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Cougar study: Facing down predators not the safest measure, after all

April 8, 2009 |  2:55 pm


How would you respond if you encountered a mountain lion? That's a question I ponder whenever I venture alone into the wilderness.

Traditional wisdom, preached time and again by so-called animal experts and the California Department of Fish and Game, is to stand your ground, make yourself appear larger, yell and throw rocks or other items at the predator. That's because if you run, you might prompt the beast to attack.

Now there's a group of scientists who challenge traditional wisdom. A UC Davis study suggests a polar opposite survival strategy is the safest: Run like the dickens.

"Even though we found evidence that pumas will indeed chase, and capture, people who run, we also found that people who stand still are possibly more endangered,"  said Richard Coss, a UC Davis psychology professor and the study's lead author.

"Immobility may be interpreted by the mountain lion as a sign that you are vulnerable prey, either because you are unaware of its presence, or because you are disabled and not capable of escaping."


The study, which examined 110 years of mountain lion attacks on people, concludes that running is your safest response "if you are in a situation that allows you to run in a surefooted fashion with even strides." 

Coss, an expert on predator-prey relationships, said his team reviewed personal accounts, news reports and wildlife agency reports of attacks by mountain lions -- also called cougars or pumas -- on 185 people in the United States from 1890 to 2000.

It remains unlikely, though, that the state Department of Fish and Game or any other state's wildlife agency will modify its suggested guidelines for people encountering large cats, because they, too, were formulated after extensive study.

So perhaps the best advice for hikers is to simply rely on their own instincts and act depending on the situation. It might help immensely to carry a sturdy stick and keep pepper spray handy. You might even get creative and hike with your sunglasses on backward, as tiger hunters do in India, to make it seem as though you're facing the beast even while fleeing.

The absolute best advice, though, is to hike with others, because that sharply reduces your chances of experiencing an encounter and having to decide how to respond.

-- Pete Thomas

Photos, from top: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. An adult mountain lion rests at Irvine Regional Park Zoo in 2007. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times