A young mountain lion took a day trip to Orange County on Tuesday.
The big cat arrived in Irvine around lunchtime, passing through a busy Irvine shopping center and getting stuck in an office building before finally being tranquilized and finally released into the wild.
Law enforcement received reports of a cougar sighting around 12:15 p.m. at an intersection not far from the Sand Canyon Plaza mall.
But officers weren’t entirely convinced – until they arrived on the scene to find a 113-pound lion walking around town in broad daylight, according to the Irvine Police Department.
“It’s very rare that they come this deep in Irvine,” said Lt. Bill Bingham, spokesman for the police department. “But, of course, it was a cougar.”
When Dr. Scott Weldy, owner of a local veterinary hospital, arrived, the approximately 2-year-old lion was crouched in nearby bushes.
The big cat then ran down the street and into the open doorway of an office building where people were working, past the employees, said Weldy, Irvine Animal Control’s staff veterinarian. He said the door to the building was held open because the air conditioning was not working.
Everyone inside marched as animal control arrived, tranquilizer guns at the ready.
Weldy said he fired a dart into the cougar’s left shoulder, which was enough to immobilize him.
Neither the man nor the lion were injured. “Everyone got away with it unscathed,” Bingham said.
The mountain lion was then taken to Serrano Animal & Bird Hospital, run by Weldy, in nearby Lake Forest. There he was examined, blood and DNA samples were taken, and fluids and supportive care were administered. The young cat appeared to be in good health, officials said.
“He was in really good shape,” Weldy said. “He had ticks and fleas on him, but that’s about it.”
A biologist affiliated with a UC Davis mountain lion study was sent to place a collar on the animal, said Dr. Winston Vickers, a wildlife research veterinarian who directs the California Mountain Lion Project for the university.
Between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., the lion was released back into the wild, deeper into canyon country, in accordance with instructions from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Weldy said.
He said it’s likely the young lion was looking for a new home – known as a scatter – and took a wrong turn.
Mother lions teach their cubs to hunt, but as their cubs approach the 2-year-old mark, she “kicks them out,” Weldy said. He believes the lion captured on Tuesday was just under 2 years old.
“There are a lot of networks of … waterways and things like that all over Southern California, and the cats use them as a highway system,” Weldy said. “This guy obviously turned left instead of right and went the wrong way, and ended up in Irvine.”
Vickers agreed, noting there was “no doubt” the young cat was looking for territory to call his own.
Now that he has a collar, wildlife experts can track him through time.
“It will be interesting to see what he does from here,” Vickers said.
Vickers’ team is tracking six mountain lions in the area – five in the Santa Ana Mountains, including the new lion, and one east of Highway 15.
An estimated 15 to 21 adult lions live in the mountain range, a number based on the amount of habitat available and typical territory sizes.
A mountain lion was seen bathing in Lake Mission Viejo over the weekend, but wildlife experts and law enforcement said it was impossible to know if the cat was the same as the one who visited Irvine on Tuesday.
“I hope it’s not,” Weldy said. “Hopefully we get more than one.”