The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
I count the three times I have encountered mountain lions in the wild as lucky, astonishing, and almost sacred.
Most people never see one. These cats are so secretive that they have seen many more people than vice versa. People are not on the menu of mountain lions. Cougars, as they are also called, have been so persecuted by us that they know to stay far away. That being said, there have been times when we do meet face to face.
Only about 20 people in North America have been killed by cougars since 1890. That means you are far more likely to die from bee stings, snake bites, or lightning. Most of these 20 were children, some of which went ahead of adults on a trail and were caught alone. Many were running at the time, and two actually died of rabies instead of their physical wounds.
I have analyzed the report of a recent attack by a cougar on a couple in Washington State. Both were bicycling in a remote area when a cougar approached. The pair did the right thing to dismount, putting their bikes between them and the cat. This dissuaded the feline and it left, but as the bikers started to ride away, the puma pounced and grabbed one cyclist by the head. The other person tried to run but was soon overtaken by the cat and dragged into the woods. The first injured person rode as fast as he could to get a cell phone signal to dial 911. When authorities arrived, the runner was found under a pile of brush with the lion on top. The approximately three-year-old cat was later found and killed. Tests are being conducted to determine several things: 1) was this the cat that killed the person, 2) was it sick, 3) were there any other circumstances (i.e. severe hunger, cubs to feed, protecting unseen cubs) that would cause this animal to attack?
Cats usually wait for the opportune time to strike because they are ambush hunters. As soon as you lose eye contact, turn away, or, especially, run, the cat’s instinct to attack kicks in. Cougars can outrun even deer at times, and humans– always. They kill quickly by biting the neck, and their powerful jaws can easily snap vertebrae. They usually take prey larger than they can eat in one sitting, so they cache the remaining food in a pile of leaves, sticks, or other debris scraped up from the surroundings. This was where the victim in Washington was found. The cat lies on top for awhile making sure any other scavengers know it belongs to the cougar. Scent marking with urine around the cache also advertises the owner.
EXPERTS ADVISE IF YOU ENCOUNTER A COUGAR the best thing to do is to stop, don’t run. Make yourself look larger-than-life, and yell with authority. That tells the cat you are a force to be reckoned with. This strategy works well between rivals in nature. A bear, for example, will stand on its hind legs and hold out its arms to show its size. This tells the foe “I’m ready for you, so bring it. I’m not scared!” If attacked, fight back with all you have, and concentrate on hitting its eyes. Easier said than done.
We are increasing our encounters with cougars and all wild animals by frequenting their territories and shrinking their hunting grounds. As we build houses and developments further into the wild, the cats look for places that give them their feel-safe space. This is like us sitting at a table at McDonalds and a stranger comes and sits right next to us. We feel really uncomfortable and want to leave, or confront the stranger. Cougars are feeling that same pinch. Eventually the cats either find new territory, or they adapt by sampling this new food source.
I can’t predict what will happen with cougars vs. humans in the future, but I can say for certain: there will be more confrontations as we encroach into more and more of the wild.