IF you are familiar with Rudyard Kipling's tales of life in rural India, you will no doubt remember the vivid accounts of man-eating tigers who would steal into villages, kill the natives, and carry them off.
You would have been struck by the terror in which these unfortunates lived, locking themselves into their mud huts at night with only a burning firebrand to defend themselves, praying for daylight to come.
Surely you'll recall thinking how fortunate we are that we live in a modern world. But now, thanks to an ill-conceived law protecting mountain lions, a law based on emotion rather than scientific knowledge, many Californians are living with the same fears as the villagers of colonial India.
In 1991, using numbers from a study based on a "computer model," the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and various other animal-rights groups raised the alarm that the mountain lions of California were in serious decline and approaching extinction.
Playing on the passions of the electorate, they placed an initiative on the ballot that made the mountain lion an endangered species and forbade all hunting. The measure passed and became law.
Prior to its passage, California's Department of Fish and Game had successfully managed the lion population at a fixed level through the issuance of hunting licenses. The philosophy was one of "balance," balancing the needs of the big cats with the rest of the habitat. Lion sightings, infrequent because of the animals' nocturnal lives, occurred in remote areas. Indeed, the only known attack on a human happened in 1911.
Until the passage of the Mountain Lion Protection Act.
In the few short years since 1991, California's lion population has exploded from about 2,500 to an estimated 6,000 to 8,000. The animal rightists admit that their "computer model" study, based on a tiny area and extrapolated to the rest of the state, was "flawed." And now the exploding numbers of lions are exceeding their food supply.
Consider: It is a recognized fact that an adult mountain lion will "take" a deer, its primary food, every seven to 10 days. This conservatively translates into 36 deer "taken" by each lion every year. Multiply this by 6,000 lions and you have 216,000 deer killed yearly.
That's a lot of deer, more than can possibly be sustained by the resident deer herds. It's also the reason deer are fast disappearing in California. The result? As they're depleting the deer population, the lions are looking elsewhere for sustenance. They are looking in the "villages" of California.
Glance at some of the headlines from the Los Angeles Times last year. "Mountain Lion Suspected of Killing Woman in Park," "Mountain Lion Shot by Police at Shopping Center," "State Closes Park After Mountain Lion Encounter," "Mountain Lion Killed in Schoolyard Tree," "Trackers Hunt Mountain Lion That Killed Jogger." And perhaps the most discomfiting of all, "One big cat was seen so close to an Orange County school that children were ordered not to eat lunches outside."
Two people dead with two more "missing" and presumed killed; a half dozen mauled, including a mountain biker pulled off his bicycle and barely escaping with his life; scores of dogs, pets, and livestock killed; and no end in sight. Preservationists place the blame on housing developments invading the lion's territory. Yet since the law's enactment in 1991, there has been almost no growth in California. No, humans intruding on the lion's lair isn't the cause. The hungry lions are only doing what hungry lions do.
After losing a $2 million lawsuit to the parents of a 5-year-old girl mauled in a public park, and with a number of suits pending, California's Legislature has finally decided enough is enough. A bill to overturn the Mountain Lion Preservation Act has been introduced, and the animal-rights camp is outraged.
The preservationists' assertion is no longer that the lions are facing extinction, but rather that "hunting" the lions is cruel and inhumane. And therein lies the dilemma. California's budget problems render the state unable to afford relocating or other "humane" methods of solving the problem, yet preservationists are adamant that hunting be outlawed.
The stage is set for a standoff. And while the two sides argue, the hungry lions go on - chewing through the state's population of deer and pets and developing an appetite for two-legged "prey."
In the meantime, today's Californians have growing sympathy for the villagers of rural India in the 1800s, who lived in terror of man-eating tigers.