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A rancher licensed to kill a ‘beloved’ L.A. cougar now says she wants to save him

State officials have issued a permit allowing a rancher to kill P-45, a mountain lion believed to be responsible for the recent killings of livestock near Malibu, Calif. (National Park Service via AP)

A 150-pound mountain lion showed up in the mountains near Los Angeles last fall, and wildlife biologists were wowed. The cat, which they dubbed P-45, was a new male that could add his DNA to an isolated cougar population severely threatened by inbreeding.

Now there is a death warrant out for P-45.

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In the year since the 4-year-old cat’s discovery, he has become a prolific predator of the wrong sorts of prey. P-45 has killed several llamas at a Malibu winery. He is alleged to have slaughtered a miniature horse in October. And last weekend, P-45 may have carried out his bloodiest attack ever: He is the key suspect in a two-night killing spree of 11 alpacas and one goat in the Malibu hills.

State wildlife officials have now granted a permit allowing one of the aggrieved ranchers to hire a hunter to kill the big cat, a practice that usually involves luring the target with a deer carcass. The rancher, Victoria Vaughn-Perling, was given 10 days to take down P-45 anywhere within 10 miles of the crime scene.

On Wednesday evening, Vaughn-Perling said in a statement that she had obtained the permit not with the intention of killing the “local beloved” P-45, but of saving him. She said she wants the state to give her permission to tranquilize, capture and relocate the mountain lion to  Wildlife Waystation, an animal sanctuary in the L.A. foothills.  The mountain lion has “terrorized” her for months, the statement said, and she and her neighbors fear for their own safety.

“It is only a matter of time when someone will get a kill permit, and successfully kill P-45,” said Vaughn-Perling, who asserted that the cat had killed at least 65 animals in her neighborhood in the past eight months. But, the statement warned, Vaughn-Perling “will proceed with killing this lion if she is not given a permit to relocate it within the next few days.”

Although that idea would save P-45’s life, it is unlikely to be endorsed by wildlife conservationists, who see the lion — of of just three breeding-age males out of about 10 to 15 cougars who roam the Santa Monica Mountains — as crucial to the genetic health of that small population.

The approval of the cougar hunt prompted outcry among conservationists, animal welfare activists and fans of the city’s mountain lions, some members of which have achieved celebrity status. A petition calling for P-45’s salvation is circulating. A state senator-elect has called for another solution. The National Wildlife Federation has offered to buy guard dogs for the rancher.

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The National Park Service, which has put radio collars on P-45 and other cougars in the Santa Monicas as part of a study, said the right approach is more protection for livestock, not death for the predator.

“Eliminating P-45 does not solve the problem. . . . Nor is P-45’s behavior abnormal or aberrant in any way,” Kate Kuykendall, a spokeswoman for the park service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said in a statement. “In a typical natural setting, animals flee from a mountain lion attack, but if animals are stuck in an unsecured pen, a mountain lion’s response can be to prey upon all available animals.”

Conflicts between people — particularly livestock owners — and predators are common throughout the West, even as the populations of wolves, bears and cougars have dropped over the centuries. But the dozen or so mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains inhabit an environment where navigating the ways of the human world can be particularly challenging.

The big cats are penned in by the freeways that crisscross L.A.’s metropolitan area, which make finding mates and breeding difficult and, even worse, can be fatal to cats that try to cross them. They are regularly sickened by poison that people use to control rats and other pests. And they roam an area packed with tasty-looking prey — not just alpacas, but dogs and even zoo koalas — that humans have decided they are not supposed to eat. Fortunately, cougars’ main dietary staple, deer, are not off-limits.

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So great are the obstacles to a thriving life that biologists fear the area’s mountain lions could be extinct within 50 years.

In an editorial Wednesday headlined “Save P-45,” the Los Angeles Times noted that the state is considering building a multimillion-dollar wildlife bridge over the 101 Freeway to help the big cats migrate and mate with brethren that live beyond the region.

“It makes no sense to spend millions of dollars building a wildlife overpass for the survival of the mountain lions and yet issue depredation permits to residents so they can kill a lion for behaving like a mountain lion,” the editorial argued.

The National Park Service, which says it has documented six different mountain lions that have killed livestock in the area since 2002, is co-hosting a workshop Wednesday night on peaceful coexistence with the big cats.

Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Los Angeles Times that the 10 alpacas that were killed were kept in a locked area of a ranch outfitted with barbed wire and motion-sensing security cameras. The owner has “hired an agent” to seek out P-45, he told LAist.

“The homeowner did everything she could to protect her wildlife,” Hughan said, adding that the owner had lost income as well as pets. “This lion was very determined to get in there.”

Park service officials emphasize that the mountain lions haven’t threatened humans, but they’ve acknowledged an increase in reports of attacks on livestock and other domestic animals in the area.

“This lion is obviously killing for sport — not food,” Mary-Dee Rickards, a neighbor of the rancher who lost 10 alpacas, told KBUU-FM radio, according to City News Service. “I know everyone who lives up here not only respects but enjoys the beautiful wildlife. But this has gone beyond a peaceful coexistence with the animals.”

But not every victim has sought a depredation permit. The miniature horse owner did not, nor did the owners of Malibu Family Wines, where P-45 dined on llamas on three separate occasions late last year and early this year. Instead, the winery erected lion-proof fencing.

“The lions were here first, and we plan to stay,” ranch manager Dakota Semler told the L.A. Times. “We realize the risks involved, but we also appreciate that lions are wild animals that also live here. So we’re going to learn to live and work with them around.”

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