In the early hours of 25 November 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, Victoria Vaughn-Perling was awakened by the sound of screams. Her small alpaca ranch was under attack.

Too frightened to trudge into the chilly darkness and face the aggressor, Vaughn-Perling waited until the Sun rose, sleeping in her car. When morning came, she found massive paw-prints throughout her property. Ten of her alpacas were dead.

There was no doubt about the culprit. It was a mountain lion or “cougar”, a species of big cat that lives in the California countryside Vaughn-Perling has made her home.

The wanton attack led to an extreme response: a permit to kill the mountain lion in question. But that set off a storm of controversy. Vaughn-Perling had to decide whether to go ahead with the kill, or spare the mountain lion – and, perhaps, risk that it might kill again. Her dilemma is a vivid illustration of the difficulties of living with big predators.

At the time Victoria Vaughn-Perling was 54 years old, a former teacher struggling to deal with a divorce, money troubles and caring for her ageing mother. She lives in a rural pocket of the Santa Monica Mountains, one of Southern California’s least-populated spaces. Just up the road is Malibu, where people on six-figure incomes dwell on sprawling estates surrounded by high barriers. But Vaughn-Perling’s neighbourhood is less well-heeled. It is a haven for bucolic Americana and the West, filled with ranches and cowboy culture. Despite its proximity to Los Angeles, there is also a lot of wildlife: deer, coyotes, bobcats, even the occasional bear or mountain lion.

Mountain lions normally avoid humans and our settlements. But not always.

November and December 2016 saw a string of local attacks. Both the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS) attributed the attacks to mountain lions. Over 50 animals were slain in the area in 2016. Those numbers may seem dire, yet wildlife managers say they are not unusual. Nor are they the work of some monstrous and special beast. At least four mountain lions – out of about a dozen in the Santa Monica Mountains – have attacked livestock. It is normal behaviour.

After the strike on Vaughn-Perling’s farm, the culprit was swiftly found: a male mountain lion dubbed P45. Signals from his radio collar placed the 150-pound cat at the scene. Days after the slaughter, FWS issued a permit to kill P45.

When Vaughn-Perling’s boyfriend Reid Breitman, a lawyer, shared these details at a hastily-thought-out press conference, a flood of international press attention drenched residents. There were heated community meetings and wild allegations were spewed.

The problem is that California’s mountain lions are threatened

Some supported the killing, arguing that P45 might switch to attacking humans. Others were vehemently opposed. Vaughn-Perling and her neighbour Wendell Phillips, who she had entrusted with killing P45, even had death threats.

The problem is that California’s mountain lions are threatened. They have been squeezed onto an island of habitat and isolated by freeways. Their food choices are limited – apart from the ample supply of livestock, which makes for easy prey. In 2015, P45 killed several llamas at a Malibu winery. In October 2016, he’s suspected of killing a miniature horse at a nearby petting zoo.

The problem can be tackled, but not cheaply. Most notably, there are plans to build a $56m wildlife bridge across the 10-lane US 101 freeway. In December 2016, the California Wildlife Commission approved a $7.1m land buy along that freeway, but that is one step in a long process.

Meanwhile the mountain lions are being picked off one by one. P45 may have been spared, but Fish and Wildlife issued 221 depredation permits across California in 2016, resulting in 98 lions being killed – although none have been taken in the Santa Monica, Verdugo or Santa Susana Mountains in over 14 years.

How do you coexist with an apex predator if it preys on your livestock? What happens to these cats should these incidents continue—and how at-risk, if at all, are we?

I met Vaughn-Perling at her home a few weeks after the attack. She was still unsure what to do about P45.

“I’m usually a really shy person,” she said. It was cold out but she wore a sleeveless dress, as if still unable to process the present.

It was a muddy morning. Her 15 remaining alpacas brayed a donkey-like hee-haw and the hens squawked. We approached the fence she hopes will protect them. It was clearly inadequate. It was electric, but only on three sides of the farm, and at the time it was shut off due to recent rains. There were motion sensor lights and a white cord encircling the area, which Vaughn-Perling said scares mountain lions.

The trouble was, the fence was only shoulder-high, so an agile mountain lion could easily leap it. “Fish and Wildlife laughed at me when they came out,” Vaughn-Perling said. “They said: ‘No matter how high you build your pens, you can’t really do anything because a mountain lion can jump over a school bus. The long way.’”

This was supposed to be a pensioner’s paradise, or so she hoped when she bought it in 2012. “I knew the mountain lions were here. I knew that they were threatened. I didn’t know they were threatening,” she says, her eyes red and cheeks wet. “I just feel so pushed to the edge. All mountain lions are not like this. I’m scared to walk here at night. I’m scared for my son to come here.”

Pens can protect livestock, but they can cost thousands of dollars

There are stringent regulations to protect California’s wildlife. In particular, fences around large tracts of land have to be “wildlife-permeable”, so that animals like deer can dart off-road and escape into the brush. This means you cannot wall off an entire property with chain-link fences, only small enclosures, and there is a limit on the height of fences. However, these rules also make it hard to protect livestock.

“The law should give flexibility here,” says the Humane Society’s Nicole Paquette. “Livestock owners should be required to protect herds and bring prey animals indoors or into covered pens at night.”

State Assembly member Richard Bloom is working to sponsor a bill to change the existing permit system for fencing, but since the law is a voter initiative, it may not be eligible for modification.

Pens can protect livestock, but they can cost thousands of dollars. Some, like Vaughn-Perling, can’t afford them. “Not everyone who lives in Malibu has money,” she told me. Luckily for her, when I visited four 10ft-by-10ft enclosures (3m-by-3m) with chain-link walls and roofs had been built with donations from the Mountain Lion Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation, all okayed by the county.

It seemed to me that what Vaughn-Perling really wanted was something the state can’t provide: peace of mind. “Someone’s going to kill it [P45] and it’s not going to be on the news,” she said. “Some beloved actress is going to have her horse killed, she’s gonna lawyer up. It’s gonna end up costing the county a lot of money.”

She has a point. It is not the first time P45 has been threatened with government-mandated death.

Wendell Phillips lives just down the road from Vaughn-Perling. His in-laws have lived in the area since 1957. He is in his late 50s and a former Swat officer: a robust man with a cap slung over his bald head and a caterpillar-like moustache that wiggles when he speaks. Phillips owns a 10-acre ranch, home to alpacas, chickens and horses, which is used for photoshoots and films. He and his wife run an animal rescue and keep three pit-mastiff hounds.

P45 began attacking Phillips’ ranch in late 2015. He attributes the deaths of at least five of his alpacas and the maiming of a horse to the mountain lion.

On two occasions Phillips was issued depredation permits.

In March 2015, Phillips spent three nights waiting for P45 to return, his Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in hand. He set a trap, spotlights trained on a baited carcass. On 16 March – St. Patrick’s Day eve  – the cat finally showed. Phillips lined up his shot and fired one round as P45 shifted his head to feed. He claims the bullet bounced off the cat’s skull. “I figured we’d find his body the next morning.”

I would hate to have to shoot him – Wendell Phillips, rancher

However, when he returned all he found was a few crimson drops and a tuft of fur. GPS tracking revealed that P45 hid in the brush near his property for hours, then took off when FWS and NPS showed. Both agencies confirmed the incident, but couldn’t verify the cat being hit.

Since the attacks began, Phillips has kept his animals in enclosed pens at night. He says the lion hasn’t returned. “I would hate to have to shoot him,” he told me. “Would hate to have to. But if he comes on the property and threatens my stock or my family, I don’t have any other choice.” He is particularly worried that the cat might attack a resident. “I don’t think P45 would hesitate for a second if he got a small human in an area where he was hunting and hungry.”

Phillips has clearly had a bad time since P45 began attacking, and not just from the cat. He showed me emails he has received threatening his life, and recounted stories of altercations with animal-rights activists.

Some of his claims are wilder. He accused members of the NPS of “siccing Peta on me”, referring to the animal-rights charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. NPS says that allegation is completely false. Phillips also told me that P45 was brought to the area by NPS to boost the genetic diversity of the local mountain lion population, as “a biology experiment with tax money”, and that it had previously attacked people elsewhere. I did not find any corroborating evidence for that, and NPS vehemently deny it.

In person, Phillips comes off as abrasive; perhaps a relic of his law enforcement persona. But like Vaughn-Perling, he’s passionate about his lifestyle, animals and way of life. And while he might not care to admit it, he has faced something that would scare almost anyone.

Mountain lions were living here long before humans arrived. Phillips says his in-laws never had a run-in, but really clashes between humans and mountain lions are nothing new. It may be that many past incidents went unreported because people did not regard them as exceptional.

When I spoke to the much-maligned wildlife managers, they measured their words – but they also painted a very different picture to the one Phillips presented.

I spoke to Jeff Sikich, an NPS field biologist who has been studying mountain lions since 2002 and has tracked cats over four continents. I have met him before: he once took me scampering through the mountains to collect images of mountain lion kills from camera traps. He bristles at the characterisations Phillips has used.

Many residents want to know where the mountain lions are and rail against NPS for not sharing that information

“P45 is a mountain lion acting like a mountain lion,” says Sikich. “Most adult males we’ve followed since 2002 have taken unprotected livestock, because they have large home ranges.” In other words, there is nothing exceptional about what P45 has done – not that that is much comfort to Vaughn-Perling or Phillips.

Many residents want to know where the mountain lions are and rail against NPS for not sharing that information. But GPS collars don’t provide real-time data. “We get nine locations a day,” says Sikich: “every two hours at night, one daytime location at 2pm.” It’s against policy to share that. “We don’t want to influence behaviour on either side.”

Instead, Sikich works with homeowners, including Vaughn-Perling, teaching them how to ward off potential trouble. The key point is that lions only target livestock if it offers an easy meal. So the solution is employing guard dogs and full enclosures.

Another local resident testifies that this approach works.

Not far from Phillips’ farm, British expat Karen Simes has a herd of 300 goats roaming 600 acres; the largest local herd. Since 2009 she has run Hire A Herd, doing TV and commercial work as well as brush clearance. I spoke with her in February and March 2017.

“Oh God, have I ever seen a lion?” she laughed. “Many times. I see the lion quite regularly.” But Simes doesn’t see P45 or others as a threat to livestock, or to her own safety.

“I think it’s hysteria,” she said. “I’m very angry about it. If you’re going to have a backyard farm, you need to learn how to protect your animals. Shame on the humans. Learn how to protect your livestock. You can’t have animals in your front garden. Of course he will kill them, he’s a cat. That’s what they do.”

Simes has lost livestock, too, but she says the solution isn’t relocation or picking up a rifle. “Get a dog. Put the gun down. I don’t have any fences, perimeters. I have dogs. I never worry.”

Four Anatolian Shepherd dogs – big, strong animals bred to defend livestock against large carnivores – are always out with Simes’ herd. In the two months prior to our interview, mountain lions and a bobcat came onto her land a total of three times; but there were no kills.

Simes told me she had lost half a dozen goats over the past decade. “We had two kills [in 2015] when we inadvertently took them up in the day, on the ridge. Obviously he [P45] was just sitting up there, viewing us. They know when we’re not paying attention.”

We have never had any aggressive attacks against people – Jeff Sikich, biologist

What, though, of Phillips’ concern that P45 might attack a person? Sikich says the risk is minimal.

“Through the course of our study we’ve had millions of visitors in the Santa Monica Mountains,” he says. “We have never had any aggressive attacks against people. Based on all of our GPS points, they do their best to avoid us. Even researchers who follow them daily hardly ever see them.”

“Depredation patterns are not predictive of lions attacking humans,” agrees Marc Kenyon of the FWS. “When mountain lions attack people, that is essentially a different lion than the one perusing neighbourhoods in search of prey or deer or livestock.”

Sikich does offer a few pointers, just in case. Don’t crouch on all fours when tying a shoe, because you may look like a deer from behind. Keep injured hikers in the group. If you meet a mountain lion, back away slowly: never turn and run.

Kenyon advises maintaining a healthy respect for the mountain lions, but avoiding terror. “Even when I have a lion in a trap, there’s… a little bit of fear,” he says. “Not having that respect is when you lose your ability to effectively manage an encounter.”

In December 2016, a few days after I met her, Vaughn-Perling called me. She had decided not to have P45 killed, and instead asked for the cat to be moved. However, relocating wildlife is against FWS policy, so P45 remains in the Santa Monica mountains. In April 2017, according to Phillips, over a three-week period something “killed all 144 of my neighbour’s stock” – he suspects one or more mountain lions.

Always suspect that they are in your area. Because they are – Jeff Sikich

P45 was granted a reprieve, but he and his fellow mountain lions remain at risk. As long as the cats are squeezed into a small habitat, and farms are not protected, it seems inevitable that there will be more attacks on livestock, and more clashes between people and mountain lions.

Sikich, who may have the most intimate knowledge of these cats, has a simple answer for avoiding conflict. “I ask ‘what would you do if you knew there was a lion in your backyard?’ And if you would do something differently, you should do that 24-7. If you see deer, you could see a mountain lion. Always suspect that they are in your area. Because they are.”

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