The mountain lion is an apex predator that you can find in both North and South America. Observed living in different environments, from coastal areas to snowcapped mountains, humans are the only large mammal that has surpassed the mountain lion’s range in the western hemisphere.
Although found in many areas of the American continents, mountain lion attacks are rare. For example, in California, there have only been fifteen confirmed mountain lion attacks on humans as of 2012 since documentation started in 1890—you’re more likely to be bitten by a snake or hit by lightning than get attacked and eaten by a mountain lion.
But even if it rarely happens, the possibility is still there, and it pays to be prepared should you encounter one and live to tell the tale.
The Cat with Many Names
The mountain lion (Puma concolor) belongs to the cat family and is native to the Americas. Since their habitat covers the entire range of the continent, Mountain lions are known by many names like puma, panther, cougar, catamount and other local names.
Although big, mountain lions belong to the subfamily of lesser cats which include bobcats, ocelots and the common domestic house cat. Adult females, from nose to tail tip, average at 6.7 feet, while the larger males average at almost 8 feet long and can weigh over 200 pounds, making them the largest member of their subfamily.
Mountain lions have a tawny coat with a lighter-colored underbody. They have a small head with powerful neck muscles and large claws suitable for pouncing and clutching prey. Aside from the large front paws, they also have powerful hind legs that enable them to travel at 10mph over long distances, or sprint up to 50mph to catch-up to fast prey like deer, their favorite food. Mountain lions are also good climbers and can swim if needed.
Where Can You Find Them?
The range of the mountain lion’s habitat spans from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast and from the northern Yukon in Canada to the Southern Andes in Chile. Because of its ability to adapt well to its environment, the mountain lion can be found in arid lowlands, to wooded forests, swamps, coastal areas, and up snowy mountains. Even if their population has declined in recent decades because of human encroachment into their habitat, they can still be found across fourteen western states as well as Florida. There have also been recent sightings in areas where they were presumed extinct, like in West Tennessee.
Each cat is territorial and will fight other mountain lions who venture into their area. They would claw trees or use their urine or feces to mark their territory, which can stretch more than 300 square miles, depending on the availability of prey.
Habits and Behavior
Mountain lions are nocturnal creatures, preferring to hunt with the aid of darkness, but there have been daytime sightings of the creatures as well. They feed mainly on other mammals like deer, rabbits and beavers. They can also feed on other predators like coyote, as well as bigger animals like elk. Mountain lions have also been known to target pets and livestock left outside of homes or shelters. After catching their prey, they may drag and bury the remains in dry leaves and grass and return to feed on it over a period of days.
They can mate throughout the year, but it’s more common for mountain lions to mate between the months of December and March. Female mountain lions are fiercely protective of their offspring and have been known to fight and succeed against larger animals like bears to protect them. Like most cats, mountain lions are solitary creatures and do not hunt in groups like wolves do. The only time you’ll see more than one mountain lion together is during mating season, or with their cubs.
An Ounce of Prevention
Now that you’re familiar with the mountain lion, you can better prepare and keep yourself from being attacked by one. Mountain lions will avoid people most of the time, but if you find yourself in mountain lion country, here are things to keep in mind:
- Travel in groups.
A mountain lion is a solitary animal, and is less likely to attack you if you’re in a group.
- Look for the signs.
Mountain lion tracks on the ground are a good indicator of its presence. They have a slightly triangular or M-shaped heel with four toe beans in front that are around three to four inches long and wide. Fine claw marks on trees (usually between four and eight feet up its trunk) and droppings are also tell-tale signs that you’re in a mountain lion’s territory.
- Avoid hiking between dusk and dawn.
Mountain lions prefer hunting during these times, and with senses suited to the darkness, you could be an easy victim.
- Keep children within sight.
Children are especially vulnerable to mountain lions. When hiking with children, keep them in the middle or in the front of your group to keep them from being snatched from behind.
- Get out of an area with a freshly-killed animal.
It could be a mountain lion’s stash that it’s saving for later. But even if it’s not a mountain lion kill, it could belong to another animal, and the smell might attract other nearby predators.
- Do not approach mountain lion cubs.
Mountain lions are very protective of their cubs. Stay away from the kittens and leave the area as fast as you can without running.
- Leave the dog at home.
Dogs and other small animals can attract mountain lions, so it’s a good idea to leave them out from your hike in mountain lion territory. Keep them inside the house at night to so they won’t be chained fodder for the big cats.
Fight or Fight
If you happen to see a mountain lion and it sees you, it’s more likely that it will avoid a confrontation and go away. Do not follow it– this is a good time for you to slowly go in the opposite direction and head back.
But if it’s less than a hundred feet away, crouching to the ground and staring right at you, be prepared because these are signs that it’s aggressive and you’re its target.
In this situation, running away is a bad idea. Not only will you trigger its predatory instinct to pounce, you have no chance of outrunning it. Remember that it can sprint at up to 50 miles per hour, easily beating the world human sprint record of 28 miles per hour!
According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, the best things to do during an encounter with a mountain lion are to:
- Make yourself appear as large as possible.
Open your jacket and raise and wave your arms. Stand close with your group and pick up your children, this will make yourself appear bigger and protect the kids at the same time.
- Make some noise.
Do not scream or shriek as if you’re terrified (even if you are) or else the idea that you are prey will be enforced in the mountain lion’s head. Yell firmly and bang objects to create loud noises and discourage it from attacking.
- Act like a predator yourself.
Maintain eye contact. Do not play dead, bend over, crouch, or expose your back and keep waving your arms. You can try convincing the mountain lion that you are dangerous by throwing items at it.
- Slowly create distance.
Step away slowly without turning your back at the animal. Get yourself to a spot that will provide the animal and its cubs an opportunity to get away from you.
- Protect yourself.
If the animal has committed itself to fighting you, it will want to end it as quickly as possible with a bite to your throat or your head. Protect these areas as much as you can while striking it. Use your walking stick, a knife, pepper spray, or pick a weapon from your immediate environment like rocks or branches. Do not let yourself be an easy meal— try to keep from being tackled to the ground and remain standing. Use everything at your disposal, even if it means having to fight it with your bare fists, to get it off you.
- After successfully warding off a mountain lion attack, be aware that they could still follow you and attack again. Get to a safe location and seek medical attention as soon as you can, but be ready to repeat the procedures above if you encounter the animal once more.
When push comes to shove, the most important thing to remember is to make it hard for a mountain lion to disable you and persuade it into thinking that you are not easy prey and not worth its effort. Many have survived mountain lion attacks. You’ll also survive one by keeping calm and giving it the fight of its life.