Several years ago, I was roughing out concepts for the Maggie McDonald Mysteries when one of my ideas provoked a strong reaction from one of my critique partners.
"Mountain Lions in Silicon Valley?," she wrote. "Are you insane? I lived in Silicon Valley in the 1980s and I assure you there were no mountain lions. If you're pulling things out of the air to add tension, why not Godzilla?"
That outburst was prompted by a character sketch I'd done for Maggie, a hometown girl from Stockton -- a Central Valley city with a history of gang activity. While life there could be gritty, Maggie's life centered around the university campus where her parents worked.
Feeling a tad cloistered, she and her husband Max jumped at the opportunity to move to the classic Craftsman home near Silicon Valley that had belonged to Max's Aunt Kaye. But Maggie was having second thoughts. The house backed up to the Santa Clara County Open Space District (protected land known as preserves, reserves, reservations, or any one of a number of other names in other parts of the country.)
To Maggie, Open Space meant rattlesnakes, deer ticks, coyotes, and mountain lions. Rattlesnakes, ticks, and coyotes my critique partner could swallow. A mountain lion? No way! I liked the idea of a character who wasn't afraid of gangs in Stockton but was afraid of a protected part of Silicon Valley. But my critique partner wasn't having it.
Imagine my delight when just a few weeks later, a mountain lion was reported walking the streets of Mountain View not far from the Google campus. Experts theorized he was a young male looking for new territory. He'd followed the banks of one of many creeks that flow from the Coastal Range to the San Francisco Bay -- and emerged from a culvert onto one of the busiest streets around.
It was no place for a teen cat to hang out. The lion, tagged as a kitten and named M46 by the Santa Cruz Puma Project, had been prowling at night for a couple of days before he was spotted. He was later tranquillized and returned to a safer habitat.
Is such a sighting unusual? Not really. Lions are spotted in urban areas of the San Francisco Peninsula several times a year. I saw one while I driving a mountain road in the midst of a hail storm. Friends found tracks in the mud near a camp site. The lion had apparently been going about his feline fraternity-type business, and had no interest in nylon and lycra-clad humans. The people at the Santa Cruz Puma Project have data that shows the nocturnal animals venture into human areas undetected more frequently than they are spotted.
So my critique partner was wrong about mountain lions in Mountain View. Does that mean I'll write about them? Eventually. Who can resist a huge cat that can skulk about on city streets unseen before returning to his natural habitat? Not me.
For more information on Santa Clara County mountain lions (also known as cougars or pumas) and how we can protect them see: santacruzpumas.org