Once these graceful cats ranged across virtually all of North and South America, but today their North American range has shrunk to only the western half of the country and Florida. Although sightings have been reported in Maine, northern Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas, and southern Indiana, the animal is exceedingly rare east of the Mississippi. Known as the cougar, puma, panther, catamount, and painter, these are the largest of the small cats, with males weighing between 125 and 160 pounds. Females are smaller at 80 to 100 pounds. Beautiful animals, they are a tawny color that blends well with the rocks and grasses in dry habitats.
These powerful animals are nocturnal, stalking their prey alone. They do not hunt together as wolves do, but rather are solitary hunters. Each animal is territorial with a range of anywhere between 10 to 500 square miles that they defend by scent marking.
Because the mountain lion is an animal that stalks its prey silently then ambushes with a severe bite to the neck and spinal cord, it is of great danger to humans who unwittingly become its prey. Although unusual, the number of attacks is on the rise, especially in California. The mountain lion’s normal behavior is avoidance of humans, but as people increasingly enter cougar habitat, interactions are becoming more frequent. Normal prey animals are deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and domestic animals such as horses and cattle. They will also eat small birds, reptiles, and even insects. Attacks are most likely in areas where the animals have become habituated to humans and regular prey is unavailable.
Prior to the 1970s there were only six recorded deaths caused by mountain lions. Since 1970 there have been increasing numbers of attacks and deaths. Children are the most likely prey with over half of the deaths being children. To put the risk of mountain lion attack in perspective, though, there have been only 23 reported deaths in North America since 1890. In comparison, there is an average of 90 people per year killed by lightning, approximately the same number killed by bees and wasps, and over 15,000 are murdered each year. People who are in mountain lion territory, though, must take precautions to avoid becoming prey.
Safety in Mountain Lion Territory
This incredibly agile animal can leap 20 feet, run at 35 miles per hour, and drop from overhanging rock as high as 50 feet onto its prey. It stalks its prey stealthily and when the time is right, attacks with a debilitating bite to the back of the neck while clutching with its powerful claws. Humans are no match for this kind of hunter, so caution and awareness are vital.
The first step in safety is to know where mountain lion territory is. Over half of California, the state with the highest frequency of human-lion interactions, is classified as mountain lion habitat. Another area with a high frequency of attacks is Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The entire western half of the U. S. is potential mountain lion territory.
Safety precautions include always hiking with a partner or group, keeping pets and children under close supervision, and remaining alert and aware of surroundings. Avoid hiking and bicycling at dawn and dusk, primary hunting times. Although most attacks occur without warning, having a handy weapon or pepper spray is advised. Stay away from dense undergrowth and rock overhangs and outcroppings. Some suggest wearing a hat with large eyes painted on it, this shows the hunter that the prey is vigilant and makes attacks less likely.
If a lion is encountered, never run, turn your back, or crouch down. If the lion is grooming and not fixated, it is unlikely to attack and backing slowly away may be the best option. If the lion is intently staring, hiding, and creeping forward, it is intending an attack. Make firm loud noises, appear as large as possible by opening clothing and standing tall, keep eye contact with the animal while looking for anything that can be used as a weapon. Swiftly pick up small children placing them on your shoulders. Do not approach the animal, stand firm and allow it to retreat.
Any encounter should be immediately reported to the park or owner of the property. Most parks have warning signs in areas where mountain lions have been spotted. Taking the necessary precautions, staying calm, and knowing how to react if there is an encounter can be lifesaving.