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Mistaken Mountain Lion Sightings Common, Expert Says

Wildlife ecologist Steve Bobzien, a mountain lion expert with the East Bay Regional Park District, says the recent mountain lion encounter reported by a Kensington mother seems credible, but that the great majority of supposed sightings are mistaken.

When someone thinks they've seen a mountain lion, chances are good that it's a case of mistaken identity, says an East Bay expert on the big cats.

While the recent mountain lion encounter reported by a Kensington mother appeared authentic, most reported sightings are mistakes, said Steve Bobzien, a wildlife biologist with the East Bay Regional Park District and mountain lion expert.

"About 70 to 80 percent of all reported sightings are erroneous," he said, adding that people often are seeing wildcats, coyotes, dogs, deer or other animals instead.

Nevertheless, mountain lions, also called cougars, do live in the East Bay hills, and Bobzien said he's inclined to believe the encounter reported by a Kensington mother who said she saw a mountain lion Friday afternoon when she was walking on a fire trail with her three-year-old son in a stroller and the family dog.

Bobzien spoke to Patch following a Patch article about the sighting by Kensington resident Monika Yilmaz, who said she saw the big cat next to house on Lake Drive in Kensington. She was walking on a fire trail that lies directly behind houses on Lake Drive and that runs from Kensington Hilltop Elementary School to the northern terminus of Grizzly Peak Boulevard. The cat loped off away from Yilmaz in an evident wish to avoid her, she said.

Bobzien said the sighting by Yilmaz "appears to be credible." The animal's large tail described by Yilmaz and its avoidance response are among the reasons the sighting seems genuine, he said.

"The behavior of the cat was consistent with what mountain lions do," he said. "They're really good at avoiding people."

Wildlife biologists find it easy to make cougars flee, even when they're feeding on prey, Bobzien said.

"It's extraordinarily rare that mountain lions are aggressive against people," he said.

On reading that Yilmaz ran after her encounter with the mountain lion, Bobzien cautioned against running away. (It wasn't clear in the Patch interview with Yilmaz whether she ran after the mountain lion disappeared.)

"When you encounter a mountain lion on a trail, just back up and give it some space," Bobzien said, adding that "99.9 percent of the time, the cats just disappear into the vegetation. And they do it quickly."

"The one thing you don't want to be doing is running," he said. "Stand up and look big. Shout and scream. Shouting and screaming is the most effective. It's more effective than even the sound of a gunshot would be."

A number of mountain lion sightings are reported yearly in the East Bay hills, including those along the borders of El Cerrito, Kensington and Berkeley. 

UC Berkeley police offer these tips about mountain lion encounters:

To reduce the chances of encountering a Mountain Lion:

 •       Avoid hiking alone, especially between dusk and dawn, when lions
normally do their hunting. Make plenty of noise while you hike so as to
reduce the chances of surprising a lion.
•       Always keep children in sight while hiking and within arm's reach in
areas that can conceal a lion. Mountain Lions seem to be drawn to
children.
•       Hike with a good walking stick; this can be useful in warding off a lion.

To reduce the chances of an attack when encountering a Mountain Lion:

•       Do not approach a lion, especially if it is feeding or with its young.
Most lions will avoid confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
•       Stay calm and face the lion. Do not run because this may trigger the
lion's instinct to attack. Try to appear larger by raising your hands.
•       Pick up small children so they don't panic and run. This will also make
you appear larger. Avoid bending over or crouching.
•       If the lion acts aggressively, throw rocks, branches, or whatever can be
obtained without turning your back or bending over.
•       Fight back if attacked. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the
head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. People
have successfully fought back with rocks, sticks, or bare hands.

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