In rural New Mexico, trailheads leading into cougar country often are posted with signs that explain what a hiker should do in case of an encounter.
Maybe Robert Giannini had read such advice, because he did the right thing—eventually.
In June, Giannini and Parker Smith, 23, of Georgia were cycling at night in the New Mexico backcountry for a fundraiser when they encountered two lions. Smith tried to pedal faster to get away, and then realized he’d made a mistake when one lion gave chase.
“I knew we couldn’t outrun it,” Smith told the Athens Banner-Herald, “so I jumped off the bike and held it up between me and the mountain lion. Then I just started jumping around, yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs and trying to make myself as big and scary as possible.
“It was growling. I was screaming. It was intense. It probably only lasted about 20 seconds. But it felt like forever.”
Others clearly haven’t been so lucky. Cougar attacks on humans have risen consistently since 1986 and now average one human fatality in the U.S. annually. Sighting reports have skyrocketed over the same time period.
The majority of these sightings are thought to be false contacts attributable to increased public awareness of mountain lions coupled with glimpses of deer, bears, dogs and other cats. There is evidence, however, that the cougar population is growing—and spreading.
Puma concolor, the big cat most familiar to Rockies residents as a “cougar” or “mountain lion,” has until now been better known among wildlife officials as the “western cougar,” to distinguish it from its allegedly endangered Appalachian counterpart.
Last spring, after eight decades of searching, the federal government declared the eastern cougar officially extinct. Two subspecies, the Florida panther and the Costa Rican puma, remain on the endangered species list.
Debate still rages as to whether the eastern cougar was ever properly classified as a unique species. Reported sightings since the 1930s have consistently proven to be western cougars or other cats.
Those reports suggest that the lion’s range may be spreading eastward—and interactions with humans appear to be on the rise.
So far this year, CougarInfo.org of Loveland, Colo., has documented six incidents between mountain lions and humans in North America, four of them in Canada. Neither of the American cases involved serious injury.
One of the encounters happened in July, when Troy Vincent of Wanship, Utah, was working on the fence around his yard. A cougar startled him, taking a swipe at his leg, and Vincent kicked the cat in the teeth.
Also last month, Colorado Department of Wildlife officials put down a female cougar after she was spotted in a residential neighborhood under a porch and was deemed to be far too nonchalant about nearby people.
At least 20 cases of human deaths caused by cougars since 1890 have been compiled by CougarInfo, 60 percent of them children averaging eight years old.
Among the rest, two of three men and three of five women were engaged in fitness activities, such as jogging or skiing.
Two women died protecting kids. In a particularly disturbing 1909 episode, a California Sunday school teacher and a child both allegedly died of rabies contracted from a lion attack.
Once found throughout the lower 48 before their populations were devastated by over-hunting in the 1960s, cougars are now only officially recognized in 15 western states, according to the Cougar Fund, a Wyoming nonprofit dedicated to cougar protection.
The world’s fourth-largest cat after the tiger, lion and jaguar, respectively, cougars can leap 15 feet into the air and travel 40 feet in a single bound. A mountain lion can bring down a 600-pound bull elk.
On average, cougars weigh between 110 and 200 pounds, stand up to 2.5 feet tall and measure up to 5.5 feet from nose to tail. They are fiercely territorial, solitary animals who hunt in strictly defined and defended territories that can be anywhere from less than 50 to more than 350 square miles.
About 30,000 cougars live in the U.S., according to Defenders of Wildlife.
Growth in both human and cougar populations only partly explains the increase in conflicts. Ongoing efforts to increase both deer and wolf numbers indirectly affect human-cougar interactions.
Cougars will eat small mammals but are primarily dependent on deer, the same creatures that wolves and humans also like to eat. Cougars, which often bury their kills and return later, compete directly with wolves.
A wolf pack will dig up a cougar’s kill and chase the cat away, forcing the cougar to kill more often in order to survive. Failing to discourage deer from hanging around near yards and homes also attracts hungry cougars, driving up the chances of a confrontation with humans or pets.
Despite the uptick in human encounters with cougars, fatal attacks remain exceptionally rare. The chances of being killed by a pet dog are at least 10 times higher.
“In the last 100 years, only 14 fatal cougar attacks occurred on the entire North American continent,” the Mountain Lion Foundation notes. “In that time, more than 15,000 people were killed by lightning; 4,000 by bees; 10,000 by deer; 1,300 by rattlesnakes.”
Preventing, and surviving, a lion attack depends on convincing the animal that humans are not food. For that reason, wildlife experts recommend standing tall, facing the lion, raising a ruckus and making an effort to appear as large and dangerous as possible.
Small children should be picked up. Playing dead, or worse, running, invites the lion to chase. Most lions will voluntarily retreat if given a way out. Advancing on them in a threatening manner is not a good idea.
Noisy groups of people appear to deter cougars. If you know you’ll be traveling in lion country, wildlife officials say, don’t go alone, don’t run, don’t take the dog, and do try to stay upright.
Dogs attract a lion’s attention, and movements such as bending, crouching, running, cycling, jogging or skiing can trigger its prey instinct.
The average lion doesn’t weigh much more than an adult human. In worst-case scenarios, people have fought back successfully with pocket knives, rocks, sticks, water bottles, bicycles and anything else they could grab.
Kate Schwab is a New West intern.