WATSONVILLE -- If the thought of mountain lions roaming near your
 neighborhood or hiking trail makes you afraid, don't be.
Pumas are way more threatened by people than the other way around,
 says Zara McDonald, who's on a mission to reduce paranoia and increase
 appreciation for the predator cat.

McDonald, the founder and executive director of a Mill Valley research
 and education organization dedicated to preservation of the mountain
 lion and other wild cats around the world, brought a message of peaceful
 coexistence to a standing-room-only crowd Thursday at a Watsonville 
Wetlands Watch presentation at the Fitz Wetlands Education Center.
"If we were on the menu, hundreds of us would be dying," she said. 
"They're doing a fabulous job of avoiding us, despite the fact that we're
 ripping up their habitat and moving into their territory."

An entrepreneur who holds a master's degree in business administration
 from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, McDonald became interested
 in mountain lions after two encounters with them while trail running in
 Marin County. In 2006 she founded Felidae Conservation Fund, which
 operates the Bay Area Puma Project and has collaborated with UC Santa 
Cruz researchers for several years.

Using technologically sophisticated tracking collars, remote cameras and
 field testing, researchers are expanding their understanding of mountain 
lion behavior, reproduction, movement and challenges.

About 40 percent of mountain lion habitat in North and South America has
 been lost, McDonald said. What's left has been fragmented by urban 
encroachment and road systems. As a result, lions increasingly come
 into conflict with humans, and their genetic diversity is at risk.
"If we've learned anything, it's that they don't want to have anything to
 do with us," she said.

People can return the favor.
Too often lions are shot after killing unprotected pets or hobby livestock,
 for instance. Protecting pets by keeping them inside or in adequately 
fenced enclosures at night can save lives on both sides.

Busy freeways prove fatal to pumas, as well. In October, a young male
 lion who captured Santa Cruz's imagination last year when he had to 
be rescued from an Ocean Street aqueduct, died after being hit on Highway
 17. He wasn't the first. At least two other pumas have met their end while
 attempting to cross 17 in recent years. Freeway overpasses or culverts 
designed with wildlife in mind can provide safe passage, McDonald said.
Puma is one of 40 names for a creature that's been historically feared 
and revered and plays a critical role in ecosystems, she said. Humans, as
well as other wildlife, benefit from their presence. They prey on weak and 
diseased deer, for example, not only strengthening the surviving population,
 but also helping stop the spread of illness, such as Lyme disease.
"Once fear is removed from the equation, we can embrace what is their 
role," McDonald said.

Researchers estimate California is home to about 2,500 to 3,000 mountain
 lions, including 50 to 70 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. McDonald said the 
natural world enriches the human community, and pumas are part of that,
"To imagine them gone should disturb all of us," she said.