Lions and Rattlers and Bears, Oh My!

Wild Things


When I first took to hiking in Los Padres Forest alone, amid the bear scat and cougar paw prints, I carried a large rock, prepared for an encounter with a large predator. You’re supposed to look large, I knew that much, though I couldn’t help pondering the fact that the mountain lion’s preferred prey-deer and elk-are pretty large, especially with those horns. Thoughts like these kept the specter of death at my side during my walks in paradise, but eventually, failing to ever come across menacing beasts, I put down my weapon.

However, recent fires and drought have driven wildlife into areas closer to human habitations. Therefore, being properly prepared for an encounter is a sound idea. With this in mind, I talked with Natasha Lohmus, who has spent 22 years in the Santa Barbara foothills as both a game warden and an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Game. The following are a few of her helpful tips and observations.

Mountain Lions

The worst thing you can do is run from a cat, which has a natural instinct to chase. Chances of seeing a mountain lion are slim, however; Lohmus has only seen one in her entire career. If you do come face to face with a cougar-or realize that you’re being stalked by one, since they prefer to sneak up from behind and kill by biting the back of the neck to sever the spinal cord-shoo it off by making a lot of noise and even taking a couple of steps toward the animal without actually chasing it. Break sticks off of trees to throw at the cat, but do not crouch down to get rocks. The odds of becoming cat food are low-only 15 people have been killed by mountain lions in the U.S. since 1890.

Black Bears

We have tons of bears in the foothills, Lohmus assured me. They come in shades of brown but they are all black bears (Ursus americanus californiensis), the grizzlies and brown bears having been killed off long ago.

Bears behave very differently from lions and so your defense tactics are dissimilar. Make a ruckus only to avoid surprising bears at close range-go ahead and sing as you hike. If you do suddenly intrude upon a bear, alarming it, most experts recommend standing still and speaking to it firmly but calmly.

“Bears like to bluff,” said Lohmus; they sometimes charge with a terrifying show of speed, strength, and aggression but then at the last moment veer off or stop short. If this happens, you are supposed to stand your ground and then back away slowly. Don’t run!

Experts differ on what to do in case the bear is not bluffing. Generally speaking, it is better to be considered a threat than to be considered prey, because, as one expert said, you can back down from being a threat. So if you have frightened a bear or-worst-case scenario-inadvertently come between a mother and her cubs, and she is beating you up, you are supposed to just take it.

That’s right-just lie there face down with your hands behind your neck for a couple of minutes or “until the bearis obviously feeding on you,” according to the Canada Trails Adventures Web site, at which point you should fight back for all your one-armed self is worth.

Santa Barbara’s black bears avoid humans so effectively that they are rarely encountered, and it’s best for all concerned if we keep it that way. Do not wear scented cosmetics, which tend to attract bears. Certainly do not feed them, and if you are camping, follow the well-established procedures for food storage. Also, dogs can provoke bears, so you are well advised to keep them on a leash at all times.


Coyotes are relatively harmless to humans. Don’t leave a baby unattended, of course, pick up small dogs if coyotes are near, and bring your cat in at night unless you’re willing to risk its life. Coyotes are excellent ratters, said Lohmus, and should be valued as such.

Don’t leave cat or dog food outside, and keep your garbage can covered. If you can’t stand the idea of wild animals even walking through your property, take a pump sprayer full of ammonia and mark the perimeter. Ammonia is a major component of urine, but, Lohmus said, “You can’t drink enough beer or coffee to create that much of a smell.”


Southern California enjoys a great variety of rattlesnakes, which are our only venomous snake. The bite of the common Western Diamondback usually destroys the tissue around the wound, the Mojave Rattlesnake’s bite can paralyze, and in between are unpleasant symptoms that include dizziness, shock, chills, vomiting, thirst, blurred vision, and heart palpitations. Fortunately only two out of 800 bites reported annually in the United States are fatal, though victims are often hospitalized.

You can recognize rattlers by their triangular-shaped heads, thin necks, thick powerful bodies, and, of course, rattles. Diamond-patterned skin is not a reliable indicator, since the harmless Pacific Gopher Snake and the Bull Snake also bear the diamond pattern.

If a rattlesnake bites you, according to the California Poison Control System:

!Do not suck the venom from the wound because the bacteria in your mouth can cause the wound to become infected.

!Do not cut open the wound, which can cause excessive bleeding considering rattlesnake venom’s tendency to interfere with blood-clotting.

!Do not pack the wound in ice, or use a tourniquet, both of which can lead to gangrene by blocking circulation, leading to loss of limb.

!Do keep the bite below your heart, and keep still if possible.

!Do carry a snakebite kit, for example the Sawyer Extractor, to safely remove some of the venom.

Fashion Sunscreen-ing Clothing

Even if you throw on a T-shirt while at the beach, swimming in the ocean, or driving your car, you can still get sunburned, particularly if the weave is loose or the fabric light. People looking for extra protection from the sun can find it in clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). Recommended by dermatologists and the Skin Cancer Foundation, these hats, pants, and shirts are available with UPF ratings of 30 or 50, which block both UVA and UVB rays (sunscreen only stops UVA rays). They’re made with specially treated yarn and a tight weave, so the protection doesn’t go down the drain in the wash or need to be reapplied after an hour in the sun. With a UPF of 50, only 10 percent of the ultraviolet radiation that falls on the shirt passes through to the skin. Many brands are available, including Ex Officio, Lole, and Columbia, most of which are available at Santa Barbara Outfitters (1200 State St.; 564-1007, -Felicia M. Tomasko


For further info on the aforementioned critters, check out the incredibly helpful and easy-to-read book Dangerous Wildlife in California & Nevada: A Guide to Safe Encounters at Home and in the Wild by F. Lynne Bachleda.


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