Most people would not go out of their way to run into a mountain lion, but Chandler resident Mark Healy is a notable exception.
Healy operates a new business called Wildlife Callers, which sells electronic calling devices to hunters over the Internet. The machines are programmed to emit sounds that attract bobcats, coyotes, foxes and bears. And they can also call mountain lions - which is Healy's real interest. The big cats, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length and 200 pounds, are fairly common in Arizona. And it's perfectly legal to hunt them if you have the proper tag and license from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Healy enjoys matching wits with the crafty animals.
"With the mountain lion, it's the challenge," Healy said. "It's not as consistent as calling coyotes or foxes. You have to really know them to call them."
An avid hunter, Healy turned his personal passion into a business by becoming an authorized dealer for electronic wildlife callers made by Wildlife Technologies, a Manchester, N.H., company. Called the Mighty Atom, the machines are about 9 inches long and 6 inches wide and have a speaker on one end. Painted in a camouflage color, they can be programmed to produce up to 55 animal sounds that are likely to attract predators. They can be customized to call specific animals that interest the hunter.
The price is $490 or $590, depending on the model.
The recorded vocalizations include male and female calls of various species as well as sounds of prey such as rabbits in distress that might also attract bigger predators. The digital recordings were made of actual animals over years of field work, Healy said.
Although hunters have made up the majority of the buyers, electronic callers also are used by wildlife photographers and recreationists who are just interested in spotting wildlife, he said.
Healy and his two business partners started selling the devices through their www.wildlifecallers.com Web site in December, and sales have far exceeded expectations, he said. He thinks it's a reflection of the increasing popularity of predator calling within the hunting community.
"Hunting has been on the decline, but predator calling has been on the upswing," he said, adding that calling presents a greater - and for him a more interesting - challenge than other hunting techniques such as using tracking dogs.
Healy has drawn traffic to the Web site by setting up a blog in which hunters are invited to share calling techniques that have worked for them.
He and other hunters have found success in attracting animals by using electronic callers to set up vocal scenarios that are likely to interest the critters. On a hunting excursion last March in the Salt River Canyon north of Globe, after tracking a mountain lion's footprints for a while without seeing the animal, Healy stopped by a water hole used by cattle and transmitted a calf distress call suggesting that some fresh food might be readily available for the hidden cat. Then he transmitted crow calls suggesting that birds might be mobbing a food pile. Finally he transmitted lion sounds. And sure enough, after about 40 minutes the cougar emerged from the brush a few hundred yards away. Today the hide of that lion is gracing the wall of his living room.
"It's all about getting inside the mind of the animal," Healy said. "I love the process."
Electronic calling has been around for decades, but the newer devices are considerably more user-friendly, said Ron Day, a biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
"Animal calls were first on records, then on tapes. Now they're inside the box," he said. "There has not been an advance in the technique. It's been an advance in the technology."
He added that hand calling using a device to blow into can be as effective at attracting animals as electronic calling and at a considerably lower price.
"For the guys who know how to use it (hand calling), it's just as effective," he said.
Healy has organized a panel of experts to speak on the various aspects of wildlife calling at the International Sportsmen's Exposition, where he also will be exhibiting, Feb. 26-28 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. The panel discussion will begin at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 27.
Expo tickets are $15 for adults and can be purchased online at http://phoenix.sportsexpos.com.