an illustration of a mountain lion stalking a hiker
Mountain lions lurk from behind their prey, so hikers must be alert to all their surroundings. (Illustration by Peyton Stark, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

Mountain Lion Attacks Are a Danger to Hikers, but Can Be Avoided

In 2020, there were three known attacks in the United States. Here’s the information you need to stay safe while enjoying the national parks this summer.

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an illustration of a mountain lion stalking a hiker

In 2020, there were three known attacks in the United States. Here’s the information you need to stay safe while enjoying the national parks this summer.

Imagine: It’s a sunny, 75-degree afternoon, and you’re on a hike in the national park closest to your home. As you breathe in the fresh scent of pine, listen to the soft trill of birds overhead and watch your shoes crush dried leaves on the trail, your mind begins to wander. You lift your eyes just in time to see a muscular mountain lion standing on the trail only 30 feet ahead. You freeze, and your heart seems to stop and quicken simultaneously.

The cat of many names: cougar, panther, catamount, ghost cat, puma and, of course, mountain lion. In 2019, approximately 49.7 million people hiked in the United States. This number includes tourists walking into national parks to visit monuments as well as experienced backpackers who navigate the mountains using a satellite GPS. While most hikers will never see a mountain lion in their lifetime, those visiting national parks or forests should prepare themselves for an encounter on the small chance that they’ll run into one.

Mountain Lion Statistics and Locations

Since 1986, at least 19 known attacks by mountain lions occurred within the U.S., with three taking place in just the first half of 2020. The most recent victim was a 4-year-old boy in San Diego who survived head lacerations and a bite on his leg.

Mountain lions primarily live in the Midwest and Western areas of the U.S. with the exception of Florida. According to the U.S. Forest Service, mountain lions have a wide range of habitats, from deserts and rocky areas to lush forests and mountains. Therefore, terrain does not inhibit the migration of the green-eyed panthers.

Encounters are rare and do not usually result in death. The wild cats do not seek humans out for food, but they’re considered “opportunistic eaters” and they will eat things that can satisfy their appetites.

Why Mountain Lions Attack Humans

There are many reasons why a mountain lion might attack a human, including the loss of their habitat, a lack of food and the small, vulnerable size of a human child.

One reason that mountain lions maul people is a result of the hunting of their species. When people hunt cougars, it’s easier to kill the adult cats, since they’re older and slower. That creates a problem, however. When the older mountain lions are killed, the juvenile cats don’t have anyone to teach them what is or isn’t food. This includes people.

A second cause for mountain lion attacks is mountain bikers or trail runners. Fast, smooth motion like running or biking resembles the movement of a deer and can trigger the predator’s instincts to pounce.

Another catalyst for a cougar to launch at someone is if they appear small and vulnerable. Mountain lions typically eat small prey like rabbits, so bending down, bringing a small dog on a hike or small children could entice the cougar to see you as attainable prey.

How Mountain Lions Attack

Mountain lions are nature’s backstabbers. They stalk their prey from the high boughs of trees, behind rocks and on cliffs high above their targeted prey. When they’re ready to charge, they silently pounce from behind and attack the spinal cord at the neck. For this reason, if you see a mountain lion ahead of you, you have a chance of escaping because the large cat was probably not planning on killing you in the first place. It may be the animal’s curiosity or its process of hunting something else that brought it to the path in front of you.

Protocol When You Encounter a Mountain Lion

If you happen upon a mountain lion, the first step is to stop. Do not scare the animal by launching toward it, and do not trigger its hunting instincts by running away. Stop and stand still.

If the cat stays in place, you can slowly back away without turning your back to it. If it begins to walk in your direction, however, you should raise your arms to appear larger and yell in a confident, lower register. Make noise and show yourself to be larger than the animal while still slowly backing away and holding stern eye contact.

Never crouch down, but if it still approaches you, throw things at it that are within your reach or spray it with a can of bear spray. If the chemicals are strong enough to fend off a bear, they can deter a wild cat.

Preventing an Encounter With a Mountain Lion

Better than fighting off a mountain lion is preventing an encounter in the first place. One clever trick is to wear patches that look like eyes on the top of your hiking backpack. Because cougars attack from behind, having fake eyes on the back of your head may prevent them from launching at you. Patches like these can be purchased on Etsy.

Another tip to prevent you from becoming a mountain lion’s target is to travel in groups. Hiking alone is dangerous for many reasons, but mountain lions are more likely to think that you’re vulnerable if you are alone. In addition to the appearance of company, hiking with another person is helpful because, if you are attacked, they can help you fight the animal off.

It may sound a little extreme, but minimize bending down while you hike. A mountain lion may leave you alone if you look large, but by shrinking down, you present yourself as smaller than you actually are. A lurking animal may see that as an opportunity to pounce.

Finally, avoid hiking with small pets. They look like the type of rodents that mountain lions normally prey upon, and they could attract the cat’s attention. If you’re hiking with small children, keep them close to you or another adult so they do not appear vulnerable.

Mountain lion protection is a major priority, but hiker safety comes first. If you see a mountain lion close to a trail, report it to park rangers immediately. You can also be a good neighbor to fellow hikers by warning them of the animal while they walk in the opposite direction on the trail.

Keep your eyes up on the trail, stay alert to your surroundings and report potential dangers.

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Briana Byus

Biola University
Journalism & Integrated Media

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