Pumas at PechaKucha


Brendan Bane

Shortly after the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History was scheduled to close, human feet began steadily shuffling in. The lobby floor soon vibrated with the sound of the city’s own Balinese gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Anak Swarasanti. The chitchat crescendo of over 200 wine-sipping patrons rivaled the percussive band. Then everyone took their seats. Arms hung over every inch of railing along the towering central staircase. The house was packed. About fifteen minutes later, a young graduate student took the stage, shortened the microphone, and began speaking.

“Let’s begin with some history,” said UCSC PhD student Veronica Yovovich. “Up until 1967, California had a bounty on mountain lions.”

Yovovich studies mountain lion ecology. She was among six other presenters at the city’s third PechaKucha event. PechaKucha, like an adult version of show and tell, is a concise presentation format in which presenters have 20 slides and 400 seconds to discuss their work, share their interest, or trumpet their message. At Friday’s event, Yovovich spoke among Japanese banjo players, anti-corporate coffee vigilantes, and cosmopolitan whale photographers. Although the crowd warmly received each presentation, few commanded attention like the educational, lion-lifting Yovovich.

Images of stacked and severed puma heads splayed across the massive projector screen as she explained the animal’s unfortunate history. The cat had been the subject of indiscriminate hunting since European colonization. But Yovovich did not linger in the past– she quickly segued into the promising work of her research team: the Santa Cruz Puma Project.

Working hand in hand with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the UCSC scientists who comprise the Santa Cruz Puma Project have monitored mountain lions with GPS tracking collars since 2008. By tracking the cats and studying their behavior, the team has answered numerous questions about mountain lion physiology, ecology, and conservation. They recently added a mountain lion kitten to their batch of study animals.

Hailing recently from Colorado, where she once tracked mountain lions through fresh white snow, Yovovich now studies the relationship between pumas and their prey in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The thing I’m most interested in is predator prey dynamics. I’m interested in what they’re eating.” Scroll through Yovovich’s webpage and you may find a picture of her neck-deep in an eviscerated elk carcass (a puma delicacy). Catch her talk and you would have seen images of deer limbs strewn across research documents.

Her focus in the Puma Project is on the deer mountain lions eat and the plants the deer eat. Because mountain lions prefer to keep their distance from people and buildings, the deer may use developed areas as safe zones, making high-risk zones out of undeveloped areas where pumas hunt undeterred. That may produce an unequal deer distribution, with prey animals concentrating around developed areas. Plant communities in those areas could suffer because of the rise in deer traffic. Yovovich is looking into whether that’s actually the case.

The talk concluded with reassurance that mountain lion attacks are rare. So rare, in fact, that you should expect demise at the hands of various household appliances over a 130-pound puma. “Statistically," said Yovovich, "you really are more likely to be killed by your toothbrush, your toaster, your dog, or even a deer before a mountain lion.”

But to ensure they minimize their chances of an encounter, Yovovich prompted the citizens of the Santa Cruz Mountains to lock up their livestock come nightfall.

“It’s really important to put your goats and sheep away at night. You’re essentially baiting pumas if you leave them in an unenclosed space. Put them in a pen with a roof, walls, and a door. It will save your goats, it will save pumas, and it will save you heart ache.”

Mutilated goats aside, Yovovich’s central message rang clear. “As a carnivore biologist, I feel it’s my duty to be a liaison, and to help people feel comfortable and empowered. My main focus is to make sure people appreciate mountain lions without being scared of them.” Considering the audience’s emphatic applause and their subsequent chitchat about the allure of mountain lions, her goal was clearly accomplished.

If you’d like to know more about the Santa Cruz Puma Project, check out their active blog here. If you’d like to attend the next PechaKucha event, keep track of upcoming talks here.