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Photo by Carmen Luna/USFWS

Who's Afraid of Mountain Lions?

Fear flows in both directions between humans and mountain lions, two species of apex predator.

By Craig Childs

March 14, 2023

My wife pieced together a kill in our driveway, sending me pictures of deer tracks in a casual walk followed by a sprawl, deer fur in the snow, and faint signs of melt, a couple hours old at most. The next picture was of cat tracks the size of an adult human palm, a good sized mountain lion dragging the deer. A path like that of a saucer sled was left down the drive where the mountain lion gripped the deer’s throat in its teeth and pulled it a couple hundred feet to the canyon’s edge below our house. My wife took pictures and video all the way, and where it hauled the body over the snowy rimrock, her text said she stopped following it. If she were with me she might, but alone no way.

Later, we laid together in bed in the flicker-light of a fire and she recounted finding fresh tracks and studying the kill pattern. The deer, she said, were coming through together, a line of them, no sign of scatter before the attack, so it was swift, not a chase. The kill, she said, struck her as quick, quiet, dutiful, and done.

It happened right behind the house, between the firewood and solar panels, which gives a person pause going out for wood or clearing snow from the panels. We see plenty of cat tracks around here, benches of rimrock in a high desert piñon-juniper biome, perfect place for travel and ambush. In winter they follow deer like sharks trailing a shoal. When deer tracks are around, there will be mountain lions. The rest of the time, snow is mostly blank.

Lately, we’ve been seeing lots of deer tracks and a fresher mountain lion moving through. I go out for wood not afraid so much as aware. I don’t often worry about being attacked. When deer and elk populations dwindle in mountain lion terrain, they tend go down in size, targeting porcupines and house cats. Attacks on humans are rare. Where we live, deer and elk are plenty and lion health is generally good, making a physical confrontation with humans less likely. Bad encounters tend to come from starving or curious juveniles or elders barely holding onto their teeth, not a cat that takes down a full-grown mule deer in a single pounce.

In a popular outdoor magazine, I recently saw the headline, Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Mountain Lions. The article is accurate and well-written, but the title rubbed me wrong. Fear is not an irrational reaction to a predator that has the ability to kill and eat you, though the chances are low of it actually happening. Since 1890, there have been 27 documented humans killed by mountain lions in North America. Cows, by comparison, kill about 20 people each year.

The problem is the word 'afraid.' You should be afraid of mountain lions, just not all the time. 

Wait for the tingle on the back of the neck, a sense that you’re being watched. It feels like being touched by the tip of a feather. Or it might be a small bell ringing deep inside your head. It's called being aware, and it can feel like fear.

When I read the magazine piece, I agreed with its sentiment, you shouldn’t walk around biting your nails thinking the next thing you’ll feel is the weight of a mountain lion and its claws. That’s no way to be. We are not a targeted prey species for a predator that kills namely deer and elk, a co-evolved design of feline and ungulate like a hand in a glove. We are more like a hand in a shoe. For mountain lions we may seem like fleshy beasts with loose and buttoned hides, known to be dangerous and unpredictable. Our meat must taste like bubble gum or gasoline, our skin freakishly hairless, like fish that walk on land. This is a reason not to fear mountain lions. They fear us.

A friend who raises sheep in southwest Colorado keeps a radio in the barn playing talk radio all night long and he swears it keeps the mountain lions away. The sound of the human voice is a trigger. A 2017 study out of University of California at Santa Cruz played either the sound of frogs near mountain lion kills or the sound of human voices. Researchers found that the cats "fled more frequently, took longer to return, and reduced their overall feeding time by more than half in response to hearing the human ‘super predator’." This term, super predator, is laid on us because we kill terrestrial carnivores at nine times the rate of their natural predators.

In about any room from South Dakota to California I could ask who has seen a mountain lion, and a small number of hands would go up. Asked if anyone has been watched by a mountain lion, every hand should be in the air. This could be the case even in Wisconsin or Florida, and the way Puma concolor is in motion these days, showing up in former habitats along the Eastern Seaboard, there will be more and more hands. The tickle on the back of your neck is called awareness.

Fear leans into aversion, anxiety, and dread. The trick with mountain lions is to lean the other way, more toward the awe side of the spectrum, at least the side that opens your eyes and turns up the senses. The tingle you feel on the back of your neck may not be a mountain lion watching you, but the lay of the ground you’ve walked into. Shadows and hiding places reveal ambush terrain where a good idea in general is to keep yourself alert. If that’s what fear does, it’s done its job.

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