Outdoors: A story of nature at its worst

Living in Ohio, I don’t get much information about life in other parts of the country. When you say wildlife to me, I think of deer, turkeys, geese, ducks, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, crappies, bass, muskies, walleyes and so on … you know, Ohio wildlife.

There are some elk and buffalo, but they’re behind fences. No moose or reindeer. We do have a few bears (black, not grizzly) and bobcats, but certainly no mountain lions.

If you think about a county on the southern edge of Los Angeles, you’ve got to figure it must be an area of wall-to-wall people. I mean, what could happen in Orange County that would make national news pertaining to wildlife?

Orange County packs 3.17 million people into 607,000 acres. It’s the sixth most-populated county in the U.S. It, according to Wikipedia, has more people than 21 states. Here in Montgomery County, we have approximately 532,000 people on 297,000 acres.

But, much to my surprise, Orange County actually has (or had) mountain lions roaming around like we have coyotes. They’re out there, but they’re nocturnal, so nobody sees them or thinks much about them.

That’s why the attack by a mountain lion on 5-year-old Laura Small in an Orange County park in March 1986 was so unexpected. That attack, and her family’s ordeal over the following years, is told in a fascinating first-person, diary-like format in the book “Out of the Lion’s Den” by the child’s mother, Susan Mattern.

Little Laura was standing in a small creek with her mom in Casper’s Park, innocently looking for tadpoles. When they were looking down, back to back, the lion struck. From out of nowhere it swiftly grabbed the child by the head and dragged her into the brush.

The events that followed were, as you would expect, frantic. At first, the mother was confused. When she turned, her baby was gone! A man — a passerby — grabbed a stick and went after the cougar. The big cat dropped its prey, growled and disappeared into the bush. The man then scooped up the mangled, bleeding child and headed for the park office.

After numerous surgeries, the child survived, but has been handicapped throughout her life.

Soon after the incident, Laura’s father heard a park employee say they (the park administration and rangers) knew about the mountain lion in that area but did not warn park visitors. Instead, they handed each entering group a pamphlet that warned: “The most dangerous form of wildlife in the park — poison oak.”

The rest of the book involves the family’s lawsuit against the county and its daily struggles, surgeries, hospital stays and doctor visits.

There is also a religious theme to the 300-page book. The mother — a pianist, a high school teacher and music director for a large church — had been a nun for six years. Yet she continuously wrestles with her faith, wondering how God could allow such a horrible thing to happen to her child.

The element of suspense: Will the child’s superstar attorney be able to win their headline-making case against Orange County?

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