Understanding the ‘cowardly’ cougar

Rare but recent attacks have people more fearful than warranted, expert says

By Scott Doggett
Posted 4/3/24





If a genetic engineer designed the perfect feline, he or she would create a big cat like those often appearing in Nextdoor feeds on the Olympic …

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Understanding the ‘cowardly’ cougar

Rare but recent attacks have people more fearful than warranted, expert says






If a genetic engineer designed the perfect feline, he or she would create a big cat like those often appearing in Nextdoor feeds on the Olympic Peninsula. But despite their ferocious reputation, you shouldn’t fear them.

“It is absolutely safe to walk up to within 10 yards of a cougar at bay, whether wounded or unwounded, and to shoot it at leisure,” the legendary hunter and conservationist Teddy Roosevelt wrote a century ago after partaking in many puma hunts.

A stickler for accurate descriptions of wildlife behavior, he added: “There is no more need of being frightened when sleeping in, or wandering after nightfall through, a forest infested by cougars than if they were so many tomcats.”

Seriously? I wondered if perhaps the mountain lions that Roosevelt encountered cowered because he hunted in a pack. (Mountain lions, cougars, and pumas are different names for the same cat.) Perhaps they’d have acted differently if he were alone and unarmed?

Dr. Mark Elbroch, the nation’s foremost mountain lion expert and the author of the book, “The Cougar Conundrum” ($21 on Amazon and worth every cent), came to my home last week to answer that question and others.

“One of the things Roosevelt found was how unaggressive they were, how timid. He referred to them over and over as ‘cowardly,’” said Elbroch, who is director of the Puma Program at Panthera.org, a global wildcat science and conservation organization headquartered in New York City, with a regional office in Port Angeles.

Have the big cats possibly become more aggressive? Not according to Elbroch.

“We’ve given them every reason to be upset. We’ve cornered them. We’ve chased them. We’ve collared them,” he said about researchers at Panthera, adding that the behavior did not provoke a single attack.

Furthermore, Elbroch said he’s been in a crawl space under a house with a cougar, gone into caves with them, entered brush containing them—and always emerged unharmed. “I wouldn’t do that with a bobcat,” he was quick to add.

Elbroch speculates that the cougar’s timidity has something to do with the fact that it is rarely at the top of the food chain. Cougars have historically shared territory with grizzly bears, wolves and jaguars, which might have bred caution as a survival instinct.

In other words, “Don’t engage unless you have to because you might get beat up” could well be in their DNA. It would explain why, unlike tigers, African lions and other big cats, cougars are quick to abandon their kills.

Speaking of kills: About 34,000 cougars populate the U.S., including hundreds on the Olympic Peninsula, Elbroch said. They have lived in North America for thousands of years. Yet officials have verified only 18 fatal attacks in the U.S. since the first recorded death here in 1868—156 years ago.

That averages to only one death by cougar in 8.6 years. More Americans are crushed to death by cows and vending machines (stop tilting them for free Doritos), and lightning may not strike the same place twice, but it does fry 20 Americans a year.

The numbers don’t lie, and neither does common sense: Given how many cougars live in the U.S. and the small number of Americans killed by them, “We are not on the menu,” as cougar researcher Doug Updike once put it.

That helps explain why National Public Radio reported the non-fatal cougar attack on a bicyclist near Fall City last month and why a fatal cougar attack in California last week made The New York Times: They were exceptionally rare events.

Exceptionalism explains why very, very few of the more than 25,000 homicides in America annually receive mention in the newspaper.

I know that from personal experience. From 1986-89, I covered crime in Los Angeles for United Press International. I wrote about more than 1,000 murders in the City of Angels. The editors at the Times saw my stories but didn't publish a single one.

Why? Because when something occurs so often, it’s not news. But the rare death by cougar, well, that’s a whole other matter.

Come to think of it, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times in January 2004 after a fatal cougar attack. My editor assigned me to base the story on interviews with experts that explained how a mountain lion sees possible prey.

I mention the piece because California is where seven of the 18 fatal cougar attacks occurred. Seven over 156 years. The attacks were so rare we felt a need to explain how a cougar could mistake a person for something “on its menu.”

So, it's OK to try to pet a puma? Absolutely not. Although the risk from them is puny—much lower than being struck by lightning—mountain lions can harm you.

Do not run or act erratically when faced with a curious or aggressive cougar, Elbroch advised. The best strategy in these encounters is to become the aggressor, he said.

“Stand tall, wave your hands, yell, and clap your hands. While yelling and clapping, take several swift steps toward the cat; this is a proven method to halt the approach of numerous large cat species,” he said.

And when you reach your car, drive safely. Because in the U.S. alone, American motorists annually have 1.2 million collisions with deer, resulting in about 200 human deaths and 29,000 human injuries.

Scott Doggett is a former staff writer for the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Susan, live in Port Townsend.