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What would you do if you saw a mountain lion?

How to safely share the habitat

Posted: June 23, 2009 4:59 p.m.
Updated: June 23, 2009 5:02 p.m.

How would you react if you saw this cougar this close up?

 
Far too often the news we hear about mountain lions is negative. Sample headlines might read, "Packs of Mountain Lions Stalk and Kill Horses" or "Aggressive Mountain Lion shot by Police."

This article is meant to bring some level of understanding of these fading creatures, and lay to rest many myths surrounding them. I will also point out ways to stay safe when you venture into their territory.

Cougars are known by many names, including Puma, Mountain Lion, Catamount, and even Panther, and can be found from the Yukon to the southern Andes. A male cougar generally needs a minimum of 100 square miles to roam, and a female needs about 50 square miles. They can roam up to 1,000 miles, however. This means that the cougar travels from place to place, following prey and water. It also means that being in the same place, at the same time, and actually seeing it, is not likely.

Cougars are large predators. They are very powerful and stealthy. They feed on ungulates such as deer, elk, and sheep. They may also prey on domesticated animals such as horses or cattle. Cougars are solitary animals that do not pack like coyotes do. If you see cougars together, it is generally a mother and her baby. Hence, "packs" of lions do not exist.

Attacks on humans are rare, however, they do occur. There have only been 14 fatal attacks in the last 100 years in North America. Mountain lions would prefer to generally run away from a full grown human rather than to attack. However, if a human bends down, he/she begins to look like a prey animal. If a human runs, or races by on a bike, the prey instinct kicks in, and the chase is on.

And, unprotected kids are also of interest to the mountain lion. To stay safe while you're in their territory, remain upright, do not run, keep track of your children and keep them close. If you see a mountain lion, make yourself look bigger. Make noise. Chances are the mountain lion will run away.

Do not corner a cat. If you do, he will have no alternative other than to become aggressive. The cat in the headline above was shot by police because they chased it into a corner and it tried to defend itself. If they'd left it alone, it would have run away. Remember to give them an escape route. Do not approach them. Do not touch their kittens, and do not approach the kittens! Mountain lions are reclusive, solitary, shy animals that will normally avoid people.

Living in an area like Santa Clarita that is surrounded by mountains means that there are wonderful places to play and hike. It means the air is cleaner, the watershed is cleaner, and we can look at the lovely mountains instead of a bustling city. However, it also means that wildlife is close at hand.

Keep your pets indoors at dusk, dawn, and at night. Lions are most active at night. Deer are the lion's favorite meal. They also eat feral cats, raccoons, and other small animals. Do not attract these animals into your yard, or you might see a lion close by as well.

Some people confuse mountain lions with bobcats. Adult mountain lions have a tan coat, and a very long, thick, powerful tail. Lions can weigh from about 80 pounds to 180 pounds. Baby mountain lions have spots that disappear before they are 12 months old. Bobcats are about 25 pounds have spots, and a little "bobbed" tail.

Do not hike alone. If you go into their territory, bring a friend. It is true that there is safety in numbers. Always be aware of your surroundings, whether you are on a hike or at home. If your home butts up against open space, remove any brush that might act as a cover for mountain lions.

When you are hiking, make sure you look around you, not just at your feet. Do not go off trail. Stay on the trail, in the open. Wear a bear bell. It makes enough noise to warn, and scare off a mountain lion in the general area. Keep your friends and children close to you.

If you see a cat, put your child on your shoulder to make you both appear larger. Educate your children about being in mountain lion habitat, what to do, and what not to do. Make eye contact with a cougar when you see one. Do not bend down. Make yourself appear larger.

If you have hiking poles, wave them around. Raise your arms, raise your jacket up, speak to the cougar is slow, loud, firm words. This will help discourage predatory behavior. Do not turn your back on the mountain lion. Make sure he has an escape route. Do not hike alone with your dog. Dogs attract mountain lions. They cannot protect you from a lion.

If you are attacked by a mountain lion, do not play dead. Try to remain standing as bending over or being on the ground makes the head and neck more vulnerable. Fight back with everything you've got. Use your hands, legs, arms, a rock, your hiking poles, your jacket, a branch...anything you can quickly get your hands on. Poke at his eyes.

If the lion has attacked your friend, don't run for help. Help your friend. Throw rocks, yell and scream. Beat it with a branch. Do not give up. Call 911 immediately for help. Convince that cougar to let go.

Mountain lions are endangered. Every time we build a new housing development, they lose their habitat. If we do not protect wildlife corridors, these animals could perish. Without them, the deer population would explode, and deer ticks would along with the Lyme disease they carry would become rampant.

While we should be vigilant for our own safety, we should also be mindful of the plight of the mountain lion, and do what we can to retain our open space and a free animal corridor. Corridors prevent them from being hit by cars, and prevent them from migrating into other areas when they no longer have deer to prey upon.

If the mountain lions were to become extinct, we have no idea what havoc would play out in our ecosystem. It is our responsibility to care for, and respect our wild neighbors, and keep them healthy and wild.

I have personally seen mountain lions in the areas surrounding Santa Clarita on at least 12 occasions. In all of those times, I was only briefly threatened once, when she snarled at me. I made myself look bigger, made noise, gave her an escape route, and she left.

If you are prepared, know what to do, and think when you see a mountain lion, you will have a much better chance of walking away from the situation with a great story to tell.

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