Woodland stream.
 
News
5/10/2008

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare

There are some things you just never forget.

The sun had just come up and Ms. Mollie and I were lazily watching light move down the mountain when we heard a woman scream below our Montana cabin as if she were being attacked.

The scream ended before we could pinpoint where it had come from, so we strained to hear any sound that might tell us where to go.

Then we heard the second scream. It was shorter, but long enough to tell us it wasn't human.

I'd read about the scream of a mountain lion when hunting, but I'd never heard it myself. I'd seen the tracks. I knew there was a female and two kittens in the area, and neighbors had told us of seeing a lion chase deer through the field below the cabin the year before we bought the place.

But that first scream got every hair on my neck and arms standing on end and the better part of 45 minutes of discussing mountain lion biology to get the hair relaxed again.

I just wasn't prepared. Never am, I reckon.

The first time I got flummoxed by a lion was on the sunny slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. I was a graduate student studying chaparral ecology. I'd taken a shortcut along a streambed to my study site, and when I returned to my car an hour later along the same streambed, I found the tracks of a lion and a kitten in the damp sand.
The adult's tracks were on top of mine. It had followed me. There was a good chance it was still watching me.

My car was several hundred yards away. Still, my first reflex was to reach into my pocket for my keys.

"Not here," I told myself. "The last thing you want to do is bend over to pick up dropped keys and reduce your apparent size."

I thought about finding a stick, only to realize I was carrying a long-handled insect net.

"Stand tall and move toward the car," I heard myself say. "Don't run! Move confidently. Don't look over your shoulder, just get to the car."

I did make it to the car, locked the doors the moment I was inside and sat there for what seemed like the rest of the afternoon calming myself for the drive back to San Francisco.

Since that incident, I've made sure I knew what animals were known to be where I was tramping and how best to defend myself if I happened to meet one.

With mountain lions, the important thing to remember is that they are cats - big cats. Cats hunt by stealth. When they spot a likely meal, they crouch down and slowly, silently get as close as possible before making a final run for their prey.

Mountain lions tend to attack from behind and by surprise. The old saw among naturalists is that by the time you see a mountain lion, it's been watching you for half an hour.

Unlike wolves, mountain lions appear to be curious about humans and do follow them around, from a safe distance. Yet attacks on humans are extremely rare.

We humans, though we don't like to admit the fact, are creatures of habit. So are the other animals.
Killer whale pods specialize. A pod that eats salmon tends to ignore seals and those that eat seals ignore fish. Wolves that learn how to hunt elk tend to ignore deer.

Mountain lions eat about 50 deer a year per adult. From the time they are able to follow Mom, they are taught how to stalk and kill deer, not rabbits, not elk and not humans.

Though you have far more to fear from crossing the street, mountain lion attacks on humans do occur.
Remember the lion's training and preference - deer. Mountain lions have no training in their prey fighting back. Fight. Go for the eyes if you are in a lion's grip.

The wife of an elderly couple was able to save her husband by stabbing the lion in the eye with a ballpoint pen when he was attacked in Prairie Creek Redwoods last year.

It's that time of year. There are already reports of mountain lion encounters. They are out there, but let's put this in perspective. In a lifetime of backcountry tramping, I've seen three mountain lions. Two of those sightings were from a car.