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Mountain lion attacks boy: Safety reminders for parents

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Families that enjoy hiking trails and rambling in the woods may want to review safety guidelines in light of the case of a 6-year-old California boy who is recovering from injuries after being carried off a trail by a mountain lion on Sunday.

At this point, it is unknown how prepared the family of this boy was before taking the Zinfandel Trail in Cupertino, Calif., a trail clearly marked as mountain lion habitat. The animal snatched the little boy who was attacked from behind while separated from his family by a short distance, according to a video by KTVU in Oakland, Ca.

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According to the Los Angeles Times, the boy is recovering from puncture wounds and scratches from the attack which occurred about at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday on the trail in an open space preserve adjacent to the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino.

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As the mom of four sons married to a husband whose idea of the perfect weekend includes a multi-mile nature trail hike, I have spent the last 20 years learning how to stay hydrated and safe from both wild animals and the hunters pursuing them in public park systems.

I once wrote a story for The New York Times about the unsettling experience of wearing “just shoot me brown” while hiking in the woods with our kids and encountering a truckload of OSHA orange-wearing hunters who taught us about how easily we could be mistaken for deer. 

Hiking trails marked as wildlife habitats or designated hunting areas can be dangerous, doubly so with young children, but there are many resources that can help us better prepare.

The East Bay Parks system in California offers some valuable safety information on its website for parents taking children into wildlife habitats anywhere.

The site advises parents on everything from wearing long, light-colored clothing to help keep deer ticks off of the family, to coping with rattlesnake bites and large predators.

“Coyote, bobcats, deer, elk, wild pigs, and mountain lions are occasionally spotted in the parks. Their normal reaction is to run away,” according to the site.

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The site also advises parents to keep young children within sight and reach of parents or a “buddy.”

In the a KTVU news video about the attack, authorities add that they are using hounds to track-down and kill the mountain lion "in the interest of public safety." DNA samples from the lion's saliva on the boy's torn clothing will be used in order to positively identify the animal when captured.

At this point I am sad for both the boy and the mountain lion.

If the animal were rabid or rampaging in the streets of a suburban neighborhood instead of doing what comes naturally, fairly deep within its own natural habitat in an area with signs marking it as such, I would feel differently.

I called the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for their view.

“Obviously we are all incredibly relieved that this little boy survived the attack,” said PETA Campaign Specialist Ashley Byrne in a phone conversation from her office in New York City. “We really wish there were another way to handle this because the mountain lion will be killed for doing what mountain lions do in a habitat that was well marked. The animal’s habitat and food supply are vanishing and the incident occurred in that small remaining space left to it. It just doesn’t make sense to kill it for that.”

What happened to this child is of course a parental nightmare.

Yet, I also worry that we are making it worse with this planned killing of an animal for doing what comes naturally, in its own home.

The message this kind of reaction sends to kids doesn’t seem like one coming from a place of justice or public safety, but more fear and revenge.

While accidents happen and there are rogue elements in nature we can’t hope to control, there are ways to be safer in the wild with our kids.

It’s called “wildlife” because it’s untamed and unpredictable.

As in so many other adventures we undertake with our kids, we want to maintain the spirit of adventure, while remaining aware of the wild animals that call the outdoors home.