We were six troops (Beverlywood and Beverly Hills) totaling one-hundred girls and moms together. We were participating in a big Girl Scout Encampment up at Malibu Creek State Park a week ago. Our troop (Beverlywood) had gotten to the campsite late, and found the Beverly Hills troops had erected their tents in perfect feng shui formation, on all the flat spots and had taken most of the picnic tables. We got busy setting up camp, organizing dinner and helping girls with the mass production of Swaps, the cute, little handmade pins they would trade with the other troops by the campfire later.
I took a small group of girls for a late afternoon hike along the Backbone Trail. We only went a mile out, but to these city girls it seemed like a grand adventure. We heard a woodpecker, saw some badly burnt trees that had black trunks and bright green crowns and a couple of horseback riders. Adding a touch of drama to the trek was the identifying and avoiding of poison oak, which grew everywhere in the area. When one of the girls had to pee I would leave her and guide the rest of the group around the bend so she could pee on the trail in private.
When we got back to camp everyone was talking about the deer. A herd had had come across the field adjacent to our campsite while we were gone. Someone else had spotted deer up on the hillside earlier. I was amazed at the deer's boldness. Girl Scouts were everywhere; hula-hooping, playing noisy chase games and practicing skits. Yet these normally shy creatures were all around us. It was as though we had ordered up nature and she had delivered in spades.
Night came swiftly, as it does one week after the end of daylight savings. Our troop was disorganized and behind schedule. The Beverly Hills moms had brought trays of pre-skewered meats for grilling which they served their troops with a nice, green salad. Meanwhile we were struggling with the Girl Scout Stew.
Darkness also brought waves of crushing homesickness for some of our girls. Shanyce, a poised, fifth-grader said she wasn't feeling well, but we knew she was just too proud to admit she was missing her mom. Joelle, a petite third-grader with a gentle smile stood over a trash can crying for her mother and horking up her Girl Scout Stew. My friend Jacki comforted Joelle, finally settling her down to sleep in her tent.
We got the Scouts off to the campfire and a few of us moms stayed behind to clean up dinner. Once we had gotten the dishes soaking, one of the moms from my troop handed me a cold beer she had sneaked in in a private cooler. I tucked it under my sweatshirt and left the area on the pretext of checking in on Joelle. She was sleeping soundly, a soft kafuffle-snort snore coming from her throat. I crept out of the tent and walked a few paces away, toward the edge of camp. I listened to the girls singing "White Coral Bells" off in the distance and felt deep contentment as I popped my beer, knocking back a long draught of hard-earned suds.
Suddenly, in the darkness, I heard footsteps. Girl-sized footsteps. Could this be an errant Brownie wandering alone on the edge of the woods?
"Who's there?" I called into the darkness, and I heard more soft, yet heavy steps, snapping twigs and rustling leaves. The tread was too measured and weighted to be a raccoon or a skunk. It must be a person. "Who's there?!" I again called out, sweeping the area with my flashlight, which caught on two little bright green LED lights. Thinking it was a Brownie with some kind of newfangled flashlight, I moved to retrieve her when suddenly I realized, 'No, those are eyes.' I froze in my tracks as I saw a large cat slink toward me in the half-light. It saw me and froze and we stared at each other for a long time. It was maybe twenty feet away, shadowed by the trees. The nearly full moon was rising though, and a thin sheen of light slid along its spine and down its long tail. The cat surely wasn't big enough to be a cougar, but what other cats would be up here?.
It stood but one giant leap away from me and Joelle's tent. Sweet, homesick Joelle would be little more than a tasty pig-in-a-blanket to beast like this. I dropped my beer and threw my arms in the air, and tried to shoo the beast away without waking Georgia or Joelle. I wanted to throw something at it, but all I had was my flashlight and beer, and I was loathe to part with them. I barked and whooped and jumped up and down but the thing just stood there, utterly unperturbed, staring at me as though I were a super-animated slab of beef jerky. That's when I decided to stop antagonizing the wild animal and back away. I walked backward several paces until I fell into a Beverly Hills tent, waking an irate mom. Then I bolted back to the camp fire.
I found Jacki, who came back with me in time to hear the animal retreating heavily into the woods. "Holy crap, what was that?" she asked, eyes wide.
"A large cat of some kind," I whispered.
"Maybe it was a coyote?"
"No, it wasn't a dog, it was a cat." Dogs feint and scratch, whimper and growl. This animal was pure feline, all stealth and intent. That much I was sure of.
"We have to tell Tashanda," Jacki asserted, and we went to find our troop leader.
Tashanda, normally a cool bean, completely freaked out. She told the Beverly Hills troop leader who went to find the park ranger, who told her it was most likely a bobcat, as there were several in the area. He rejected the notion of it being a mountain lion, as there are only two accounted for in all of the Santa Monica Mountains. What were the odds that I had seen one? We all clung to the bobcat theory, but I was haunted by the long tail. I kept my doubts to myself as we began the backbreaking work of packing up every scrap of food and hauling it back down to our cars for the night. We lugged trash bags to a nearby dumpster in pairs.
We spread the word to the other troop moms, trying to keep the lid on tight. Should news of the cat get out to the girls, mass panic would have ensued. When the campfire ended our girls returned for their S'Mores. Sticky and amped up on sugar, they bounced around the campsite, cat-proofing it with their noisy antics, and of course, further irritating the Beverly Hills moms, who had tucked in their Scouts and were ready to call it a night. But until every last girl was accounted for and tucked in, we were nervous and jumpy. We finally got our girls settled down, and hauling my daughter into my tent with me, I collapsed into a long night of restless cat dreams.
In the morning we awakened to find the Beverly Hills moms had served their girls a lovely pancake breakfast and had broken down half their camp. We also discovered they had taken all their leftover kabobs and dumped them in the lidless campsite trash cans leaving them out overnight. We were dismayed that so much cat bait was left out, but also smug that the perfect moms had so perfectly screwed up.
When I got home the first thing I did was Google bobcats. I looked at pictures, trying to reconcile their stubby tails with the silhouette I had seen in the darkness. While the size seemed right, the shape was all wrong. Then I Googled cougars and read that in fact, though they are powerful creatures, they are not that large, the biggest male weighing in at around 300 lbs. Reading on I learned that their primary prey is mule deer. I thought about all the deer that had migrated through our campsite that day and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had indeed seen a mountain lion.
According to the Moorpark Acorn, I almost certainly hadn't seen P1, long the dominant male cougar in our local range, as he would have been big. Nor would I have seen P8, his son, as he had recently been killed by another, unidentified male in the area. But perhaps I had seen his daughter, P7, a juvenile living near Hidden Valley. She would probably weigh in at a girlish 60-90 lbs. Whether it was deer, chicken kabobs or Girl Scout Stew that drew her to our camp, she was hungry enough to come in close and stay awhile.
I thought with a chill about the hike we had taken that day, and how I had left my small charges alone and squatting with their pants down along the trail. Nature isn't something you can order up, though with our zoos and Animal Planets and exotic pets, it sometimes seems like we can. As I made the short trip home down PCH the next day, the city came rapidly into view, and before long engulfed me in its familiar dangers. I felt comforted by traffic, and calmed by the noise of civilization. The city seemed to me a big cement cap over a seething, untamed land. It was nice knowing the only cougars I would encounter here are the ones with cheek implants who prey on men half their age in the wilds of Beverly Hills. But of course, we're all predator, belonging as we do to a species that yearly devours more acreage from the mountain lion's habitat, and pollutes his food chain with rat poison. In the grand, multi-species balance, what's a little Girl Scout Stew?
[Also see: LA Observed contributor Veronique de Turenne's piece on the Santa Monica Mountains cougars from the L.A. Times Magazine last year.]