image - puma project
Virginia Thompson, executive director of the Felidae Conservation Fund, speaks to students at King's Mountain Elementary School about the region's keystone predator, the mountain lion. Photo courtesy of Diane Siegel 

Whether you call it a mountain lion, a cougar or a puma, there are a lot of preconceptions about the top predator roaming the Bay Area. But thanks to a new partnership between King’s Mountain Elementary School and the Bay Area Puma Project, students are getting a chance to learn more about the big cat — and even contribute to ongoing research efforts. 

On Nov. 13, Virginia Thompson, executive director of Felidae Conservation Fund, which oversees the Puma Project, came to the elementary school to speak with students.

 With the tawny pelt of a mountain lion splayed across the floor, Thompson emphasized the predator’s importance to the region’s ecosystem. 

“Many people in the Bay Area do not know that they actually live very close to mountain lions,” said Thompson. “Our goals are to educate, inform and help people be great messengers for these animals.

“We really need this wildlife in our ecosystem in order to maintain its balance,” she added. 

King’s Mountain Elementary School Principal Diane Siegel said that the main takeaway from Thompson’s presentation, the first in a series of three visits, involves what’s known as the “green world hypothesis.” First proposed by scientists in 1960, the theory posits that the presence of predators in an area reduces the number of herbivores, thereby allowing plants to flourish and biodiversity to thrive. 

“It’s the idea of the interconnectedness of all animals,” said Siegel. “I’m hoping that through learning about mountain lions, the students will (see) that every animal plays a role.” 

“We’ve been talking about empathy, an understanding how others feel,” she added. “We’re expanding that to the animals that we share the planet with.”

Siegel also donated a wildlife camera to set up at King’s Mountain and contribute to the Puma Project’s research. While the students weren’t able to go outside and mount the camera together, a consequence of the week’s poor air quality, Thompson and Siegel installed it themselves in front of a nearby animal trail. 

“It’s really to help the kids understand what wildlife is around the school,” said Thompson. 

For her part, Thompson hopes that the Bay Area Puma Project’s educational partnerships, like the one at King’s Mountain, will help correct any misconceptions students and community members might have about the predatory cat. “Mountain lions are perceived as strong, dangerous and aggressive,” she said “And they are absolutely aggressive hunters, but they’re not looking to attack humans. As humans, we’re really safe in puma country. They don’t have any interest in going after us.”

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