Let’s Talk About Cougar Encounters

October 26, 2020

Tracy MacDonough, is one of our very own RADrabbits! Tracy also happens to be a banana slug and orange-bellied newt enthusiast. You can find her saving both creatures from imminent squishing while out on a rainy trail run, much to the chagrin of her training partners. She has an advanced degree in Neurobiology and currently works for a pharmaceutical company making drugs that help your immune system fight cancer. Tracy lives with her husband and two cats in the coastal redwoods of Santa Cruz, California. You can follow her trail adventures on Instagram @tmacdono

The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2019 for Trail Sisters about my encounter with a mountain lion while out on a solo trail run at dusk.

As I was getting out of the car at my favorite trailhead after a long commute home from work, all I wanted was to move my body underneath the bright sun before we both tucked in for the evening. There was nothing special about it, just my regular Tuesday run through the forest. I tightened my shoelaces, tucked my phone away in the trunk of my car and headed out alone to shake off the day with 5 miles of dirt before dinner.

 

After nearly a decade of trail running, mostly alone, I had a great spidey sense and rarely felt uncomfortable on remote trails. I only carried my phone on long runs for photos or a quick peek at the map. The frequent comments from friends and family concerned about my safety because I spent so much time in the forest alone only made me feel more confident and proud of myself for being such a badass woman. The trails were my refuge and they were safe.

As I crested the top of the sand covered chaparral where the fire outlook sits, I took a drink of water and congratulated myself on how strong I was feeling. I took a moment to appreciate the view of the ocean below and ran down the other side of the trail heading toward the more canopy-covered section of the park.

I never got there.

I saw a tan colored cat sniffing around on the trail just a few strides in front of me. We have bobcats in these coastal mountains and I’ve been lucky enough to see them multiple times. I almost kept running toward it knowing it would disappear as soon as it saw me. Two seconds later I stopped dead in my tracks. This cat was larger than a bobcat and stealthier in its movements. The cougar crouched down facing directly at me with its ears back and eyes locked. I knew how rare it was to see one in the wild. I knew exactly what to do if I ever encountered one. In that moment though, my brain chose to remind me about the recent fatal attacks by cougars in the Pacific Northwest. Was I about to become a statistic and someone’s dinner? 

I was terrified but I made myself take off my hat and sunglasses and wave them in the air yelling at the cat  “I’m a big scary human, you should be afraid of me.”

The minutes passed excruciatingly slow. I realized the cougar was not impressed and was not going to move for me. I took one step back. The cat immediately rose from its crouched position, and I froze. I had a sinking feeling it was going to follow me if I took another step away but I had no other choice but to extract myself from the situation. I steeled myself for the inevitable fight for my life, took a deep breath and another step back.

The cougar stood up again, never breaking eye contact with me but held its ground as I slowly walked backward. Each footfall gingerly placed on the ground making sure not to disturb the still air around me. After the longest 10 steps of my life, I rounded a bend in the trail and lost site of the cat. As I ran back to my car in a completely panicked state, I prayed to any god listening that the cougar wasn’t chasing me down.

I never saw the animal again but I was forever changed.

 

 

By now, many of you have watched the viral video of what happened when an unlucky Mr. Kyle Burgess encountered a protective mother mountain lion on a canyon trail in Utah. With over 5 million views on YouTube as of this write up, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the instinctual behavior of an elusive predator.

 

The mother cougar escorts Mr. Burgess away from her cubs and even bluff charges him several times when he attempts to pick up a rock to throw at her in self-defense. She instinctively puffs out her chest, hisses and growls in a show of protective dominance. Even the way she walks confidently toward Mr. Burgess for the entire length of the video, out in the open and in constant eye contact with him, are all behaviors that say, “get away from my babies!” 

When the video started circulating online, my group chat of trail running friends started blowing up with all of the expected reactions such as: the poop emoji (that was me!), fear, shock, declarations of never wanting to run alone again, expressions of never wanting to encounter a mountain lion, ever, wondering what they would do in the same situation and everything in between. 

The good news is you will probably never have to test your mettle against a cougar. Most of us will never even see one no matter how much time we spend in nature. Mountain lions have very large territories (50-100 square miles) making them predominantly solitary creatures. They are very shy and are not known to seek out human interaction, which is why Mr. Burgess thought those cougar cubs were actually bobcats, because 99% of the time, they would have been.

 

So, what lessons can we learn from Mr. Burgess’s encounter with a cougar?

-Always keep the animal in sight and back away slowly, never run away or it will chase you down. They are much faster than you, promise.

-Make yourself look big, no crouching unless it’s to pick up a rock or a stick for protection.

-Yell. No matter what you’re saying, just keep yelling. You can ask it to please leave you alone like Mr. Burgess did. Let me know how that goes for you.

-Stay as calm as you can. Try to be proactive, not reactive. Again, if you freak out and run away, you will have a very bad day.

-Try to bring a friend with you for any remote trail runs or hikes. This is good practice in general especially when exploring remote wilderness.

-Carry some form of protection, pepper or bear spray, a rock, a pocketknife. I know some women who carry a screwdriver. Whatever makes you feel prepared to deal with a chance encounter with wildlife, carry it.

-Never forget to bring your cell phone or InReach. Hopefully, you will only need it for pictures and a map, but it is a great way to call for help in case of injury or worse.

 

Above all, if you are lucky (some might say unlucky) enough to have an encounter with a cougar and live to tell about it, cherish the experience. Full transparency, two and half years after my own encounter, I still can’t run that section of trail alone, but I can run all of the other trails alone just fine, for the most part... It is such a special and life changing experience to see a mountain lion in its natural habitat. Just like you should never watch a scary movie before bedtime; try not to watch Cougar YouTube before your next trail run.

Stay safe out there!

 

 





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