In the late evening as the shadows stretch across the trail and the light dims, you’re walking back to camp alone and unarmed. Possibly you hear a slight rustling from behind you, but probably you notice nothing until the weight of a big cat strikes your back and drives you to the ground. Teeth close tightly on your neck, and you’re the next meal of one of the most efficient predators ever to walk the earth.
This scenario unfolds in modern America more frequently than in the 1800’s. Americans often think of our landscape as having no dangerous natural predators. Enlightened management of the American ecosystem changed that recently. In the 1960’s the American government eliminated the bounty on cougars and native lion populations rebounded. According to some biologists, the current cougar numbers represent an historical peak, and cougars continue expanding in both numbers and range. Cougars usually avoid people today, but also show little fear of humans.
We’ve lived without the American cougar — a streamlined solitary lion that in peak condition might reach eight feet in length, with a powerful muscular body weighing about 170 pounds – for so long that few of us know what steps we should take to avoid encounters. Early wildlife management policies in North America focused on extermination of native animals, eliminating any species considered a threat or a nuisance. The Eastern woodland buffalo herds vanished, the Plains buffalo nearly disappeared, and American hunters eradicated deer from many areas. Bounties placed on the American cougar reduced this important predator to small populations in remote mountainous areas and swamps. By the 1940’s, experts believed the eastern cougar, native to the Appalachian Mountains, to be extinct. By 1960, the western cougar was on the verge of extinction. Restoring habitat and eliminating hunting pressure allowed the western cougar to rebound, and some evidence indicates that even the vanished eastern cougar might still be around.
If you love cougars but prefer to avoid cougar attacks, take a few tips from your ancient ancestors and from modern societies where people coexist with other big cats.
- Don’t travel alone. About ten percent of paleolithic human fossils show evidence of fatal predator attacks. Ninety percent of primitive humans living in social groups survived. Large dogs substitute for human companions, but tiny versions of man’s best friend only look like snacks.
- Make camp early. Current research shows that cougars use trails and roads as convenient ambush zones. Twilight creates prime hunting conditions, and at dawn or dusk the paths of humans and cougars most often coincide.
- Protect your young. Children playing alone or lagging behind a main group make tempting targets. Keep children in the center of the group, protected by adults at front and back. If one person stops, everyone stops.
- Leave the antler hat behind. The prone position and fast movement of a mountain biker mimics a bolting deer. To tie your shoes or work on your bike, stop in an open area away from heavy brush, tall grass or high ledges. Bending over makes you a better target.
- Use passive defenses. Many predatory cats target the back of the head or the neck. In India’s national forests where forest workers and tigers coexist, about five percent of the tiger population preys on humans. Tiger attacks dropped when workers began wearing Halloween-style masks on the backs of their heads, apparently facing both ways at once. When the policy first went into play, predation on single-faced workers stayed at normal levels, but predation on two-faced workers dropped to zero, with one exception. One masked worker fell to a sneak attack from the side. Gradually, tigers adapted, and the ploy no longer works perfectly, but any item that physically interferes with a big cat’s preferred attack helps. Backpacks, for example, shield the head and neck from a rear assault. India’s forestry service recommends slinging a wooden club across your back, with the end projecting above your right shoulder, obstructing the predator’s favorite target zone.
- Fight back. When confronted by a cougar, make yourself threatening. Yell, throw rocks, and wave sticks. Don’t depend on found objects if you hike or run in cougar country. Carry something stout – you’ll have more clout behind the bluster. See my post “How to Kill a Mountain Lion with Your Bare Hands” for details.
- Don’t play dead. Of all the mistakes you can make while fending off a cougar attack, that’s the worst. A cougar naturally fights to incapacitate. When the prey stops fighting back, the cougar kills it. Nearly all cougars that kill people wind up dead themselves, shortly afterward. Save the cougar by saving yourself.
Explanatory note: I’ve written about lion subjects before, here on The Marked Tree, and wrote this article as part of an application process for a job. Sadly, the company requires that applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree, but the information is accurate and if you don’t believe me, here’s a list of source material for my wild statements:
Cougar Info — Lion Facts: http://www.cougarinfo.org/facts.html
Mountain Lion Attacks on People in the U.S. and Canada: http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks.html
Mountain Lion Foundation — Mountain Lion Safety Tips: http://www.mountainlion.org/facts_safety.asp
Field Evidence of Cougars in Eastern North America: http://mountainlion.org/publications/Field%20Evidence%20of%20Cougars%20in%20Eastern%20North%20America%20%20-%20Proceedings%20from%20the%206th%20ML%20Workshop%202001.pdf
Denverpost.com — Mountain Lion Attacks Boy on Boulder Trail; http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_3716178
Early Humans on the Menu: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-02/wuis-eho021406.php
Southern California Puma Project: http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/whc/scehp/WHC%20Puma%20Report.pdf