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


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

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Comments (15)

Watch a cougar hunt on a clip on you tube then ask yourself should I turn my back an run? Here is some smart suggestions Never hike alone without protection, Stay in a group of three or more, Be loud and stay facing the animal at all times if you can walk backwards slowly and carefully stoping every so often, when in a safe place to escape then run for your life!And above all PRAY!

I agree. Run and fight like hell. I ran into a cougar just 25 yards into the trailhead in Qulilcene, WA. I stood still at first trying to absorb what I was seeing in front of me. We both froze (cougar and me) but as soon as she jumped up off the trail onto the mountain side I turned and ran like hell back to my jeep. I still remember her running above me through the brush. The sound of it will be burned on my brain forever. I consider myself very, very lucky to have made it back to my car. In hindsight at the moment I wished I had a gun at the ready, huge knife whatever and that I wasn't hiking alone. By the time I would have been able to pull out my stupid cell phone in my backpack I would have been dead meat. And my flashlight wouldn't have bought me much time either. Personally, two big no nos, in my book now. She reminded me of my own cat in every way. Just much larger. She really was beautiful, powerful and graceful. It was a very humbling experience. I was a visitor in her world. I don't know how I would have reacted had she pounced. I love animals but I believe I would do anything to stay alive too.

Last year, I personally witnessed an attack by a mountain lion on a small elk herd in Yellowstone National Park. The elk were running hard and fast, much faster than a human could, and the lion easily took a young elk down. Ever watch TV footage of predators taking prey? Almost always the prey is running for its life and although the predator fails more often than not, you rarely see a prey animal standing up to the predator. My point is this...the mountain lion, like most predators, wants the prey to flee. It is much safer, and therefore much easier, to take down an animal from behind rather than face its hooves, horns, or in the case of humans, a good walking stick. I truly believe the conventional advice to "fight back" is the best. But "fighting back" should be aggressive and bold. By the way, I know of very few hiking trails that will allow you to run in a surefooted fashion with even strides. Ridiculous!

I echo Steve Thorpe's response 150%.

I've been stalked by a mountain lion for at least 1/2 an hour in a wilderness area. The first time I hollered at it, it ran off. At that time, I did not carry a firearm into the wilderness, because I learned from almost all sources that mountain lions are shy creatures that avoid human contact.

About 30 minutes later, it reappears. It was crouched about 20 feet from me, with its tail flicking back and forth in the air--like a house cat does before it pounces on a bird.

If I had run, I would have been breakfast for the mountain lion.

I shouted like crazy, raised my hands, blew my whistle, and did this for about 5 minutes straight.

This study by UC Davis does a great disservice to anyone who believes their report. In fact, I'll go so far as to state that UC Davis will soon have blood on its hands for even suggesting that a person should run from a mountain lion under any circustances.

Unlike a grizzly, or a black bear--which are omnivores--a mountain lion is 100% carnivore.

I am a person who would be sadder than can be imagined if I had to take down a mountain lion with MY 26 ounce Smith & Wesson 329PD .44 Magnum revolver, but if it is me on the critter, I'll choose me every time.

If you are attacked, you better fight for your life. If you are running away, your ability to defend yourself will be significantly decreased.

If any of you choose to criticize my perspective--Hey, its a free country.

But I also suggest that before you criticize me, you have something besides your emotions to back it up.

I hesitate to point out the obvious but the best defense would be to carry a personal firearm. Oh, wait. California doesn't allow its citizens to protect themselves. I almost forgot.

So, you should run if you can do so with "surefooted fashion with even strides."

Perhaps if you encounter a cougar in the trailhead parking lot, this would be possible. But many hiking trails don't always, or even often allow that surefooted fashion and even stride style of running.

Breath spray, check my hair, and offer to buy her a drink. That's what I do when I encounter a cougar.

Meh, this doesn't worry me anymore. I'm too old for the cougars to find me attractive.

Oh wait, we may be talking about different things. Do you mean the cat, or the attractive but older woman looking for younger men?

Oh the cat... never been attacked by one of them.

I've always heard that running is the most effective strategy IF you're faster than the person you're with.

I wonder if any of these researchers tested their theory before telling the rest of us to try it? Or maybe that IS the test!!! What a great way to gather real world data!

Year of the cougar!!

I've backpacked more than 30 years in wilderness areas, often where big predators are present. On a few occasions I've been lucky enough to see a grizzly (no mountain lions yet) at close range. It's an awe inspiring experience and one you never forget. In the last six years I saw an adult male grizzly from about 60 yards and a grizzly sow with her cub at about 100 yards. In both cases we warily studied each other for a minute and then moved off about our business. They were much less impressed with me than I was with them. Part of the reason is that -- in that setting -- they're at the top of the food chain and I'm not. The idea of "running away" as a strategy strikes me as extremely misguided and I believe that eventually data will show it's the exact wrong thing to do. I always plan a defense in depth when entering that world. My first defense is to make noise and smell bad. "Bear bells" handle the noise and perspiration handles the odor (especially after three days or so). Most predators want nothing to do with humans. Second line of defense is a good "bear spray" with pepper essence. A recent Field & Stream article suggests that this may initially be more effective than a firearm, because the animal actually recoils from the unpleasantness of it. But my final line of defense is a Smith & Wesson 329PD .44 Magnum revolver in a velcro-release waist pack. It would be terrible to have to kill one of these magnificent animals, but they have the claws and the jaws, and I only have human technology. I fervently hope I never have to resort to defense line three. But I have no intention of ending up like Timothy Treadwell. A stealthy, silent big cat is a whole different animal and, frankly, I suspect that even if I had the 82nd Airborne hiking with me, my spinal cord might be severed before I even knew Mr. Kitty was on the premises. Our Native American predecessors always entered those woods with arrows and spears, but I'm not as brave or tough as they were.

Seems like a leap of logic. So standing still is worse than running, but where does that leave throwing rocks and fighting back as recommended?

Use common sense. Avoid the problem, but if cornered or attacked don't sit there because you read it somewhere, fight! Seems like shoddy reporting to make that leap, or at least fail to question the logic.

It doesn't matter though as in 2012 we're all going down in a cougar attack.

I think you've got this question wrong.

It should be "what is the safest thing for a mountain lion to do when it encounters a human".

I think most mountain lion attacks are initiated by the time the prey even knows the lion is there, so these studies are probably moot. I'm sure how aggressive you are and how big of rocks you throw makes a big difference as well. Do your best anti-mountain lion dance and have a friend watch. If your freind is laughing at the end of it, so will the mountain lion.

I once ate a puma alive 'cause he was messin' wit me radio station. I likes me some hard-core funk but he was a jazz cat. Too bad. I like jazz. I just wasn't in the mood. Know what I mean?

They are all wrong ... its the Animal Uprising 2012 ... we are screwed no matter what we do ...


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Outposts' primary contributor is Kelly Burgess.