Reports of a mountain lion wandering a Merced County high school campus led to warnings to local residents to stay indoors for a few hours Saturday and keep an eye on children and pets before police issued a clear message.
The Atwater Police Department and Merced County Office of Emergency Services sent a message around 7:45 a.m. Saturday after confirming sightings of the large cougar on the grounds of Atwater High School in the northwestern part of the city. Photos of the big cat have been circulating on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, provoking surprised reactions from readers.
Atwater resident Ryan Cook posted an image to Facebook as the animal roamed the high school campus. “Mountain Lion on Atwater High School campus!!!” Cook wrote. “Traffic is at a standstill, waiting for fish and game. Absolutely insane.”
Atwater Police Chief Michael Salvador issued a stark warning to residents shortly before 9:30 a.m. after his officers, along with Merced County Sheriff’s Officers, California Highway Patrol officers, and California Department of Fish & wildlife, had determined that there was no longer a threat to public safety.
Salvador said search teams searched the high school campus and surrounding neighborhoods without finding the cougar.
“We’ve determined that the cat is nowhere within the Atwater city limits at this time,” he told The Fresno Bee. “There is no risk to public safety at this time, so we are sending a clear message to residents.”
The warnings had urged residents to stay away from the high school and close the streets in nearby neighborhoods while the search was underway.
Salvador said seeing pumas is an uncommon, but not unheard of, phenomenon at the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley. Earlier in his police career, when he worked for the Sheriff’s Department in neighboring Madera County, “cats would come down the valley from time to time,” he said. “They’re looking for water and looking for food.”
“Our irrigation channels are running and we have the Merced River about three or four miles north of us,” Salvador added. “So it’s not out of the question to see these big cats here in the valley.”
Foothills and mountains are considered the primary habitat for mountain lions, according to information from the State Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Mountain lions are known to live in a variety of habitats throughout most of California, the department reports on its website. “Mountain lions can be found wherever deer are present, as deer are the main food source for mountain lions in most areas.”
The agency said attacks on humans by mountain lions are rare in California. “Statistically, a person is a thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than a cougar,” says the agency’s website.
In May, a woman reported that she and her dog had been attacked by a mountain lion in a remote area of Trinity County, Northern California.
And in February, in the Fresno County community of Selma, a 130-pound mountain lion was spotted roaming a southeast neighborhood of the city. It was later sedated and captured outside a home before being released back into the wild.
This story was originally published August 20, 2022 09:08.