You and your friend are biking in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains when you notice a cougar stalking you on the trail. Though you raise your bikes and shout in attempt to scare it off, it charges right at you. You continue to stand your ground and even strike the mountain lion with your bike, finally sending it running off into the woods. You take a minute to catch your breath and as you begin to pedal off, the cougar returns and pounces on you. It violently shakes you back and forth and only releases its grasp on your head to chase down your fleeing friend. Badly bloodied, you manage to ride to a spot with cell phone service to call 911, but sadly, help arrives too late to save your friend.
Unfortunately, this incredibly tragic story is a true account of two friends who were attacked outside of Seattle, Washington on May 19, 2018. While this was the first fatal cougar attack in the state of Washington since 1924, there have been a total of 25 fatal and 95 non-fatal attacks in North America during the last century. The attacks are also becoming more common, with more in the last 20 years than in the 80 before that.
Why might this attack have occurred and what can you do to prevent something like this from happening to you?
Cougars, also commonly known as mountain lions or pumas, are typically shy, solitary, nocturnal animals with huge home ranges of up to 400 miles. The likelihood of encountering a cougar is extremely low and they do not generally recognize humans as prey. However, attacks on humans may occur when a mountain lion is threatened, starved, or habituated to humans, if a fleeing human stimulates the animal’s instinct to chase, or if a person appears to be easy prey. Attacks are most frequent during late spring and summer, when juvenile cougars leave their mothers and search for new territory. Furthermore, with the expanding human population, mountain lion ranges increasingly overlap with areas inhabited by humans. Therefore, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know what to do if you do encounter one of these animals.
Cougars are stealth predators that usually stalk their prey and employ their characteristic neck bite before the prey even has a chance to react. Thus, it is critical to stay alert if you are hiking in mountain lion territory.
If you do happen to encounter a cougar, DO NOT RUN. Running and rapid movements can trigger the animal’s instinctual prey response and it will easily chase you down. Instead, face the mountain lion and back away slowly. Make yourself appear threatening by standing tall, shouting, maintaining intense eye contact, and raising whatever you have around you (jacket, backpack, bicycle…) to look larger. Bear spray or bear bangers may also help to scare the predator away. If you are with other people, group together.
Children are at the greatest risk of attack and are least likely to survive an encounter so keep them close and, if possible, pick them up without bending over. If the cougar attacks, FIGHT BACK. Do not play dead as all this does is make you an easy meal. Sticks, rocks, and even bare hands can be effective in persuading the animal to retreat. However, note that it is not uncommon for mountain lions to fail on their first attempt, retreat into the woods, and wait for another opportunity to attack when the prey is more vulnerable. Therefore, maintain a high level of alertness until you are back to safety.
The two friends seemed to have done everything right: they stood their ground, made lots of noise, made themselves appear large by raising their bikes, and even fought back when attacked. The mountain lion they faced was emaciated so may have behaved differently out of hunger and desperation. It may also have been responding to instinct by stalking the bikers as they sped down the trail and then returning when they thought the attack was over. Unfortunately, the fatal mistake occurred when the friend ran, triggering the cougar’s instinctual prey response.
In the rare case of a mountain lion encounter:
1. Do not run.
2. Face the mountain lion and back away slowly.
3. Make yourself appear threatening.
4. Keep children close.
5. If attacked, fight back!
Jessica Walrath, MD
Wilderness Medicine Fellow, Yale School of Medicine
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