What would you do if you met a mountain lion on the trail? If you are here, there are high chances that you have never met a mountain lion while hiking, biking, backpacking, or running. The mountain lion is a big cat whose scientific name is Puma concolor. It is also referred to as jaguar, panther, cougar, catamount, or Mexican lion.
The puma is found in the western region of North America, and its territory extends to Central America and many parts of South America. As you can see, its territory cuts across many cultures and this explains why the feline has so many names. Mountain lions are nocturnal and that means they are most active day during the night. They are also crepuscular, which means they are active during twilight hours (just before sunrise and after sunset).
Mountain lion encounters are rare because these beautiful animals are elusive. Today, encounters are more common because of human encroachment into jaguar territory and an increase in outdoor activities such as hiking and running. In the past, these cats were seen as a danger to people and livestock and were hunted. It’s now a protected species as it plays an important role in maintaining balance in the ecosystem.
These big cats rarely attack humans because they don’t consider bipeds prey. But attacks can happen, so it’s important to know the dos and don’ts when in their territory. Follow these steps when you meet one:
What to do If You Encounter a Mountain Lion
If the cat is several feet away from you, stand your ground and face the animal. Make sure you stand upright. If you’re in the company of your kids, pick them up slowly as they may panic and start running away from the animal.
Do Not Move Closer to the Animal
Mountain lions can inflict serious injuries and may even kill. So, do not approach it as it will perceive you as a threat. Remember, it considers that part of the trail its territory and you are the intruder. Instead, back away slowly while maintaining eye contact. Remember, many mountain lions will move away to avoid confrontation.
DO NOT Run
Running away from a lion is a big mistake. The animal will be sizing you up so if you turn and run, its hunter’s instincts will hit and it will follow. It will catch up quickly and pounce as it is faster than humans. Stand upright and face it-do not turn your face away.
Try to Look Bigger
Animals in the wild typically avoid confrontations with animals larger than them. So when you come across a mountain lion, try to make yourself look bigger by raising your arms and moving them from side to side. If you are wearing a jacket, remove it slowly and hold it above your head.
In addition to making yourself look bigger, you have to be as loud as possible. Remember, you are trying to distract the lion while being intimidating. Be as loud as possible and avoid crying or whimpering as this will make you seem helpless.
You can say anything-tell it how dangerous you are or warn it against coming closer. Or you can even sing in a loud, fierce voice. Whatever works for you. If you have a trekking pole, strike an object near you such as a rock or bark of a tree to produce a loud sound. Pro tip: pack a portable air horn when venturing into mountain lion habitat.
Kyle’s Encounter with a Mountain Lion
Wondering if this tactic really works? Well, Kyle Burgess’s encounter with a mountain lion while on a run shows that it is a proven tactic to prevent an attack. Kyle was on a run in Slate Canyon, Utah when the encounter happened. He saw four small animals running around several meters ahead of him and thought they were bobcats (he’d seen bobcats before) He started recording with his phone as he moved ahead but suddenly a fully grown animal appeared and charged at him. It was a mountain lion! The small animals he’d just seen were its kittens. Shocked, he started hurling profanities at it as he moved backward.
Even though he was scared, Kyle did not stop recording. The cougar kept following him for the next six minutes. He tried all he could to intimidate the large cat. He shouted, grunted, and growled but the mother lion did not stop stalking him and charging at him occasionally. In the interview, Kyle says that every time he tried to pick a rock or took his eyes off the lion, it lunged at him viciously.
It was only when he picked a rock and threw it at the mountain lion did it run away to its kittens. Kyle posted the video online and it went viral. You can watch the full video here. When Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources officials saw it, they were full of praise for Kyle, saying he did everything right.
Don’t take your eyes off the mountain lion
When the lion is looking at you, staring back is one of the best ways to appear intimidating. Even as you back away slowly, maintain strong eye contact. The lion will be focused on your face so when you look away, it will perceive it as fleeing and will lunge at the drop of a hat. And when it stops seeing you as a threat and starts moving away, keep looking at it. Only turn your face if the animal is completely out of sight.
Avoid Bending Over or Crouching
According to biologists, pumas only consider four-legged animals as prey so humans are safe. When you bend over or crouch, your arms will make it look like you are a four-legged animal and the puma will attack. So, try as much as possible not to crouch. I understand you may need to bend over to pick rocks, sticks, or your kid. If you do it, try not to appear to be crouching.
You may yell and growl, back away, make yourself big but the animal continues to follow you. In such a situation, you need to make yourself appear more intimidating by throwing objects at the lion. Since crouching or bending over could put you at risk, you can use objects you already have in your hand or backpack such as a water bottle.
If you do not have these items, you can pick up rocks and sticks. Since you don’t worsen the situation, aim at the lion but do not hit it. Let the objects land in front of it. This might discourage it from following you. When you hit the animal and injure it, it may become more aggressive and you could end up getting badly injured in the process. Remember, pumas depend on their eyesight to perceive prey. With an injured eye, for instance, it will mistake backpackers, hikers, or runners for prey and may hunt them occasionally. So, always avoid injuring the animal.
Fight the Lion
When you employ all the above tactics and they seem not to work or the animal becomes more aggressive, the only option is to fight back. Note that mountain lions are strong and will severely injure or kill you. For this reason, you have to brace yourself for a fight if it comes to it.
Start by throwing objects directly at the animal. When you hit it hard, it will probably run away. Here are some ways to fight a mountain lion.
- Aim and throw objects at it. You can easily find rocks and sticks on the trail. If you can’t find a stick and you don’t want to bend over, you can break branches from a shrub or tree near you. Try not to miss your target!
- Smack it with your backpack. Considering the weight of the things inside a backpack, it makes a pretty decent weapon.
- Hit it with your hiking pole. You may also want to poke it in the eye using your hiking staff or stick.
Remember, a mountain lion will always go for your head or neck, so ensure you protect them when fighting it. Grabbing it by the neck and strangling would be a great option if it gets close enough. Playing dead should never be an option because the cat will not stop attacking.
Carrying bear spray is one of the best ways to protect yourself from bears on the trail. Bear spray has the same effect on mountain lions, so always have it in your backpack.
Safety Precautions to Take While in Mountain Lion Territory
Contrary to popular opinion, mountain lion attacks aren’t common. In the last century, there have been 127 attacks in North America, 27 of which were fatal. On the trail, you are more likely to be bitten by a snake than attacked by a puma. Nevertheless, here are some safety precautions you can take to avoid an attack.
Keep kids and pets close
If you are going to hike in a mountain lion habitat, ensure you keep a close watch on your kids. Never let them wander off the trail or walk several meters ahead of you. Kids are smaller and jaguars won’t hesitate to attack them. The same should be done for pets. If you have a dog, hold the leash to ensure that it never runs around. And if you encounter a lion, keep your dog close to you because it will get killed if it charges at the mountain lion.
In an incident in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, California, a 3-year old boy was attacked by a mountain lion only a few meters away from his parents and other kids. The lion grabbed him by the neck and started to drag him on the ground. The child’s father started yelling and began running towards the animal. He took off his backpack and threw it at the lion, which picked the bag and ran away with it. The boy got some injuries from being dragged on the ground and puncture wounds around his neck.
When you’re in a mountain lion habitat, you need to focus on your surroundings. If you have your ear pods or headphones on, it may be difficult to hear a mountain lion approaching. What would happen if it approaches you from behind and you are listening to music as you run or walk? Since the acts are more active during dusk and dawn, only venture into the backcountry outside of these times. And if you are hiking at night, ensure you are also alert and ready for an encounter.
Have Some Company
Most attacks happen when mountain lions are startled and try to defend themselves. If you are alone, you probably won’t make enough noise to let the puma know of your presence in its territory. So the best thing to do is to hike or run in a group. This way, a mountain lion will hear you move away.
If you frequently hike in lion territory and have never come across one, it’s probably because it moved away when it saw you approaching. Remember, mountain lions do not consider us prey and will only attack to defend themselves or their young ones. If you see animals that look like a mountain lion’s kittens, do not approach to investigate. If they are ahead of you wait till they’re away from you. In most cases, the mother will notice you and move her kids away. It is only when you are near that they will try to attack to push you away as it did with Kyle.
Interesting Facts About Mountain Lions
- The big cat can be found in 21 of 23 nations in the Americas. It also holds the record of the animal with the most names in the world.
- Mountain lions have an average weight of 150 pounds (68kgs) and can grow up to 8 feet long.
- They are excellent hunters and can leap 15 feet high and 40 feet forward.
- When living in the wild, the average life span is a decade while in captivity, it is two decades. A mother mountain lion usually has between one to six kittens. The survival rate is quite low as only one in five kittens reaches adulthood.
- Jaguars’ diet mainly consists of elk and deer. It also hunts other smaller animals such as raccoons, mice, squirrels, coyotes, and rabbits.
- Unlike other big cats in Asia and Africa, pumas do not roar but purr like the normal house cat.
- They are solitary animals and only meet to mate. The females take care of the litter alone. Kittens have rings around their tails and have brown and black spots on their bodies.
- They never live in one area for weeks. Mountain lions usually roam their territory and that’s one of the reasons why they are rarely seen.
- Females usually pick a territory not far from where they were born, and their range is normally around 50 square miles. They usually have little trouble if their rage overlaps with other females. On the other hand, the males’ territory can be as large as 150 square miles. To avoid confrontations with other males, younger males have to travel far and wide to establish their own territory.
I hope the above tips will help you stay safe when you encounter a mountain lion on the trail. Have you ever come across a mountain lion while hiking, backpacking, or biking? Tell us about your encounter in the comments section!