The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns have altered the relationship between people and wild animals. This article is about mountain lions in Santiago but it might well apply to other wild species for the same reasons.
A combination of factors has resulted in seven mountain lions being tranquillized and captured in Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to 7 million people. In general terms, the pandemic has kept people at home and away from their normal activities which means less traffic on the roads and a curfew in Santiago between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.. Noise pollution and light pollution have declined rapidly turning Santiago at night into something akin to the wild landscape in which mountain lions live.
The city is calm and quiet without people to frighten mountain lions so they come to hunt. A veterinarian said that when the traffic drops to nearly zero they start travelling to urban areas. Normally road traffic creates a barrier to them. The barrier disappears in much lower traffic levels.
And of course there is more urban sprawl which apparently attracts rabbits to lawns, a prey animal for the mountain lion, to which you can add a long drought in the mountains which has seen them come down to find prey in the suburbs of the city.
This is a reshaping of the relationship between cat and humankind, albeit temporarily. You might argue that it’s about mountain lions reclaiming the territory that was once theirs because humans have retreated from it in terms of their activities. It is pleasing to note that the Chilean authorities are dealing with the invasion of mountain lions in a humane manner. They tranquilize them, check them for health issues, microchip them or add a GPS collar so that they can track them and then release them. This allows the authorities to better understand the behaviour of mountain lions in that area.
This is all to the good in terms of the welfare of this cat. Mountain lions are protected in Chile and if you kill one you could end up in jail for five years. A classic example of how they are trapped during the lockdown is told by Bustamante, 47, who has tranquilized six of the seven cats caught in 2020 in the Santiago area.
He was called out to a garage. He crawled under the car in the garage and using his flashlight he saw the cat under the car. The cat’s ears were back and his teeth bared. He fired two tranquilizing darts into the mountain lion which did the trick (the exact amount of tranquilliser is important). He was quite a small male, a juvenile perhaps, weighing 68 pounds. The largest one that they have captured weighed 97 pounds. One female was injured by a trap and was dehydrated and she had chipped canine teeth. She clearly struggled to survive so this may be her chance to manage with the help of humans. She’s been kept in hospital while the others have been released.
There have been no attacks by the cats on the citizens. This has engendered a curiosity rather than a fear of them. When they have had a close encounter they have been awestruck rather than frightened. “Imagine seeing an impressive animal in your backyard, it was crazy”, said Verónica Stange. She spotted her mountain lion on April 2nd outside her home in an affluent suburb north of Santiago. She saw the eight year old female, the one that was injured which I have mentioned above. She weighed only 48 pounds and was bleeding from her snout.
The director of Chile’s National Zoo, Alejandra Montalba, is correct of course when he said that, “Mountain lions were here before us here in the city. We are the ones who have invaded their habitat. We already know that this is going to keep happening. Encounters with wildlife are here to stay.”
It is just a temporary return to the way things were and it has altered the balance between wildlife and humankind in favour of wildlife and some people are enjoying it.