Do you have to drive PCH into the city each day? Maybe you have to be there by 8:00. What are the chances that the light at Topanga will be messed up again and you’ll be an hour late? Over the course of all your trips into town, how many times is the traffic backed up? If it’s 30 times out of 300 trips a year, your chances of being late are 1 in 10. I wish my chances of winning the lottery were 1 in 10, I’d buy a lot of tickets and probably could move to the beach right away.
The other day my wife and I were having a lovely lunch at Plate restaurant. I suddenly looked up to find four cars in a horrible collision right in front of PC Greens. Four highway patrol cars, two ambulances, three fire engines and two wreckers worked on the problem for an hour. They took one victim away strapped to a board trying to prevent injury due to transportation. What are your chances of seeing an accident on PCH this month? How about a different question, what are your chances of being in one? Ask the CHP, the Fire Department and the Malibu ambulance services. I’d like to know what fraction of the ambulance services annual income is accident rescue. Enter “ Car Accidents” in the Patch search box, you’ll find several pages. If you see 30 accidents a year, not traffic tie-ups, your chances are still 1 in 10 of seeing one today. Did you see the Ferrari that was ripped in half? Ask the California Highway Patrol how many accidents there are each week. It’s scary.
I have been hiking the Santa Monica Mountains for 40 years, covering hundreds of miles repeating trails like Bull Dog in Malibu Creek State park and Sycamore Canyon in Pt. Mugu. As a photographer for Patch, I would love to get a video or even a still shot of a mountain lion up some remote canyon my friends and I were hiking in. I carry a camera hoping for a decent shot. Photographers don’t get paid for imaginative rumors of what might happen someday, they have to actually deliver clear pictures. There are a lot of other cameras on cell phones in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of other visitors in the Santa Monica Mountains ever year. None of us seems to be very lucky. What are the chances of someone getting a picture? Imagine I got paid what photographers get paid for a front page picture on the New York Times. Do you think I should invest $10,000 in a good camera with a big telephoto lens before the lion picture or after? Some London paparazzi was paid over $100,000 for a picture of Kate before she was married. I could come out $90,000 ahead. IF I got that picture.
I did get lucky about a year ago. I was hiking with Johanna Turner, a wildlife photographer, near Peter Strauss Ranch, helping her place a motion activated video camera in a very remote canyon known to be frequented by lions. What she does is place the camera and then wait several weeks, hoping for some footage. Mostly she gets deer. I was overjoyed to get a photo of a lion footprint and a scrape in the creek bottom before we left. It was the first ones I had ever seen. As far as I know, she did not get any lion pictures when she collected the camera. She told me she got a squirrel actually. She has gotten lucky on other occasions in the same canyon. Another person I know trying to get pictures of lions is Michael Harris, a documentary film maker who is in the final editing phase of a film he is doing about lions. He waited for weeks in a hotel in Calabasas for Jeff Sikich, the National Park Ranger/Biologist who is the main mountain Lion trapper for the NPS, to let him know to come running after they had trapped one. Jeff is a world-class alpha-predator tracker who captures big cats in places like Sumatra. Michael had quite an off-trail trek to get footage of the lion and of the team at work. The film will be released here in the Santa Monica Mountains about the same time I publish my new book on Mountain Lions for the NPS. He loves to stay out late at night in the mountains with an infra-red camera , hoping for a shot, waiting right where he figures the lions are. Amazingly he’s never been attacked by a lion, just some Poison Oak when he fell in the dark.
So my point is that you can calculate for yourself what your chances are of seeing a lion, or far more significantly, what your chances of being close enough to hear one breath. That’s what Michael was hoping for, it’s what sells. A lot of people actually believe their chances of being attacked by a lion are very good but in fact have no idea what they are talking about. They are obsessed with their fear of lions and usually are good at transmitting their fears to others through lurid tales of vicious attacks that have never happened here. To find your chances, what you do is find out how many times anyone has ever been attacked in the Santa Monica Mountains by a lion and divide it by the number of people visiting times the number of visits. You probably should multiply by the number of miles hiked as well or at least the number of hours in the back country. The longer you stay in the back country, like Michael and I do, the greater your chances of an encounter.
Here is a list of every lion attack in California.
After 35 years in the local mountains, the closest I ever got to smelling one was in Sycamore Canyon after the rain. My friend Jill and I both smelled wet hair and, although I didn’t tell her, I saw something moving the high grass next to the creek we were about to cross. It probably was someone’s dog going for a drink. Incidentally NO ONE has ever been attacked here in the Santa Monica Mountains. People I have talked to have seen them occasionally, but I’ve never heard of an attack. So to return to your chances, when you divide zero by any number you still have zero chances. Lion attacks here are a myth perpetuated by hysterical people who are terrified of wild animals and things like Statistics and Algebra. Take a look at the following link about attacks and fatalities in all of North America including Canada and Mexico. And don’t make up convenient, self-serving stories about people who fake data. Unless you want to confess.
In my next article for Patch, I’ll tell you what to do if you are lucky enough to see one and what I and my friends carry with me when we hike. I read an article this week about a mountain biker in the Santa Barbara Mountains who saw one recently, before it saw him in the wilderness in June. The second it saw him, it disappeared, like a ghost cat. He tried to catch another glimpse but it ran away from him.