A young mountain lion had quite the day trip Tuesday in Orange County.
The big cat barreled into Irvine around lunchtime, running through a busy commercial center in Irvine and getting stuck inside an office building before eventually being tranquilized and ultimately released back into the wild.
Law enforcement received reports of a cougar sighting around 12:15 p.m. at an intersection not far from the Sand Canyon Plaza shopping center.
But officers weren’t entirely convinced — until they arrived at the scene to find a 113-pound lion strolling around the city in broad daylight, according to the Irvine Police Department.
“It’s very uncommon for them to come that deep into Irvine,” said Lt. Bill Bingham, a spokesperson for the police department. “But, sure enough, it was a mountain lion.”
When Dr. Scott Weldy, a local animal hospital owner, arrived, the roughly 2-year-old lion was crouching in some nearby bushes.
The big cat then ran across the street and into the open door of an office building where people were working, darting past employees seated at their desks, said Weldy, the veterinarian of record for Irvine Animal Control. He said the building’s door had been propped open because the air conditioning wasn’t working.
Everyone inside filed out as animal control arrived, tranquilizer guns at the ready.
Weldy said he shot a dart into the cougar’s left shoulder, which was enough to immobilize him.
Neither man nor lion was injured. “Everyone came through it unscathed,” Bingham said.
The mountain lion was then taken to Serrano Animal & Bird Hospital, which Weldy heads, in nearby Lake Forest. There, he was examined, blood and DNA samples were taken, and fluids and supportive care were administered. The young cat appeared healthy, officials said.
“He was in really good shape,” Weldy said. “He had ticks and fleas on him — but that’s about it.”
A biologist affiliated with a UC Davis mountain lion study was dispatched to place a collar on the animal, said Dr. Winston Vickers, a wildlife research veterinarian who leads the California Mountain Lion Project for the university.
Between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., the lion was released into the wild, deeper into canyon country, in accordance with direction from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Weldy said.
He said it’s likely the young lion was looking for a new home — known as dispersing — and took a wrong turn.
Mother lions teach their cubs to hunt, but as their young start nearing the 2-year mark, she “kicks them out,” Weldy said. He thinks the lion captured Tuesday was just under 2 years old.
“There’s a lot of networks of … waterways and things like that all over Southern California, and the cats use those as their freeway system,” Weldy said. “This guy obviously turned left instead of turning right and went the wrong direction, and ended up in Irvine.”
Vickers agreed, noting there was “no doubt” the young cat was searching for territory to call his own.
Now that’s he’s collared, wildlife experts can track him over time.
“It’ll be interesting to see what he does from here,” Vickers said.
Vickers’ team is tracking six mountain lions in the area — five in the Santa Ana Mountains, including the new lion, and one east of the 15 Freeway.
An estimated 15 to 21 adult lions live in the mountain range, a number based on the amount of habitat available and typical territory sizes.
One mountain lion was seen taking a swim in Lake Mission Viejo over the weekend, but wildlife experts and law enforcement said it was impossible to know whether that cat was the same one that visited Irvine on Tuesday.
“I hope it’s not,” Weldy said. “I hope we have more than one.”