Post by Tim Beatley and Carla Jones

Zara McDonald is the Founder and President of Felidae Conservation Fund. She is an entrepreneur, conservationist, and vet technician, and has journeyed throughout four continents working on behalf of wild felid research and conservation since 2002. Zara has worked extensively in all areas of felid research, tracking and conservation. A certified capture specialist she has worked on four mountain lion research projects since 2003. Zara directs the Bay Area Puma Project, a cutting edge mountain lion research, conservation and education program in the San Francisco Bay Area region. She gives 20 “Living with Mountain Lions” lectures per year, touching on the complexities of felid persistence in human dominated landscapes and near urban areas of increasing human activity. During her tenure as an ultra marathoner Zara came into contact with mountain lions on 2 occasions in Marin County, CA.

Zara McDonald

Zara McDonald

How did your foundation and specifically the Bay Area Puma Project begin?

The inspiration behind forming Felidae came from multiple experiences. One began with a reflection on my own life after graduate school. I was looking for a different direction and thinking of medical school.

I was also an ultra-runner. This was my outlet and served as my meditation every day. Despite the tremendous physical and emotional investment that is required in that type of activity, these remote trail runs solidified my relationship with this unaltered landscape. I ran every day and would frequently see coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and raptors, rain or shine, all hours of day, and into the periods of dusk. Exactly the periods that I remind people to be conscious of recreating alone because we are in mountain lion country.

During one of these runs, I had this powerful encounter with a mountain lion. This experience brought an enhanced perspective on the increasingly interlaced intersections where cities and animals converge. Where is this going to lead for species living off the landscapes since before we inhabited this region? That very close encounter left me feeling pretty silly, because it ended benignly, as most do, but also entirely enthralled. I experienced this rush of emotion around the fate of the species. I really did not know a lot about mountain lions at the time. I strongly believed that this species had a much more important contribution to this landscape than I did. I carried that with me. These and many other questions led to the formation of Felidae. The Pumas in the San Francisco area epitomize the conservation concerns confronting large predators globally. This was something that stuck with me. This became the impetus for launching the multi-faceted Bay Area Puma Project, a long-term research, education and conservation program on mountain lions in the urban San Francisco Bay Area region.

Puma Looking Down on SFO

What other places in the world are you working?

One of our first projects was in Pakistan. We were working alongside a couple of partners to head out to the northwestern province of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. This was not an urban project. However, snow leopards are severely impacted by a number of human activities, including climate change. We were in Pakistan during the first several months after the formation of Felidae to place GPS collars on snow leopards in that region. We worked with local communities on the importance of this species. A lot of the overlapping issues and messages were apparent. This was one of the initial projects.

That led to work in Chile on the Puma. Usually, we are facing a negative perception of large cats that lead to retaliatory killings and loss of viable populations. The Chilean project occurred in the southern Patagonian region of Chile. We were working with Conservacion Patagonica and looking at the role of pumas in the loss of the highly endangered Huemul, also known as the South Andean deer.

Then we worked in Mongolia on a snow leopard project. We strategized with partners and launched a project looking at snow leopard populations in Transaltai Gobi.

We have also worked on several small cat research projects. In Borneo, there are multiple overlapping small cats whose populations and viability are affected by palm oil harvesting. There is little known about these cat species, which include the Clouded Leopard, Bornean Bay Cat, Flat-headed Cat, Leopard Cat, and Marbled Cat. We were looking to tag and track these species with two PhD students from Oxford. You may be familiar with the now widely popular remote cameras that provide useful data on the activities of these species. We used different models of remote cameras for most of these projects.

Those are just some of the projects that we have been working on. When we started the Bay Area Puma Project, we realized how all consuming this project would become if we were to do it right, at a level where it can serve as a model for other urban settings. So we took some of our focus and energy away from other regions, and are focused more on this project for the next three to four years.

Puma in Protected Lands Above SFO

Could you tell us more about the Bay Area Puma Project?

The Bay Area Puma Project was officially launched in 2007. We wanted this project to move forward quickly, so I collaborated with Chris Wilmers who wanted to do a similar effort in the Santa Cruz mountains. We met to discuss what this project could become. My vision included the greater Bay Area, and Chris’ scope was focused on the Santa Cruz mountains, so we started this together in 2008 for the Santa Cruz Mountains phase.

The East Bay is the second phase of the project, and when that began ramping up, we parted ways with the Santa Cruz study. The East Bay Puma Project consists of a separate study area and a separate team to conduct research and field work activities. The East Bay is now our focus for capturing and collaring mountain lions. However, we still have camera arrays in and around the entire Bay Area. We are collecting non-invasive samples for genetics work and DNA analysis to look at ancestry and health of mountain lions in the region.

Pumas in the San Francisco Bay Area have not previously been studied in detail, and the questions we need to answer today are quite different from those of 20 years ago. The advent of technology enables us to gather unprecedented baseline data on the mountain lion populations in and around the Bay Area region. It is increasingly important for us to do this now, as we are at a critical time where we are trying to understand the changes and challenges for mountain lion populations in the region, relating to human population expansion and puma adaptation to increased human presence and encroachment.

Zara With Puma Kitten

There are many misconceptions about lions. How many mountain lions are in the region? Where are they located? We have determined there is very little basic knowledge on what’s happening in the area. To collect this data is very important for understanding where we are with lions currently, and to build an understanding of how healthy the gene pool is, and how we can best ensure the viability of this critical species.

Another thing we are thinking about is how are we going to handle increasing human population and how this affects mountain lion habitat. What danger does it pose for both humans and pumas if we aren’t thinking proactively? It is about gathering solid baseline data to answer some of these questions. The project will provide information that is needed to ensure the future of these species and region. Can we coexist? Can we guide puma management in areas with increasing human presence? Can we study the ecology using all our cutting edge technology tools, and modeling, and make accurate predictions? Can we determine the best possible model for us to all coexist given that we need these species nourishing our natural landscapes?

Educating and engaging the public, linking habitats, studying puma behavior at the interface of human habitat, and aiding in the design of wildlife crossings are all parts of this project.

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Is it possible to have a growing city and healthy population of mountain lions? Are you optimistic?

I am optimistic. However I worry about how much we can change human perception. One of my greatest worries regarding this project is how are we going to reduce the fear level and engage people enough, so that they start to take responsibility for our part in this.

Our data shows that lions are healthily moving in a nice parcel of watershed land owned by the city of San Francisco with no public access. Immediately when that lands crosses into national park area, a highly used area for recreation, we see a severe drop in the movement of mountain lions even though the habitat is still very high quality. Lions avoid moving there and we may have a lion move through this region at 2:00 AM once every four to six months. They choose to go where there are no humans.

What worries me is how humans respond when a cat ends up in a community, and how people jump to wrong conclusions about what this means. In almost every case, this is a young cat naturally dispersing from its home range, not a cat seeking to encroach into human areas. My concern is that somehow we can’t get that message across and make people aware of what is actually happening. Taking responsibility for our role in this means several things, such as being responsible about pets, and discouraging deer from going onto your property by planting certain plants. It is about playing a proactive role in communities. We are continually developing deeper into lion habitat. This is something that raises serious questions. Usually, people who buy these properties have no idea what it means to live in a natural area that includes predators. It may be ten minutes from the freeway that heads into San Francisco, so they think that everything should be like a park. Once they hear about a lion sighting, the fear rises up. Educating people who are thinking about moving to areas where there are mountain lion populations is essential. I am positive generally, but it depends on how we act in the next 4-5 years.

What should local governments be doing? Is there a top list of what we should do to ensure that we have a healthy mountain lion population and a condition of co-existence?

There is legislation that needs to be amended. The leading cause of death for mountain lions in the state is due to depredation permits, issued when a lion takes a pet or livestock animal. The depredation permit really takes the responsibility off of the owner, making the cat responsible regardless of what protections were or weren’t provided to the pet or livestock. It is difficult to change this, because the lion is such a polarizing animal in the state. We have a hunting faction that is pushing to reinstate hunting in California.

In communities where we know that lion populations exist, there should be a vigilant effort, even a requirement, to understand what it means to live and recreate safely in lion country. It comes down to the human decision to hold on to this species.

Is there any chance that having pride in the wildness of having mountain lions nearby could create a political force to protect this species?

Some of our followers are very vocal about this. We are seeing this growing community of individuals who very much appreciate what we have. Our biggest challenge is the other community of people who do not value mountain lions. If we can instill these values in kids, and they can take this home to their parents, then that’s going to stick. We feel this is important for planning for the future. There has to be a shift from this reactionary stance to a proactive stance in communities. The beauty of these animals and the wildness is something that we try to convey to all the participants at our educational events. It’s a long-term process, teaching people to take responsibility for what we introduce into this wild landscape, and understanding that survival is what these cats will do if we just leave them alone. I think the Bay Area is one of the few places that still has time to make these changes.

How are you engaging kids?

We have an environmental education program for kids called CAT Aware. This program has been underway for the last five years. We partnered with the Packard Foundation to do this. We have reached about 30,000 kids at science fairs, schools, et cetera. We have a three-part modular program where we address Nature Deficit Disorder. The first module is a presentation on bobcats and mountain lions and their role in our local ecosystems. The next module is an immersive experience in a predator-prey science lab to understand the natural relationships there, and the effects of human expansion. The kids play a board game that is very instructive on that concept. The third module is the field excursion, which is an experience where we emulate our actual fieldwork. We show them our tools, and how we track lions and bobcats, and how the research is conducted. We take them through that entire experience, and it makes a strong impression.

We are also introducing an educational video game called PumaWild that will be available on Apple and Android devices in April. It’s a fast paced game that brings the player into the experience of being a wild puma. At the easiest level, you are navigating the world without humans, and your only task is to take deer down. Then every other level involves the introduction of further human development and risk. It gives you a very different perspective on what the animal is going through.