A recent camping trip to Big Bend National Park took me into the heart of mountain lion country. All the signs were there. And by “signs” I mean copious man-made plaques with warnings and advice on how to conduct oneself during encounters with these cats. Four days later, as we left the park unscathed and without a single mountain lion sighting, I found myself surprised and perhaps even a little disappointed. But I shouldn’t be complaining. Mountain lion attacks on humans, though rare, can have lethal results. And despite pleasant temperatures and blooming flowers, late spring is the most perilous time for campers in terms of lion run-ins. But don’t cancel your family holiday to the Grand Canyon just yet. Some basic information and a few precautions can keep you from becoming cat chow.
Greetings and salutations!
“Mountain lion” is not the only alias of the species Puma concolor. They are also called cougars, pumas, catamounts, and panthers or “painters” – though not bobcats; that’s a completely different animal. While not members of the subfamily Pantherinae, which holds classic large cats such as lions and tigers, cougars are still intimidating in size. Males of the species can weigh over 200 lbs, though their average mass is closer to 140 lbs. Females are smaller, about 95 lbs on average. The species name “concolor” translates into “same color.” It’s true, they’re mostly light brown. No stripes or spots.*
The newsletter given to us as we entered the park stated that “Everywhere you go in Big Bend, you are in the territory of at least one lion.” However, it also informed us that their total population was about two dozen. Only two dozen cougars? In an 800,000 acre park? And we’re still always in their territory? Apparently these cats have some large backyards.
As is often the case with felines, cougars need a lot of space. Their social time is restricted to mating and, for females, raising offspring. During the remainder of their time they like to be alone. Really alone. Territory sizes vary, with some cats securing as much as 700 square km of land, while those in more crowded areas are forced to make do with a paltry 100 km2 (for scale, note that all of Manhattan, with its human population of 1.5 million, only spans about 60 km2). Given this, Big Bend’s claims seem reasonable.†
Mountain lions can be found in both North and South America. In North America, where they once enjoyed coast-to-coast ubiquity, they are now limited to the western portion. The one exception is the Florida panther, a subspecies of cougar that still resides in the sunshine state. Outside of that, if you want to see a mountain lion in the eastern U.S., you’ll have to visit a zoo.
Male cougars give up their fortress of solitude only to mate, and they don’t stick around afterward to change diapers or coach Little League teams. Such is the world of cats. A female mountain lion gives birth about every other year to anywhere between one and six cubs (also called kittens). She invests considerably more effort into child rearing than her male counterpart. The gestation period is only about three months, but the cubs remain with their mothers up to two years before they are prepared to go it alone. It’s worth noting that mothers are extremely protective of their young. If you see cute little baby cougars on your hike, just keep walking.
On the prowl
Mountain lions are top predators. They eat big things and, once they reach adulthood, not much else eats them. Hooved creatures like deer and elk make up much of the cougar’s diet, though they’ll also deign to eat smaller animals and livestock and – if sufficiently desperate – they may have a go at humans.
Being loners, they employ a stalk and ambush hunting style. After quietly sizing up prey behind the cover of trees or bushes, the mountain lion pounces onto its victim’s back, delivering their signature neck bite. This bite can easily break the neck of smaller animals and suffocate large ones. Large kills are stored for later. Cougars drag their prey to a secluded spot and conceal it with leaves and such for consumption over the following days. Spotting a freshly-covered deer carcass is another reason not to linger in that part of the woods.
How to avoid getting eaten
Continued development of land that serves as mountain lion territory has led to an increase in human-cougar encounters. In general the cats don’t consider humans as prey, but attacks do occur – about one a year – and have been increasing over the past couple of decades.‡ Food scarcity and inexperience can cause cougars to try their luck preying on humans. Since one to two-year-old cubs leave their mothers in search of their own territories during late spring, this can be the most dangerous time to meet up with a mountain lion. They’re confused and hungry, and if you look small and weak enough, they’ll be tempted to give it a shot.
What can you do to discourage this behavior?
1) Mountain lions are most active around dawn and dusk, so if you’re really worried, you might consider restricting your wilderness trekking to daytime hours. But then you would miss sunsets. Surely, there are better options …
2) As the saying goes, there’s safety in numbers. Solitary hikers are viewed as easier prey, so walk with friends. What if you don’t have any friends? There’s still hope …
3) Size matters too. As with many potential predators, cougars can be dissuaded from attacking if you make yourself look larger. Holding your arms, backpack, sticks, etc., over your head helps. Don’t crouch down and try to hide – that just makes you look shorter. Because of their small stature, children are often the first thing a cougar will go for. If you’re walking with your kids, pick them up immediately. And maybe hold them over your head while you’re at it – it’ll help you both.
4) If you can’t be large, be loud. Your goal is to convince the cat that you are a threat to it. If a mountain lion approaches you, shout at it. Something like, “Bad mountain lion! Go away! Shooo!!” If you feel underconfident of your ability to intimidate, practice yelling at animals in front of the mirror.
5) Maintain eye contact. It’s not just important for job interviews and public speaking. You should never turn your back (specifically the vulnerable back of your head and neck) on a mountain lion. Keep your eyes on the cat and back away slowly.
6) If, after all of your studied posturing, the cougar still advances, fight back. Fight back with anything available – rocks, sticks, your bare hands. At Big Bend we saw a lot of people carrying walking sticks on not particularly difficult trails. It looks frivolous until you realize that those sticks can double as weapons. I totally want one now. Either that or a taser.
* This refers to the adult cat coat. The kittens are lightly patterned.
† You might want to double-check my math on this. My formula: 800,000 acres = about 3240 km2 (thanks, Internet conversion robots!) divided by 24 cougars = 135 km2 per cat. Well within normal range size.
‡ Attacks vary by region. California, with its ample cougar population, sees a greater number of attacks annually than more sparsely-cougared states like New Mexico and Texas.
As a child, Alex Reshanov was told by grown-ups that she should consider becoming a lawyer (tendency to argue) or a comedian (frequent joking), so naturally she opted for science writing. In 2010, she started a personal blog, Blogus scientificus, as an outlet for her diverse scientific interests, random pop culture trivia and various phobias. Many of her posts have been published at EarthSky.