By Marion Vendituoli

When Justin McEldowney pointed his flashlight up in the trees at his home in Red Rock Canyon on January 24, the light was reflected in the eyes of a mountain lion staring down at him. McEldowney had been woken up around midnight by the sound of his goats running around and had gone out to find three of his nine goats dead before spotting the cat in a tree.

This was the first reported incident of the mountain lions taking livestock since the sighting of a female mountain lion with her two almost full-grown kittens at the Nature Conservancy in Patagonia on September 22, 2018, although there have been numerous reports of sightings of the animals.

Local Arizona Game and Fish (AZGF) Wildlife Manager Brittany Oleson is not sure how many of the lions are still in Patagonia. “We haven’t had any recent sightings of multiple animals,” she said. “One or more of them has decided that hanging around town is cool. There are easy pickings.” Patagonia Animal Control Officer Karina Hilliard
believes that one cub is frequenting the area between the kennel and Sonoita Ave in Patagonia. She believes that the mother lion and the other cub may be living at the Nature Conservancy property outside town where the mother lion has lived for the past seven or eight years, according to Hilliard.

On February 15, Hilliard responded to a call from a resident that a lion was eating a javalina underneath a home in Patagonia. On March 7, a lion was seen on a fence on Pennsylvania Ave. “Patagonia is nestled in all this prime wild space,” Oleson said. Even if folks were on their best behavior, you’re going to have critters coming through.” But she does feel that the lion’s continued presence is a consequence of people putting food out to attract wildlife.

“When you have habituated animals living around town, you can attract predators,” she said. Interestingly, Oleson reported at the time of this interview that “not a single person has called Game and Fish about the lions, except for one guy in October.” Some complaints have instead been going to Hilliard, who then alerts Oleson. Oleson feels that this may be a reflection of the community’s reluctance to see the lion killed. “People are spreading the rumor that we are planning on killing the lion,” Hilliard said. We have no intention of doing that unless he goes after a person.”

AZGF policy requires that the lion must be classified as a ‘two’ on a scale of one – four to be destroyed. AZGF does not relocate mountain lions, which are very territorial. The agency has the Patagonia lion(s) rated as a ‘three’ at present. Factors that would change this classification would be multiple reports of livestock kills or an attack on humans.

Human attacks are very rare. In the past 100 years, there have been just over 100 mountain lion attacks on people in the United States, according to Oleson. It is legal any time of the year for someone to shoot the lion in defense of livestock. “One lion was lethally removed for preying on livestock after it repeatedly returned to the area to make additional kills,” Oleson said after being called to examine the remains found outside town recently.

The definition of livestock includes horses, cows, goats, sheep and pigs. An attack on a pet dog or cat would not be a legal reason to shoot the lion. Chickens are not considered livestock. “We’ve had a few unfortunate incidents with chickens,” Oleson said. “It’s a bad day for pretty much everybody when a lion goes after chickens.” McEldowney did not want to kill the animal when his goats were attacked, even when he spotted a lion, the next evening. He was putting his remaining goats away for the night when he spotted the animal 30 feet away in a tree. “I’m an ex-marine so you can imagine what I said,” he recounted. Reluctant to kill the cat, he shot it in the flank with birdshot, causing it to jump out of the tree and take off. The following morning, he once more spotted, and shot at, a lion in a tree. He has not seen any lions since. “I was not intending to kill the cat,” he said, “although there’s plenty of people who would. Nobody is going to be happy with this situation.” Oleson hopes that she is not put in the position of having to destroy the lion. “I try to give animals as much of a chance as I can per policy,” she said. “No matter what I do, half the town is going to be upset.

If I have to get involved with the cat, it’s going to die.” “If you see a lion, don’t run. Try to make yourself look bigger,” Hiliard advised. “If you do back away, do it slowly and keep your eye on it. You’re startling them just as much as they are startling you. We want our cats to run from people. Make noise. Try to scare them away.”