Mountain lion encounters are rare, but if you encounter one, here are 5 ways to stay safe
As many Arizonans were preparing holiday feasts, one Pima County resident noticed a feast of another kind taking place in his backyard.
In the wee hours of the Monday before Christmas, the security camera outside Jack Welch's house north of Oro Valley recorded a mountain lion crossing the yard. Stunning both Welch and his wife, the cat returned that evening to dine on a dead coyote it left under their porch.
News reports say Welch eventually bagged and removed the coyote carcass, and the cat has not been seen since.
Earlier this month, Tiffany Foster, another Pima County resident, faced a similarly close encounter with a mountain lion while camping in Saguaro National Park. She recorded the encounter and posted it on YouTube. The 10-minute clip shows a frightened cat in the top of a tree, above Foster's campsite, while she tries to scare it off. In the end, a group of scrub jays successfully ushered the cat away. After receiving word from the National Park Service that she should leave the campsite, Foster made her exit.
And last summer, another unlikely meeting occurred in a town near Show Low, where residents reported a mountain lion up a tree near their home. That cat was captured by Arizona Game and Fish Department and later euthanized.
As people spend more time on public lands and with development increasingly pushing into wild, rural areas, interactions with wildlife, especially large predators like mountain lions, are on the rise. Instagram and Twitter are replete with videos of mountain lions forced into a tree, on someone's deck, or walking on a trail frequented by people.
Mountain lions, like people, are more active in the daylight hours when it's cooler, said Mark Hart, public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Tucson office. You could see them when you're out hiking in the winter months. A trail camera captured one near Tucson last weekend.
A mountain lion caught on trail cam early Sat. moving through a residential area near Gates Pass. Such sightings are routine in the Tucson foothills & require no management action in most cases. Help us monitor their movement and behavior by calling 623-236-7201. pic.twitter.com/kFhTYX0nQO
— AZ Game & Fish Dept (@azgfdTucson) January 10, 2022
"There's definitely a correlation between human activity in outdoor recreation areas and wildlife sightings," Hart told The Arizona Republic. "But there's also the wildlife factor. The wildlife is going to be more active in fair weather because when it's hot, they're hunkered down like we are. It's not a coincidence that most of the majority of our mountain lion sighting calls come from the area of Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, which has maybe 2 million visitors a year."
While they prefer mountainous regions, mountain lions can be found across Arizona, the agency says. Signs they’re in the area include paw prints with no claws, food caches, and large cat scat.
As a species that isn’t listed as threatened or endangered, mountain lions are subject to an annual hunting season. In 2021, hunters killed 297 lions in the state. With a robust population of just under 3,000 in the state and the widespread use of personal cameras, sightings, while still rare, are on this rise.
In the last year, AZGFD has seen at least half a dozen human-mountain lion encounters and received countless more reports, though a great deal of them ended up being bobcats. But when they do happen, it doesn't always mean certain death.
More often than not, the cat is neither stalking, lurking nor ready to pounce, said Dr. Aletris Neils, executive director of Conservation CATalyst, a Tucson-based wild cat research organization. On the contrary, it's usually a scared cat that just wants to get away.
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People can momentarily entice a cat’s natural curiosity and it’s in these scenarios that it's helpful to know how to react to deescalate an encounter.
"If you're spending time in the backcountry, you've likely had a puma encounter, you've just never known about it because that cat steered clear of you," said Neils, who studies the cats in southern Arizona. "There's been several instances where I've fortuitously snuck up on a preoccupied cat then you're both a bit startled. In those cases, you should feel really lucky that you've seen one of these majestic animals in the first place."
There are a few things you can do to deescalate the situation. Neils and other carnivore experts offered a few suggestions on how to be a good neighbor to cougars while recreating or living near wild areas. When you go hiking or move into a new area, you're stepping into their home, Neils said.
Five things to do when in lion country
Familiarize yourself with the area
First, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with what's on the landscape. The Arizona Game and Fish Department usually has a list of what species live in certain areas. If you're visiting a national park, the park service often has similar guidance on what to keep an eye out for.
Once you know what to look for, Neils recommends keeping an eye out for unusual behavior of other, more conspicuous animals, such as birds and deer, the main prey of mountain lions. The behavior of prey species can tell a lot about what to look out for. Running deer or birds that are on edge are usually a good indicator that a predator is in the area.
Make yourself big
If you do stumble into an area where a mountain lion is present, you'll want to make yourself as large as possible. Open your jacket, raise your arms, wave sticks or walking poles, anything that's going to add to your size. This is especially true for children.
"Think of opening a jacket, so you look twice as wide or holding your hands up high," Neils advises. "What you definitely do not want to do is ... make yourself look small and meek, never crouch down or run."
Dr. Julie Young, a carnivore biologist and professor at Utah State University, echoes this as one of the primary strategies for deterring any potential bad cat behavior. Young has spent the bulk of her career looking into ways to reduce wildlife-human conflict. A few key lessons have surfaced as a result of that work.
"If you encounter a cougar, or even a coyote or whatever, at too close of a distance, then just make yourself appear large, dominant in the situation," Young said. "You don't have to be aggressive because sometimes that can backfire. But just large and confident in your space and loud in your space. Those are really good things to get the animal to decide to move on."
Give the animal an exit
Once you've made yourself as threatening as possible, both Neils and Young recommend giving the animal space to flee. This is key in avoiding conflict because you never want the animal to feel cornered, which could lead to altercations. That means you'll need to be aware of both your and the animal's exit strategy.
Mountain lions run up trees when they're scared, Hart said. So if a cat seeks refuge in a tree or in a high place, it most likely wants to get out of there as soon as possible. What they're least likely to do is pounce. Lions typically attack from the ground, in a crouching position, almost as if they're loading up springs in their legs. They also prefer to stalk their prey, which means they like to remain hidden. A cat in a tree is not a cat that's on the prowl.
In other words, cats are ambush predators and if they know you've seen them, they're likely already deterred from any potential chase, unless it's a mother with kittens near. So if you see one in a tree, it's probably just scared or resting. The best thing to do in this instance is to let the animal be and allow them space to flee.
"Mountain lions will always take the exit," said Dr. Mark Elbroch, puma program director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. "And always, of course, is a strong word because once in a while, something bad happens. But as someone who has been professionally harassing lions for so many years, I can tell you that it is almost always that they take the exit. And it can be the tiniest exit and they'll squeeze through it. They just want an out."
Leave the area
Once you've made yourself threatening and provided room for the cat to leave the area, the best course of action is to back away slowly while keeping your eyes on the animal. This lets them know that you see them and are aware of their presence while giving yourself some distance.
This also plays on their ambush nature. Since they like to surprise, keeping eyes on the cat while making your exit lets them know that there's no chance of sneaking up on you.
"In almost every case of a carnivore, the safest thing to do is to remove yourself from that situation as safely as you can," Young said. "That means don't run. A lot of these carnivores, their natural instinct then would be to pursue and chase you down and so that's a bad thing to do. But in most cases, it's just back away slowly."
Fight back as a last resort
If all else fails and a cat does attack, experts say, fight back. Use anything at your disposal: a stick, rock, or better yet, bear spray. In windy or mountainous areas, Elbroch says air horns are great tools to throw off a cat's focus and deter them from chasing. Like most predators, mountain lions will avoid an unnecessary fight, especially if they know it's one they'll lose.
"They typically do everything in their power to avoid confrontation. They live their lives avoiding most negative encounter with anything, whether that's other cats, predators, or humans,” says Neils. "Injuries, every small ones can ultimately be fatal for these wild cats.”
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Once it's over, notify authorities
For people who encounter mountain lions, Hart also recommends letting the Arizona Game and Fish Department know. With the advent of home security cameras, lion sightings are more common than ever and the department has a hotline set up to take calls of this nature.
There are four main categories for human-mountain lion interactions: an attack, an encounter, an incident and a sighting. The department will note sightings, but they don't always send a staff person out.
If the animal is causing problems, it'll most likely be put down. Contrary to popular belief, mountain lions are never relocated if they're causing problems, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department's mountain lion page. They can be territorial and relocation can lead to injuries to both the cat being relocated and any cats that currently reside in the area where the relocation takes place.
"We encourage people to call our 24/7 dispatch center. Because it's important for us to be able to monitor movements and behavior," Hart said. "That's the whole ballgame: Where are they? What are they doing?"
While the potential of seeing a mountain lion, puma, or cougar — they're all the same — in the wild may be exciting to some and frightening to others, the prospects of an encounter are extremely low. Experts like Young have spent years studying big cats and only rarely come across them. Elbroch and Neils say the likelihood of being attacked is even lower.
"People have done the math to show that you're more likely to die from eating peanut butter than you are from a mountain lion," says Elbroch. "Because there are so many people who have allergic reactions to peanut butter. You're 10 times more likely to be killed by a vending machine."
Even Foster, who has spent a great deal of her life recreating in the backcountry, admits it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"Statistically, I will never be that lucky again," she says. "If I am, yay, but it's so unlikely that anything like that will ever happen to me or anybody else in my generation."
Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Here's how you can stay safe in a mountain lion encounter