that week, Bill Gilbert saw the mountain lion for himself. After his two dogs raised a fuss, he went outside to look around and saw a cat about 20 feet away.
"I started calling here kitty, kitty," he says. "Then I saw the tail." Bill Gilbert went inside, grabbed a gun and called the Sheriff's Office. Several squad cars responded, but a search did not turn up the mountain lion, he says.
Bill Gilbert estimates the cat weighed between 80 and 90 pounds. The mountain lion was not aggressive, he notes. "He didn't make any moves at the boys."
A mountain lion has been reported to have twice killed goats in Woodside in recent months, and numerous other sightings have been reported, including at least two in broad daylight at 8:45 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
What do all these sightings mean?
Experts, such as Zara McDonald, executive director of the wild cat conservation organization Felidae Conservation Fund, say "this is nothing to be alarmed about." Mountain lions "do not want to attack, or befriend, human beings. They want to avoid, and on occasion are simply curious," she says. "We see more lions now because lions have less room to roam, and they can't differentiate between where they are safe from humans, and where they are not."
"There are no more animals than there were a decade ago," agrees Jeff Norris, the district coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services.
In addition, people who live in Woodside, Portola Valley and other parts of the Midpeninsula that border open space may simply be using modern technology, such as the automated alerts and local websites, to share the reported sightings more widely.
It may also just be the local abundance of deer. Mr. Kenyon said deer attract mountain lions. "One general rule of thumb is that wherever you see a deer, a lion is not too far away," he says.
Ms. McDonald agrees. "They are there because the deer is there," she says. "Do not attract deer and you will never see a lion."
Residents of Audiffred say that deer are often seen browsing on shrubbery where the deer carcass was found.
Mr. Norris says the recent sightings may be a young mountain lion. "It's unlikely that we're looking at an older adult; we're probably looking at an adolescent just about to go out and find their own range."
If sheriff's deputies find the mountain lion, Mr. Norris says, they would let the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife know.
Mr. Kenyon, who is DFW's expert on mountain lions, says the behaviors reported in Woodside are not cause for concern.
"Worrisome behaviors that would really pique our attention," he says, "would be following people, stalking people, sitting in someone's front yard watching people walk by out in the open, out in the broad daylight, where it's not trying to hide."
The department's policy is to try non-lethal options first, including "hazing" an animal with loud noises, shooting it with bean bags, or trapping and relocating it, he says.
For those thinking of taking matters into their own hands, Mr. Kenyon warns that only "a mountain lion that is either threatening to attack or injure people, or (is) in the act of attacking or injuring pets or livestock" can legally be shot. "People may not kill a lion that is simply on their property and not exhibiting any of the aforementioned behaviors," he said.
He also suggested that if a deer is killed by a mountain lion, it be left alone. "Lions will typically feed on their cache for up to four or five days, and they typically won't roam far from the carcass," he says. "Most often, they're hiding but are within eyesight of their cache." He suggests letting neighbors know of the presence of a suspected lion's cache so they can avoid it.