By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wildlife rangers in Southern California were hunting on Monday for a mountain lion that mauled a homeless man at his roadside encampment over the weekend in a rare attack that left the victim in critical condition, fish and game authorities said.
The mauling of the 50-year-old man, believed to have occurred on Friday or Saturday in the Riverside County town of Perris, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, marks only the 15th cougar attack on a person reported in California since 1986, the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife said.
Rangers set up baited box traps over the weekend, scoured the area for cougar tracks and scanned the vicinity with infrared cameras at night from a helicopter, but have so far found no signs of a mountain lion, said Lieutenant Patrick Foy of the wildlife agency.
None of the numerous lion sightings reported by nearby residents after the incident had panned out, but there was little doubt that the man was attacked by a cougar, Foy said, and authorities were continuing their search for the wild cat.
The injuries found on the victim - lacerations, puncture wounds and bite marks at the base of his skull - "are very consistent" with a cougar mauling, Foy said, adding, "We are comfortable confirming it as a lion attack.
A blanket that the victim apparently had wrapped himself in after the attack was soaked in blood, according to Foy.
If the animal is found, it will be killed in the interest of public safety, he said.
Investigators have collected DNA samples from the victim to match with the lion if it were captured, and the wildlife department will make "all reasonable efforts to ensure the actual offending animal is destroyed," the agency said.
"The first priority of any law enforcement agency is the safety of the public, and we are doing everything we can do (to) find and capture this animal before it can harm anyone else," assistant department chief Dan Sforza said in a statement.
Residents were warned to be careful with pets and children.
The circumstances of the mauling, including what time of day it occurred, whether the man was asleep when attacked, or whether he fought off the cougar, remained unknown because investigators have not been able to speak with him.
The lieutenant said rangers were awaiting doctors' approval to interview the man, listed in critical condition following surgery on Saturday night and described by Foy as being "in pretty bad shape."
The man managed to stagger from his campsite to a nearby home to make an emergency 911 call early on Saturday, but Foy said he believes the victim may have refrained from seeking help for several hours before that.
The homeless man, whose name was not publicly released, is known to law enforcement as having a "history of being mentally unstable," and has had "multiple violent confrontations with police" in the past, Foy said. He may have therefore been reluctant to call for help.
Mountain lion attacks on people are rare. A 63-year-old man survived an attack in July 2012 in Nevada County. The last fatal attack in California occurred in 2004, when a cyclist was mauled in the foothills of Orange County.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker)