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Mountain Lions: What to Do Should You Encounter One

By Edited Feb 17, 2016 4 4
Mountain lion
Credit: Photo is from Wikimedia Commons, by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0.

The world's fourth-largest cat species

I've seen tracks, but not the actual animal, despite having explored wilderness areas where they live all my life. A friend is certain one growled at him when biking in the Santa Ana Mountains in Southern California. He didn’t bother to look for it, and bolted on his bike.

A man who I spoke with, owner of an orchard and reservoir in the Santa Ana Mountains, told me about a female mountain lion who walked past a certain area every morning at the same time. He would silently watch her go by.

These large cats are slightly larger than leopards. Of all cat species, only tigers, lions, and jaguars are larger. In the Americas, only jaguars are larger.[1]

Also called cougars or pumas, they live nearly everywhere through North America, Central America, and South America. They live in jungles, mountains, deserts, and any climate except extreme cold, such as in the northernmost parts of Canada and Alaska.[1]

They are rare, and quite shy around humans. You'd be incredibly lucky to see one. They have attacked humans at times, but this would be a far rarer event than even seeing one. It’s extremely uncommon.[2]

They'll take down deer, elk, moose, cattle, horses, bighorn sheep, and many large mammals. Like most predators, they’ll go for young, or for any that are sick or old and make easier targets before risking going after a bigger, stronger animal that is capable of fighting back. [2]

To give you an idea of the rarity of being killed by one, just sixteen people are known to have been killed by them since 1970 in all countries that have them. Of those, two occurred in Southern California, which is where I live.[3] We have millions of people and cities right up against wilderness areas, and still in over four decades there’s been only two fatalities from these powerful predators.

A neighbor of mine once saw a mountain lion in his backyard, in the 1980s. In 2013, a neighbor saw one in a park down the street. However, they are almost never seen amongst houses, since they want to avoid people. But they are around.

They are incredible leapers. Let’s say you have a house with a balcony on the second floor. One would easily be able to jump up onto the balcony.[2]

Mountain lion paw print
Credit: Photo is from Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0.

This is what a paw print of a mountain lion looks like. A large adult has paws similar in size to the palm of an adult human's hand.[2] Smaller versions could be other cat species - such as a bobcat. If you see obvious claw marks at the end of each toe, it is not a mountain lion or any species of cat. Cats keep their claws retracted when walking along, with the exception of cheetahs.[2] Where I live, I often see prints with claw marks that are obviously a dog or coyote, although I have seen actual mountain lion tracks on rare occasions. 

Tips for an encounter with a mountain lion:

1. Stay calm and don’t run. They have an instinct to go after and tackle running prey.[4] They can run over 45 mph (72 kilometers per hour), so there is no chance you could outrun them.[2]

2. Don’t get any closer. Mountain lions don’t want confrontations with humans, but will defend themselves if they think you’re being threatening.[4]

3. Make eye contact. This is a bad idea with black bears, but it’s important for facing a mountain lion.  Back away slowly while maintaining eye contact.[1]

4. If you have small children, pick them up. Also, avoid crouching or bending over. The taller a person is, the less likely they’ll recognize the person as prey.[1]

5. If they appear to be threatening or getting closer, you can raise your arms to look even bigger or open your jacket wide. If that doesn't work, throw rocks or sticks or whatever you've got at it. The point is to convince them that you’re not worth attacking. They don’t want to get hurt.[1]

6. If all else fails, fight back with everything you've got.[1] One man I read about hit a mountain lion in the head with a rock, after it jumped on his son. It departed, and his son survived.

7. Let others in the area know, especially if they have any children with them. Seek to notify rangers, local police, or whoever is around. 

Mountain lion hunting at night
Credit: Photo is from Wikimedia Commons, by Dolovis, CC BY 2.0.

One reason mountain lions are not often seen is because they prefer to hunt at night.[2] Cats have night vision about six times better than humans.[5]



Nov 7, 2014 7:37pm
Oh boy, I have to keep track of the eye contact vs. no eye contact. Pretty hard to stay calm (but your advice is excellent, I'm sure). Hope I don't encounter one in the wild - but I do think all big cats are magnificent creatures. Thumbs up, pinning, etc.
Nov 7, 2014 9:08pm
Big cats are my favorite animals. Mountain lions are my favorite animal that lives in the Americas. I'd like to see one in the wild someday - but not if my kids are with me.
Nov 30, 2014 8:35pm
I don't know if I'll ever encounter a mountain lion, but thanks for the tips!
Dec 14, 2014 11:41am
Hi: I truly enjoyed your article and your tips. I have had the privilege of working with all
kinds of exotic animals and once had the experience of studying them in the wild. You are right--never run. We people are not match for the speed or the strength of lions. However, I have owned an African Lion and like everything else that walks on two or four legs they respond to love, kindness and companionship. With that said--two big thumbs for you, a rating plus you've gained a new follower.
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  1. "Mountain Lions." Big Bend National Park. 7/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "Cougar." Wikipedia. 7/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "List of fatal cougar attacks in North America." Wikipedia. 7/11/2014 <Web >
  4. "Safe Hiking in Mountain Lion Country." About.com. 7/11/2014 <Web >
  5. "Cat." Wikipedia. 7/11/2014 <Web >

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