My college essay: ‘The Mountain Lions Were Calling’

It was a warm day in July and the mountain lions were calling me. As I crawled through the tunnels of chaparral and twisting manzanita trees, my breathing was strained, but anticipation pushed me toward the GPS coordinates and pungent smell of the rotting carcass. A hair with a white follicle at the tip and the strength to remain straight after being bent: a deer hair. Next to it lay a fine, tan fiber from the belly of a mountain lion. I ran my fingers over a recognizable track, and looked up to see a full-grown female deer, a cavity in her stomach and flies swarming in figure eights through her black, hollow eyes. This was the beginning of my search.

I was introduced to the Mountain Lion Project through a Conservation Science Intensive for young women. A group of scientists from a leopard project in South Africa were now tracking and collaring mountain lions in my back yard. The mysterious and opportunistic creatures sparked a familiarity within me: the excitement of danger, discovery and daringness. I volunteered to help with the project and the team welcomed me as an intern. I helped research the lions’ behavioral movements and feeding habits in a 1,000-square-mile territory in order to research how humans can learn to coexist with top predators as well as better understand mountain lion behavior. I was able to identify which kill site was attributed to each lion; I could age the fawns and yearling deer by cutting out their jaw bones and examining their molars. My trainer warned me that I would start seeing the world differently. “You’re not just looking for something, you’re learning how to search.”

As a child, people compared me to a tiger: a fast, ferocious, fiery redhead, an adventurous, attentive creature of the earth and sun. Growing up with Jack London State Park in my backyard opened doorways for me to explore my creativity in nature: greeting the familiar redwood trees by name, running down the mountains, volunteering to sort recycling – all were deeply rooted in my childhood passions. My dad always called me “the finder;” I had the keenest eyes, whether it was spotting his lost glasses or the poisonous mushrooms in the backyard. Working with the Mountain Lion Project transformed me from a “finder” to a “searcher.”

I was inspired to write a research paper titled, “Learning to Coexist with Top Predators,” for my senior project which discussed the importance of keystone species, species that the environment relies on and would be drastically changed without, as well as direct actions humans can take to coexist with top predators such as mountain lions. I also created a blog of my experience interning and spoke to my AP Environmental Science class about the importance of understanding the crucial roles mountain lions and top predators play in the environment.

I will forever value the experience of working with the passionate group of researchers at the Mountain Lion Project and Conservation Science Intensive.

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