You’re hiking in the Colorado Rockies, enjoying the fresh air and just-rising sun, when suddenly you hear a snarl from a tree above you. Your blood chills. What is it? A bear, a mountain lion, a bobcat? How can you tell, and how should you react? You look up and meet the intent stare of a large cat. Your first instinct is to turn tail and run like crazy—the cat can have the whole mountain if he wants it! But is that the best choice? Consider the following information so you can be as prepared as possible for such an encounter.
What is a mountain lion, and where are they found?
The mountain lion goes by many names—cougar, puma, catamount, panther (or painter)—but it is actually more closely related to the leopard than to the lion. Its habitat used to cover all of North and South America, but the need for cleared farmland and cities in the eastern United States drove the population westward.
Mountain lions are now present throughout the forested areas of the Midwest and are most concentrated in the mountains of the Western states, Canada, and throughout Central and South America. They are slowly making their way back east into Pennsylvania and New England, as evidenced by sightings, paw prints, and occasional attacks or skirmishes with cars.
Do mountain lions prey on people?
They can and do attack people, but, according to Tom Chester of the California Mountain Lion Foundation, you are 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a car, and 10 times more likely to be attacked by a pet dog—your own or someone else’s—than by a mountain lion.
Mountain lions are not especially interested in people, although small children and pets—anything that may run—will look like prey to them. But this disinterest doesn’t mean that they never attack adults. They will attack either for food or to protect their young or a kill they have made.
How can you identify a mountain lion?
Because it can be hard to judge size and distance in the wild, some reported sightings of mountain lions are actually of its much smaller cousin, the bobcat (or wildcat). There are several distinct differences that can help you distinguish between the two cats:
- Weighs 50-175 lbs.
- 52 to 54 inches tall
- Has a yard-long tail
- Tawny golden color
- Rounded points on ears, not tufted
- Feeds primarily on deer and moose
- Has intent, intelligent expression
- Will snarl, hiss, give a blood curdling scream
- Will attack to obtain or protect food, or to protect its young
- Weighs 15-35 lbs.
- Just taller than a large house cat
- Has a “bobbed” tail—about five inches long
- Organge-tan color with black spots
- Tufted ears, with long hairs at tips
- Feeds on smaller animals—rabbits, chickens, mice
- Has an expression more like a house cat
- Will snarl, hiss, scream, and yowl if cornered
- Will attack for food; invade yards for birds, animals, water or shelter
10 tips for avoiding a mountain lion attack:
1) Don’t hike or wander alone in the woods or mountains. All known fatalities from mountain lions have happened to people who were out in the wilderness alone.
2) Avoid hiking during dawn and dusk—their most common hunting times.
3) Be noisy as you hike. Talk, sing, play music, beat the bushes with a stick. You may feel silly, but noise scares off several types of animals you don’t want to encounter.
4) Be BIG. If you see a mountain lion, make yourself as large as possible. Raise your arms so that your jacket looks like bat wings. Like any cat, a mountain lion is going to concentrate on what seems “do-able.” He will look for something smaller and more vulnerable than himself.
5) Do not take your dog into the wilderness with you. While it’s tempting to do so, and you may think your dog would scare off the cat, the opposite is more likely. The dog looks like dinner to the mountain lion, and can attract the cat instead of repelling it.
6) Do not let your children wander off from the camp into the woods. Most are small enough to be interesting to a hungry mountain lion.
7) If you come upon a deer carcass that’s fresh and partially covered with twigs and leaves, get away quickly. This is most likely a mountain lion’s kill and the cat will defend it by all means.
8) Realize that most of the time, the mountain lion will make sure his prey doesn’t see him before he attacks. He hides and waits for likely prey to come his way, or he may sneak up quietly from behind and go for the neck to sever the spinal cord. Don’t keep your eyes on the ground while hiking; look up as well, watching for a tawny shape or a long tail among the trees. Turn around and look behind you from time to time.
What to do if a mountain lion does get aggressive with you:
1) Try not to give in to panic and fear.
2) Face the cat down. Do not turn your back, squat, or bend over, unless you must quickly pick up a child. Otherwise, put a child behind you. Make eye contact with the animal.
3) Suppress your own instinct to run away. Any cat will interpret running as an invitation to give chase, and you will look more like prey. You can try to slowly back away, while still appearing threatening.
4) Yell and shout at the cat, as well as to attract human help. Shout “Cougar!” or “Lion!” rather than just “Help!” so that anyone within hearing distance will know what’s going on. Snarl and growl as well, as the cat will recognize that as threatening.
5) Make yourself appear as large as possible. If you’re wearing a jacket, open it and raise your arms so that you look big and threatening. Put a small child up on your shoulder—both for the child’s safety and to make you look larger.
6) If a mountain lion leaps on you from behind, bend forward and try to throw him over your head.
7) Fight with anything you have at hand—a knife, rocks, sticks—anything that will inflict pain. Throw dirt or sand in the cat’s face and eyes if you can. If you hurt him, he’s more likely to retreat.
8) Do not try to talk soothingly to the cat as you would to a pet; it won’t help. Do not curl into as small and quiet a ball as possible, as this will make him see you as easy to prey on—and you would be.
You may know that you are not breakfast food for a mountain lion or that you have no interest in the deer he just killed—but does the cat know? He’s just going on instinct—and if you react to his presence by running from him, his instincts will label you as “prey,” and he will attack. Think of a frisky housecat chasing a mouse, ball, or moving light—if it moves, it’s obviously meant to be chased and pounced on!
The mountain lion is an efficient hunter, so we need to do all we can to avoid looking like attractive, vulnerable prey.