“It was a sad day when we had to kill a mountain lion in town last spring,” said Cholla Nicoll, a Friends of Sonoita Creek board member commenting on the killing of an 18-month-old mountain lion in Patagonia that had become habituated to people and town.
Nicoll had met Rosemary Schiano, a wildlife field biologist, tracker and educator, at a wildlife tracking workshop and learned about the techniques Schiano teaches to communities to help wildlife and humans coexist. Through her work at the Sonoran Desert Project, Schiano records human impact on the desert, as well as rescuing injured animals.
Patagonia Animal Control Officer Karina Hilliard and the Marshall’s office asked Schiano to train them and to address the community in January. “The Marshall, deputies, Nicoll and I spent almost a day with Rosemary, learning techniques to protect predators in our midst. Now we can see even more clearly how events led to the lion’s demise last May,” Hilliard said. “We asked people to leave him alone, to make a lot of noise around him, rather than trying to get close. Unfortunately, people became too excited, following the cougar, taking selfies too close to him, and even giving him a name. Someone began feeding him. We forgot that he was wild, and a natural predator.”
Schiano, who has tracked and studied wildlife all her life, sees this scenario all too often. “When an animal is killed by law enforcement, many people blame the officer or the department, but the officers are required, by this point, to kill these animals. They do not enjoy having to kill the animal and it is quite painful for them to have to carry this out.”
During the training, and at the lecture she gave to approximately 75 community members the following day, Schiano reminded her audiences that apex predators, like the cougar, are instrumental in maintaining the balance of nature, ensuring that, for example, ungulates like deer, don’t destroy the vegetation in an area.
“All predators are also necessary to keep the system in equilibrium,” she explained. “To protect these important and beautiful creatures we need to be versed in the natural history, ecology, and behavior of each species. Then we have to be responsible for our own behavior to avoid drawing them into residential areas, where they are likely to be perceived as a threat.”
Pet food left outside, compost, unsecure garbage, small pets, and the feeding of wild animals can all attract predators. “I know this is difficult to hear in Patagonia,” Schiano said, “but bird feeders draw small prey, such as javelina, skunks, and packrats, which draw cougars and coyotes.”
A big part of the professionals’ training was how to humanely remove predators. The Marshall’s office has been trained to use proper aversion and hazing techniques to remove and haze predators from town. “Now we know just how to take a predator to the edge of town, release her and scare the heck of her, so that she’ll roam far away,” Hilliard explained. “We ask the public, when in doubt, to alert us to a sighting so we can advise them how to respond.” She emphasized that the public should not haze these animals; only professionals who have been trained should do so.
Schiano suggested that residents encourage state lawmakers to change policy to protect predators. Local laws with stiff fines can be established to prevent people from feeding wildlife. The public was encouraged to anonymously report people who are feeding wildlife, so the town can address this concern.
Hilliard is enthusiastic about the new practices they learned. “Now we are developing detailed plans for how and where to chase a future predator out of town, if and when it happens again. We hope to address properties that have attracted predators in the past.”
“We can become a community that coexists happily with wildlife of all sorts,” Nicoll commented. “We each have to pick … something that we can do better. We should be personally accountable to our wild animals.”