Usually, cougars see you before you see them

By Adam BlauertJanuary 23, 2013 

There's a cruise commercial on TV that shows a couple recalling their terrible camping vacation from the previous year. In a flashback scene we see their car simultaneously assaulted by a bear and a mountain lion.

Bears can be notorious for pursuing human food and damaging property in the process. But I can pretty much guarantee that you'll never have such an experience with a big cat. Few people ever see the silent, solitary mountain lion. Even people who have spent much of their lives in mountain lion habitat often have never seen one.

Think of the cougar as a huge version of the household cat. The cougar stalks its prey noiselessly and slowly, the way a housecat stalks a bird or mouse. When ready for the kill, both move with speed and surprise. Mountain lions prefer to eat deer, killing one every 9 to 14 days. This means they live anywhere deer are found. Sightings are fairly common throughout the foothills and mountains on both sides of our valley.

Current estimates put the California cougar population from 3,000 to 6,000. Recent reports have suggested that some Nevada cougars are gradually moving into our state. Once hunted as part of a predator control program, mountain lions have essentially been protected since 1972. Despite having 38 million people living in California, there have been only 17 confirmed attacks since record keeping began in 1890. Six of those attacks have been fatal, though injuries have been serious in many cases. More than half of the attacks have occurred in Southern California since the hunting ban, largely due to the spread of housing into big cat habitat and the resulting reduction of food sources and cougar population growth.

With a small number of attacks spread over a large population and many years, you probably have more eminent dangers to worry about than a mountain lion attack. But it is good to be prepared because you never know.

I had never expected to run into one until it happened.

Last summer, Andrea and I set out on a morning hike in a state park in northern California. We appeared to be the first people on the trail. I had stopped for a moment to take a photo and Andrea had gotten about 40 feet ahead of me.

We were climbing a gradual incline through a redwood grove when Andrea suddenly froze. "Something growled," she said, pointing ahead into the trees. From my point on the trail, the noise had not been clear enough to identify.

Mountain lions didn't growl in any of the stories I'd heard, so I assumed the noisemaker had to be a bear or perhaps a wild pig. I walked 50 feet beyond her and was surprised when I couldn't spot anything. By this point Andrea was emphatic, I shouldn't go any further.

We ended up changing our hiking plans that morning. When we stopped in at the visitor center later that day, we learned there had been two other recent mountain lion reports. I called the park a month later and found there had been three more, but the cat had apparently relocated after the trail crew had begun repairs on that section of the trail.

Did we manage to surprise the cat? Did it have a kitten with it? Was it injured or in pain? I wonder about these things every time I try to figure out why the lion growled instead of avoiding us. My take-away from this encounter is that wildlife might not always behave according to expectations. It also increased my awareness of the unseen world around us where great and powerful creatures move and hunt.

To avoid mountain lions, don't hike, bike or jog alone and avoid being on the trail at prime hunting times: dawn, dusk and night.

If you do encounter a lion, experts recommend the following:

Don't run; wave your arms, make noise, throw objects.

Pick up small children.

Fight back if attacked.

Not all encounters have to be frightening or dangerous. To see a mountain lion in a safe environment, check out Mac at Applegate Zoo, 1045 W 25th St, in Merced. Like many of the zoo's other animals, he's a local animal who has been rescued by the Department of Fish and Game. The zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman. Contact him at adamblauert@yahoo.com

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