Last weekend, Penngrove resident Pamela Ajello watched as her two young daughters stood above the buried remains of some of the chickens left behind.
Nearly two dozen had been killed in the middle of the night last Friday by mountain lions – a mother teaching her cubs to hunt, California Fish and Wildlife biologists say.
The girls, ages 5 and 7, recited a prayer they had learned in preschool, one used “when we say goodbye to our friends,” Ajello said, adding that the whole affair, involving five confirmed visits from the lions, culminating in the Friday The night massacre, had been heartbreaking for the girls.
“It’s really sad for them, but they also have gotten a big education living in a wild place like this,” Ajello said.
Ajello, her husband, Nateon Ajello, and the girls moved to Sonoma County in 2018. But they began raising chickens before the move, in Alameda County.
Now they rent 20 acres in Penngrove, a rural – and wild – hamlet north of Petaluma that’s home to deer, turkey and other wild creatures.
The family had once lost a chicken to a bobcat attack, and had gotten familiar with the signs of other predators lurking about.
“When the young deer and other animals don’t show up, you know something is around,” Ajello said. “The bobcat…they seem more strategic. That felt more comfortable to us. We didn’t like that it grabbed our chicken out of the bush.”
But the mountain lion attack, Ajello said, was different, leaving up to 30 chickens dead or missing over the course of several encounters last week.
“This was a lot more to bear,” Ajello said. “It doesn’t seem right that they went on such a killing spree.”
They had already dealt with losses to the flock that week, but Ajello said they weren’t sure the culprit until Friday night. She said she couldn’t sleep, partly due to the effects of having lost more than 17 birds the night before.
Then, shortly after 2 am Saturday, the family heard commotion.
“We went outside with lights and saw eight eyes in the coop,” Ajello recounted this past weekend in a post on the social media app, NextDoor. “They were large, leaping/jumping and going generally crazy.”
The lions were trapped, and after some consideration, the family, with the help of a neighbor and some pots and pans, decided to help them escape, back to the wild.
California Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Paglia said scientists there believe the attack involved a mother and up to three cubs, and that she was likely teaching those cubs to hunt.
“I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly common,” Paglia said. “But in places like Sonoma County, where it’s adjacent to rural land, if they see an opportunity, they’re going to take it.”
The ensuing days, including a near-viral social media post that has inflamed existing tensions in the debate between farming and predation, have been a blur for Ajello, who said she has spent much of the time trying to soak up knowledge about the events, and would have been done to prevent the tragic outcome.
Paglia said electric fencing and obstructing the view of potential predators are both important tools for farmers. He said the Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the midst of a study of mountain lion encounters, actively tracking cases, and he encouraged residents to use the department’s Wildlife Incident Report application online to report their own experiences.
The Ajello family has three chickens left following the attacks, and they’re not sure what’s next for them. She said she doesn’t take her responsibility as a farmer lightly, and added that vigilance is important for any animal owner. She said she hopes others can learn from her experience.
“In one small way, that’s what I wanted to do with this experience, is give it some meaning,” she said. “To be able to try to think about what good can come out of it. Having this personal experience, it’s very eye opening, finding our place in the world.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to add clarity to the number of chickens killed, missing and buried.
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.