HOW DANGEROUS ARE COUGARS?
In early June of 2011, numerous reports of cougar sightings circulated in Greenwich, Connecticut. A fuzzy photograph of an apparent cougar seen from the rear was published by the local media. People responded by closing down a school, relocating a jogging match, cancelling a swimming meet, and closing a nearby natural area. Five days after the cat was captured on camera, it was hit by a SUV 35 miles away—the end of an amazing journey that started in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. More than two months later, the same atmosphere of fear was still prevalent, aided and abetted by the media.
If the same fear permeated communities in the West where cougars survive, people would cower in their homes. But instead, public opinion surveys show that a majority of people want to co-exist with cougars in their states.
Mountain lions are dangerous mainly on Hollywood screens. When an attack does occur news media sensationalize it. Fear sells. The real danger is "Source Amnesia". This happens when people are repeatedly told something. They begin to believe it is true even if it is a deliberate lie. It is repeated as truth without remembering the source.1
Cougars are shy and generally avoid humans. For most outdoor people in the West, seeing a wild cougar—not treed, dead or tranquilized—is a once in a lifetime experience. Tim Dunbar, Executive Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, says “I constantly hear California Department of Fish and Game personnel talk about how despite decades of working in wilderness areas of the state they have never seen a lion.” Cougars do occasionally follow people, apparently out of curiosity. There are simple ways to avoid or to mitigate threats from cougars. Residents in the new housing developments rapidly being built in cougar habitat out West, for example, are advised not to feed pets outdoors, never to feed deer, and avoid landscaping designs that provide cover.
What is the risk of being killed by a cougar? Since 1890, as of August 2011, in all of the United States and Canada, 22 people have been killed by cougars.2 The last fatal attack was in 2008. Between 1991 and 2003 ten deaths from cougar attacks were documented in the two countries. In other words, 0.77 people died each year.
Tom Chester defines an attack as “one that involves physical contact by mountain lions on people. This does not include an encounter, where a mountain lion may threaten a person, but does not result in physical contact. Nor does it include a sighting, which usually involves no threatening action by the cougar.”3 Depredation on livestock and pets and predation on wildlife are not attacks.
It would be difficult to find any cause of accidental death less likely to occur. Many more people are killed each year by lightning. About 22 people are killed by dogs annually. Somehow, we tend not to worry about more likely dangers, such as the 40,000 people who die in traffic accidents in the US alone each year.
To further put the danger of a cougar attack in perspective, fifteen people won multi-million dollar lotteries in 2009 from Powerball and mega millions alone. This means you will win a $multi-million lottery 19 times before a mountain lion kills you.
About 150 people are killed in auto accidents involving deer every year.4 This means that you have already died 195 times in an auto accident involving a deer before a cougar kills you and ten times before you win one of the lotteries.
Many more people are attacked by cougars and survive. Humans aren’t shaped like their normal prey, so cougars have difficulty killing people when they do attack. It is hard to get an accurate figure of nonfatal attacks because some probably are not be reported, and a few are hoaxes. Apparently there have been fewer cougar attacks in the last few years. As of September 1st, we have learned of only two nonfatal attacks in the US and Canada in 2011.
Cougars and Joggers: Two joggers have been killed since 1890. On April 23, 1994, Barbara Barsalou Schoner, age 40, was killed while jogging on the American River Canyon Trail in the Auburn State Recreation Area in northern California.
Eighteen-year-old Scott Lancaster was killed on January 14, 1991 while running on a hill above Clear Creek High School in Idaho Springs, Colorado. In his book, The Beast in the Garden, David Baron implies that the death occurred because cougars in Boulder, Colorado, had become habituated to people. Wendy Keefover-Ring pointed out that Idaho Springs is more than 20 miles from Boulder, separated by rugged terrain. The fatal attack probably had nothing to do with habituated cougars in Boulder.5
Cougars and Children: Children are small, often low on the ground, active and noisy. They are indeed attractive to cougars. Eleven of the 22 people killed since 1890 were children aged 13 or younger. Both of the attacks in 2011 were on young children. Small children need to be carefully watched in cougar country. Because they are vulnerable and may run unexpectedly, adults should pick them up if a cougar is encountered. Children need to be watched and protected no matter where they are.
Cougar Danger in California: California is often cited as a terrible example of what happens when cougars are not hunted by sportsmen. Attacks have been hyped by hunting organizations because in November 1990, California citizens voted for Proposition 117. Proposition 117 reclassified the mountain lion in California as a "specially protected mammal," permanently banning the sport hunting of cougars in the state. In 1996, cougar-hunting proponents got the state legislature to place Proposition 197 on the March primary ballot. It would have overturned the ban on sport hunting cougars. It was rejected by 58 percent of the voters.6
The decision to exempt cougars from sport hunting was made by all interested citizens in California, not by the California Department of Fish and Game, which is supported by hunters’ license fees and excise taxes. It was perhaps the first and only time that all citizens of a state had a say in the management of a game animal. Hunting organizations have not fully recovered from their defeat. They would like to have facts to support their claim that sport hunting reduces livestock depredation and attacks on humans, but in fact, despite its huge human population, abundant public land, and climate favorable for outdoor activities, California ranks low in the number of cougar incidents.7 Today, cougars that are preying on livestock or deemed a threat to human safety are killed. Others die on highways and are poached, as is the case everywhere they exist.
What To Do if You Encounter a Cougar: Feel Blessed
Assessing the Risk of a Cougar Attack: Most cougar sightings are not threatening to human safety. Instead, you should feel blessed that you’ve seen one. The Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group has provided a guide to the risk of an attack.4 (We have added the risk of attack by a cougar in a tree, which was not addressed.)
Low Risk: Cougar opportunistically viewed at a distance; cougar runs away or hides; cougar not paying attention to person or its movements are not directed toward the person; cougar in a tree, often with barking dog(s) below.
Low Risk—Provided Human Response is Appropriate: Various body positions, ears up; may be shifting positions; intent attention; following behavior. Cougar is curious.
Moderate Risk: Intense staring; following and hiding behavior. Cougar is assessing success of an attack.
Moderate Risk, depending on distance to animal: Hissing, snarling, vocalization. Cougar is displaying defensive behavior. Attack may be imminent.
High Risk: Crouching, tail twitching, intense staring; ears flattened like wings; body low to ground; head may be up. Pre-attack.
Very High and Immediate Risk: Ears flat, fur out; tail twitching; body and head low to ground; rear legs “pumping.” Attack imminent.
What To Do if You are at Risk of a Cougar Attack:
1. Don’t run away – running triggers the cougar’s predation instinct.
2. Stand tall – open your arms to make yourself big. Speak loudly but calmly. Keep eye contact. Back away slowly, taking care not to trip. Keep children close to you. Pick up small children.
3. Fight back – if attacked, use sticks, stones, or fists. Cougars can be driven away by resistance.
1Wang, Sam, and Sandra Aamodt. Your brain lies to you. New York Times, June 27, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/opinion/27aamodt.html?_r=2&em&ex=1214798400&en=55e3196d3a7018e0&ei=5087%0A&oref=slogin
2For a list of fatal cougar attacks since 1870, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fatal_cougar_attacks_in_North_America
3Chester, Tom. Mountain lion attacks on people in the U.S. and Canada. Last updated in 2003. http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks.html Chester’s website includes a thoughtful analysis of attacks, focused on California.
4Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. 2005. Cougar Management Guidelines, First Edition, p 89. Opal Creek Press, LLC, Salem, Oregon. 137 pp.
5Ring, Wendy J. Keefover-Ring. 2005. Mountain lions, myths and media: A critical reevaluation of the Beast in the Garden, with response by David Baron. Environmental Law 35: 1083-1106 http://www.easterncougar.org/pdfs/Beast_in_the%20Garden_Review.pdf
6Mountain Lion Foundation. Mountain lions in California. http://www.mountainlion.org/States/_state_California.asp
7California Department of Fish and Game. Verified Mountain Lion Attacks on Humans in California (1890 through 2007) [We are not aware of any verified attacks since 2007.] http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion/attacks.html
Papouchis, Christopher J. 2006. Effects of Sport Hunting Mountain Lions on Safety and Livestock. http://www.mountainlion.org/sport_hunting.asp
Cougar Info http://www.cougarinfo.org/ The material in this website needs to be read with caution. Some of the alleged attacks have not been verified. Many cougar encounters are described--an attack might have occurred but did not. Recently, it appears that people are reading and remembering instructions on how to behave in the presence of a cougar that may have predatory intent. But they, and in some instances, the cougar are surviving.
CMorris, Eric. Deer Car Accidents. http://ezinearticles.com/?Deer-Car-Accidents&id=302157
3California Department of Fish and Game. Verified Mountain Lion Attacks on Humans in California (1890 through 2007) [We are not aware of any verified attacks since 2007.] http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion/attacks.html
WHAT TO DO WITH A COUGAR IN AN INAPPROPRIATE PLACE
Advice from California’s State Mountain Lion Coordinator
An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars (mountain lions) share California with almost 38,000,000 human beings. The human population continues to grow and expand into cougar habitat. California’s climate is conducive to outdoor recreation, and Californians spend millions of days outdoors in cougar habitat. But in the last ten years, there have been only two fatal and two nonfatal attacks on humans (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion/attacks.html ). Almost any other risk of death is greater, including being hit by lightning or being killed by dogs.
The deaths of a young male cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota, shot by law enforcement officers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on October 7, 2008 while it was lounging in a back yard, and another young male that was shot after an abbreviated tranquilizing attempt in Bossier City, Louisiana, on November 30, 2008, led us to ask Doug Updike of the California Department of Fish and Game what their personnel do when a cougar shows up in a residential area. The following is derived from a telephone conversation on December 4, 2008:
Updike said that generally the DFG will tranquilize an out-of-place bear or cougar and take it back into wild habitat, if the animal has no history of causing a public safety threat or a being a depredation animal. These animals are generally no threat to public safety.
Responding public officers--"First Responders" as he called them--have the authority to act as they see fit to protect public safety, even if a wildlife officer might not agree with that action. He had viewed the video recording the death of the cougar in Bossier City and said that a similar situation had occurred in Palo Alto, CA in recent years. Peace officers reached a treed cougar first. Because an elementary school was about to be letting students out nearby, they decided it should be killed to protect the public. (Police officers must err on the side of public safety.) If a wildlife officer had been there, s/he might have recommended a different course of action. They could have pulled people back and given the cougar an avenue of escape. But the decision of peace officers has precedent over other decisions.
I asked what he would have done if he'd been in Bossier City and had been in charge of the situation. He said he would have pulled everybody back a few blocks, giving the cougar space to come out of the tree and run back into the woods. This approach would be especially important in Louisiana, where cougars are listed as endangered and protected by both state and federal law.
I asked him for his recommendations for the Eastern Cougar Foundation. He said:
(1) Wildlife agencies respond to the public. The public is their biggest challenge. In California public attitudes toward mountain lions have changed dramatically from the 1950s, when they were still being killed for bounties. The DFG now puts out a consistent message, emphasizing that the risk of being attacked is exceedingly small and that mountain lions are an incredible resource. Police officers and the public need to better understand the behaviors of cougars. In general, cougars tree because they are afraid. They will wait for the opportunity to come down from the tree and run away.
Legislators reflect public opinion. Generally they will provide what the base of the public wants.
The ECF needs to tell the public again and again and again that the risk of attack by cougars is exceedingly small, emphasizing what incredible animals they are. He didn't see why we couldn't get cougars reintroduced to the East..
(2) Educate police officers. The DGF is working on a training DVD for law enforcement officers and first responders on how to handle cougar situations, consistent with the Department’s policy. It will be completed within the next 6 months. They plan to issue thousands of them to law enforcement officers through California.
Earlier this year Updike went to Florida and spoke with panther groups because some goats have been killed by panthers. He was surprised that owners of little hobby livestock farms tucked into remote places have lower property taxes, promoting many alternative food sources for panthers. The main concern of the groups was the possibility that a panther might attack a human. Updike told them that the likelihood of that happening was extremely small.
LIVING WITH COUGARS AND OTHER WILD ANIMALS
The California Department of Fish and Game has set up a new website on co-existing with large wild animals, such as black bears, cougars, coyotes, deer, wild turkeys, and wild pigs. (Note that not all states have open season on wild pigs/boars.) There is also a section on wildlife-resistant products. Worth a look.
ENCOUNTERS WITH LIVESTOCK
Kills made by dogs or coyotes are frequently blamed on cougars. Dogs, by far the largest harasser of livestock, usually injure the hindquarters. Coyotes inflict many bites around the throat, flank and back. Cougar sign includes a bite to the back of the neck (occasionally the throat), large canine punctures, claw marks along the shoulders, and (often but not always) drag marks and an attempt to cover the carcass. Proper livestock management methods, such as bringing animals in to safe areas during birthing or using guard dogs in pastures, can greatly reduce losses.
COUGAR ATTACKS ON HORSES
Attacks by cougars on horses, while documented, usually involve foals and are uncommon even where both the cats and horses are abundant and spatially close, such as in many areas of the West. It is interesting that despite this fact, in areas where the cats are exceedingly rare, such as midwestern or eastern North America, cougars are often blamed for injuries or fatalities to horses. This includes many reports of purported attacks on adult horses.
The Cougar Rewilding Foundation and other carnivore experts maintain that across the full range of the cougar most purported horse attacks by the cat involve injuries sustained by the horse in circumstances other than an actual depredation attempt by any predator (ie barbed wire or fence post-caused injuries). And when predator attack was involved, the most likely culprits are usually feral dogs, coyotes, or juvenile delinquents, and then possibly wolves or bears as opposed to cougars.
In the event of an actual cougar attack on a horse, as is true for attacks on other prey, the cougar will typically try to direct its attack toward the animal’s head. Corroborating evidence may thus include bite or claw marks to the shoulders and withers (where the neck joins the back), head or face. Marks in these areas from cougar canines (i.e. the two “fangs”) will typically measure 1 ½ to 1 ¾ inches between the 2 punctures for a female cougar and roughly up to 2 inches or perhaps slightly greater for a male. Absence of such supportive evidence, or injuries predominantly to the flanks, lower extremities, or rear of the animal, suggest other causes for horse injury.
Those with horses who are concerned about the possibility of predator attack are encouraged to:
1. Don’t leave horses or other livestock unattended.
2. install and maintain electric fencing
3. Maintain a clear, 3-5 foot wide swath of trackable dirt or soil (ie a “track trap”) around their horse corral to allow for ID of any animals that are frequenting the site.
4. Employ trail cameras to document presence of wildlife or feral animals around the corral.
The following may provide further information:
Acorn and Dorrance. 1980. Methods of investigating predation of livestock. Alberta Agricultural Protection Branch. Edmonton.
Anonymous. 2004. http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/image_38d25e79-bd20-50c1-a2d4-fd0ee1d92846.html
Turner and Morrison. 2001. Influence of predation by mountain lions on numbers and survivorship of a feral horse population. Southwestern Naturalist 46:183-190.
Wade and Bowns. Procedures for evaluating predation on livestock. http://texnat.tamu.edu/about/procedures-for-evaluating/
Waller. 2007. Drought: Wild predators frequenting urban areas. TheHorse.com. Article 10430.