I was 10 years old when a mountain lion peered down a skylight at our neighbor. The curious lion had decided to explore our neighborhood in the hills of Los Altos, California, one balmy summer night in 1962.
It was a new neighborhood. Most of the one-acre properties were still fields, apricot orchards, and oak woodlands. Only five lots on our cul-de-sac had houses with families in them. The well-known seascape artist Rosemary Miner and her husband Ralph were the lucky ones who had the lion pay a visit, and the event became neighborhood lore. As the telling goes, Mrs. Miner was awakened by odd sounds from overhead. She nudged her snoring husband, saying, "Ralph! There's something on the roof!" After a few minutes of listening, Mr. Miner groggily got up, put on his robe and slippers, and shuffled to the bedroom door, pausing there to listen. The creaking sounds were unmistakable: they could only be made by something heavy.
Suddenly Mr. Miner was wide awake. He eased down the hallway, stepping softly, tracking the noises, which led him to the kitchen. He hesitated, reassuring himself that he had remembered to lock the front door the evening before. Then he heard a thump. Following the sound, he stepped forward to look up at the skylight, and instead of a human intruder, he saw a mountain lion looking down at him! Then his fear turned to amazement, and he calmly took two pans from the cupboard and walked through the foyer, unlocked the front door, and carried the pans to the front lawn. He paused there, admiring the sleek, well-grown and -muscled animal on his roof. In turn, the cat watched the human with calm interest. Mr. Miner raised the pans and knocked them together. As the clanging noises cut through the pre-dawn quiet, the cat swiveled, trotted to the edge, leapt easily from the one-story ranch house onto the ground, and loped up the street to the nearest wooded area. Thrilled, Mr. Miner hurried inside to tell his wife, "It was the most graceful animal I have ever seen."
When the story reached the neighbors the next morning, I was incensed! I had missed it! Why had no one thought to wake me? Hungry for every possible detail, I went to the scene where the adventure unfolded, and where Mr. Miner's footprints were still pressed into the dewy grass. I played the scenario again and again in my mind, marveling at the fact that an actual, live mountain lion had been so close to me. A lion! Mere yards from where I slept! I walked home and sat at my desk, where I wrote one note card for each of the five families in our neighborhood. With colored pen on index cards, I wrote:
Hello, my name is Caryl Pearson and I live at 11520 Old Ranch Road. My phone number is WH8-2108. PLEASE CALL ANY TIME OF THE DAY OR NIGHT IF YOU SEE A MOUNTAIN LION!!!
I passed the cards throughout the neighborhood, handing them to adults who politely received them with bemused expressions. One of them apparently called my mother, who appeared in the doorway of my room, hands on her hips. I looked up, wondering if she'd be angry. Instead, she had just one question. "Seriously? Any time of the day or night?!"
I believe this was the beginning of my mountain lion craze, as my dad called it. This fervent wish to see a mountain lion in the wild has stayed with me my whole life. While I've been gripped with interest and fascination for many other species of wild animals over the decades, my yearning to see our native lion has never abated. Even now, 57 years later, I wish I'd seen that lion on the Miners' roof.
My second near miss happened in the hills of Los Altos, about six miles as the crow flies from our house, in a nature preserve called Hidden Villa. I spent many hours on the trails of this preserve, spying on the wildlife as I had done with my dad since I was about four. My family had left Maryland shortly after I was born, embarking on a series of westward moves. My first memories are of the open land around Wichita, Kansas, where Dad and I would regularly trek to a nearby pond to watch the ducks and other wildlife. He planted the seed for my future career as a naturalist. On our outdoor adventures he taught me to pay attention to the sounds and sights of the natural world, and to read the body language and manner of movement of the birds, animals, and even insects. He taught me to listen to the sounds they were making, and to watch carefully if they suddenly became quiet, which could mean another animal had come to the area. He told me to notice that when the ducks had their heads in the water to eat, we could ease forward, and when they lifted their heads again, we should stop and be still, because then they could see us. When we got back home, we would thumb through the World Book Encyclopedia and talk about it any animals we'd seen that day. These were my first wonderful experiences with fieldwork and research!
One day, while hiking a favorite trail in Hidden Villa, I smelled the pungent odor of rotting flesh and discovered the carcass of a doe, partially covered with leaves, under some bushes. I immediately knew this was a mountain lion kill. I remember an odd feeling coming over me, as if my awareness suddenly expanded to include everything around me, even what I couldn't see. I debated whether to continue walking the trail. Looking again at the deer, and then at my surroundings, I noticed all was quiet as could be, with only a few birds chirping in the middle distance. If there had been large trees nearby, I wonder if I would have had the courage to look up, seeing whether a lion was watching me from overhead. I knew that mountain lions often hang around the vicinity of their kills. I badly wanted to see a lion, but also knew that this narrow trail would make for a really close encounter - and one that the lion might not appreciate because it was so close to his kill. Weighing risk against opportunity, I opted to turn around, knowing I could have already unknowingly passed the lion.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins, but as I got further from the dead deer, I could feel my body slowly relax - until I heard a sudden rustling to my left. The shock of that sound nearly bowled me over, and it took a mighty effort to suppress the urge to sprint down the trail. Mustering the resolve to stand still and face the direction of the sound, I waited, scanning the area, heart pounding. I saw nothing, and heard nothing else. After a minute or so, I began walking again, keeping my head partially turned in case the sight so vivid in my mind manifested itself in reality: that of a mountain lion charging toward me.
I felt a strange combination of relief and disappointment as my heightened awareness diminished and my footsteps increased the distance between me and the lion's kill. I tried to figure out where I could plant myself somewhere at a distance to watch the kill area, but found there was too much low and medium height vegetation to offer a good vantage point. So, with part of me feeling that I made a smart choice in retreating, and another part of me feeling like a certified suburban weenie, I headed for home.
Near miss #3:
I was on a dark, tree- and meadow-lined forest service road in northern Minnesota, part of a group of interns and a leader from the International Wolf Center. We were "howling for wolves," hoping to hear their magical, eerie sounds in reply to our feeble imitations. It was October 2015, and the stars were out in force, with the northern lights flickering coquettishly in the night sky. I stood a bit away from the group, knowing from years as a wildlife docent that people unfamiliar with dark, lonely places can never resist talking to each other. Right now, it was much more important to listen, to keep our ears and our whole beings on alert for our quarry.
The group leader was the first of us to sound off, delivering a passable rendition of an authentic wolf howl. Then we were to remain absolutely quiet for two minutes, which the leader timed. With no response to our first round, the leader gestured to the next person, who howled; then we waited another two minutes, straining to listen. After the third person howled, we heard a loud, distinct chirping sound coming from within 100 feet on the other side of our little bus, parked nearby on the side of a gravel road. Knowing instantly that this was a mountain lion, I felt a lightning bolt of energy course through me from scalp to toes. I turned my head to look at our leader, who happened to look my way at the same time. We shared a mutual knowing smile, both aware of what animal had delivered the odd sound. After several more of these chirping sounds, one intern asked, "What kind of bird is that, sounding off in the middle of the night?!"
Our leader seemed to pause before answering, and I could appreciate his dilemma. He could give an indirect answer, or he could risk the potential fear that a direct answer might incite. The thought of a wild mountain lion so close, with no barriers between us, could engender a primal fear of a large beast with sharp teeth and claws. He answered matter-of-factly, "Actually, that was a mountain lion." The effect was instantaneous: all seven people shuffled their feet toward each other and formed a huddle. They moved as if by magic, and they were silent. Any thoughts of sprinting to the safety of the bus presented the complication that the door was on the opposite side - closest to the lion!
I felt my own feet wanting to betray me and join the group huddle, but I resolutely stood my ground, not wanting to once again miss my chance to glimpse a wild lion. The feline's presence caused a dither of hesitation that erased our earlier thoughts of listening for distant canid howls. With our original mission clearly and silently aborted, the leader came to our rescue, confidently walking around the snout of the bus, motioning for everyone to follow. I hesitated, scanning the meadow from where the chirps had come, the areas free of shrubs glowing pale in the starlight. As I finally mounted the bus steps, I still hesitated, turning my head, hoping. I claimed a window seat, still scanning the dark meadow, and as the leader shut the door and slid into the driver's seat, he offered to wait a few minutes to see if a mountain lion - and possibly some cubs! - would appear. But we had no such luck, and finally we rolled slowly down the gravel road until we reached the nearest turn-around, and then retraced our route, every person watching the surroundings, some with trepidation, and others, like me, with hope - but all with intense interest. But once again, it was not to be!