Mountain lions — also known as cougars, pumas, catamounts or Florida panthers — have razor sharp claws, can weigh over 90kg, and can run at speeds of up to 80km/h. These aren’t your normal neighbourhood kitty cats. Here’s what you should do if you visit the US and encounter one in the wild. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, mountain lions — also known as cougars, pumas, catamounts or Florida panthers — like to hunt when deer and other prey are most active: At dawn and dusk. Of course, that’s also when many hikers like to hit the trails and avoid the midday sun. This makes mountain lion encounters a very real possibility in many parts of the US.
Fortunately, mountain lion attacks are pretty rare, averaging about six per year in North America. And fatalities are even rarer with an average of about one per year. California has the most recorded attacks in the US, and, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there have only been 14 in the state since 1986. So, you’re probably more likely to die from the recreational activity you’re doing then getting eaten by a big cat. That said, encounters aren’t uncommon, and there’s a right and wrong way to handle them.
The best defence against mountain lions is a solid, proactive offence. Stay alert while you’re in mountain lion country, especially when you crouch, sit or kneel. They see this as an opening for attack. National Park Service biologists suggest that mountain lions don’t usually recognise standing humans as prey, so it’s a good idea to stand tall — especially if you know one is nearby. In the video above from the Big Cat Rescue YouTube channel, you can see this hunting instinct in action. As soon as the trainer turns his back and gets low, every type of big cat, including their cougar, Sassyfrass, begins to stalk and prepares to pounce. It’s a good idea to keep a very close eye on small children too since they’re so low to the ground. Truth be told, you’re the last thing they want to hunt, but they can easily confuse you or a child for something else if their instincts kick in.
If you happen across a dead animal in the brush, don’t investigate it, and leave the area. That may be a food cache a mountain lion will be willing to defend. If you do encounter a mountain lion, the National Park Service suggests you remain calm and either hold your ground or back away slowly. Do not turn your back on it or run since it may stimulate the cat’s instinct to chase. Give the animal a chance to escape since it’s likely just as afraid of you as you are of it.
If it starts to approach you, make yourself appear larger by raising your arms and opening your jacket if you’re wearing one. And wave your arms while speaking in a loud, firm voice. That’s sometimes enough to scare them off, but if not, throw stones, branches or anything else you can find in its direction — not directly at it (no need to hurt it or anger it for no reason). Basically, do whatever you can to show that you are not prey and may be a danger to it. If it charges, throw things at it directly and use whatever you can to fight back.
Do not stop fighting back! Many hikers have successfully fended off mountain lions with stones, sticks, caps, jackets, garden tools and even their bare hands. A mother just recently saved her son from an attack simply by grabbing the animal and throwing it off of him. If they get any sense that you can hurt them, or that you’re not worth the effort, they will likely disengage and run to safety.
This is part of Lifehacker’s Animal Attacks Series. As capable as we humans think we are, bears, snakes, wolves, sharks and even bees can turn a fun day outside into a harsh, potentially life-threatening reality check. Here’s what to do when you find yourself face to face with some of the deadliest beasts in the great outdoors.