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Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Nov 17, 2013

DianneErskineHellrigelWhatever you choose to call a cougar – a mountain lion, puma, panther, mountain cat or a catamount – it is no secret they live among us here in Santa Clarita.

It is not probable you will ever see a cougar. If you do, you are very lucky. A grown male needs approximately 100 square miles to support his deer habit. A female needs approximately 50 square miles.

There is a female I’ve seen many times in Towsley Canyon. She is affectionately known as Elsa.

Elsa is normally good humored and fairly habituated to humans; however, she growled at me once when she had a kitten with her. I slowly backed away – backing around the corner from which I had just emerged – and when I peeked back around the corner a few minutes later, she and the kitten were gone.

Cougar7188There is a male that has East Canyon to Simi Valley as part of his territory, and another male that frequents the ridges above Placerita Canyon and over toward Action. I have seen these animals only a few times. Since I’ve been hiking in groups, I have not seen any cougars. They don’t like lots of company.

Occasionally someone will see one while hiking, or near a housing tract, but it is rare for a person and a cougar to be in the same place at the same time. When the two happen to meet, the sightings are often exaggerated and tend to favor humans and livestock over the cat.

We’ve all read articles about large bands of these cats attacking horses and cattle. And how, when facing an imminent attack, the brave human was able to swiftly outrun the cat.

Frankly, all this is hogwash.

Cougars are solitary animals. There are a few exceptions, but in general, they are nocturnal and solitary. They are highly adaptable and can be found in almost all habitats, but their preference is a brushy area, like our local Southern California chaparral, high rock outcroppings for seeing out over the grassy areas where ungulates might be grazing, and close to a riparian area where they can easily find water.

There must also be plentiful prey. The cougars will follow their prey from one area to the next to survive, which is why they need such large territories. If you see deer on your hike, there’s probably a cougar snoozing nearby. A cougar will generally kill and eat a deer every three to four days.

Cougar7203While their primary sustenance of choice is deer, other typical food sources include all ungulates – which, in addition to deer, include elk, moose, bighorn sheep, cattle and domestic sheep. They will also hunt smaller species if the opportunity presents itself. They’ve even been known even to eat mice and insects. Who doesn’t like a nice appetizer now and then?

Most of the attacks on humans have resulted from young, inexperienced hunters or old, sickly cats.

What should you do if you meet a cougar on the trail? Do not run. Runners, bicyclists and solitary hikers are more apt to attract a cougar. Fast-moving objects (you) will kick in their prey instinct, and they might attack even if they are not hungry.

Do not bend over to make yourself look small. You want to make yourself as big as possible. If you have a child with you, put the child on your shoulders. A cat will attack the shortest person in a group. Wave sticks, throw rocks, make noise … all of these actions will deter a mountain lion. They prefer peace and quiet. A human who stands still, makes noise and waves things around is not a perfect choice for a meal.

If a mama cougar has a kitten with her, slowly back away while facing her – and be prepared to make noise and wave your sticks around if she starts to approach. Generally, when you are at a safe distance, she will disappear. Cougars do not like confrontation, and they are shy around people.

Attacks on humans are rare, but there have been more in recent years due to a loss of habitat, fires, and stupid human behavior such as leaving bowls of dog food – and even Fluffy – outside at night.

If you happen to be attacked, you have a short time in which to react. Use your hands to find the face; feel around for the eyes. When you find them, stick your finger in the eye as swiftly and as hard as you can. This will cause the cougar to release his grip, and that will give you the chance to get away.

This is a proven method. A ranger in Colorado was attacked; when the ranger poked the eye out, the cougar released and stood there shaking his head, then walked away. The ranger replied later that he saw the one-eyed cougar for a couple of years – but never again did it venture into man’s territory.

Other hints to keep yourself and your loved ones safe include: Don’t hike alone. Don’t let children run ahead of you on a hike or lag behind. Be aware of your surroundings.

Carry a stick, a golf club, hiking poles, or a baseball bat. Don’t lure a mountain lion onto your property by leaving food, water or Fluffy outside. Hike in a group, and talk or make noise while you hike. Use a bear bell on your pack if you’re alone. Don’t let your dog off its leash while you’re hiking because the dog could attract a cougar. Consider carrying a personal locator device in case you need help. Cell phones often do not work in open spaces.

Genetically, cougars are more closely related to the house cat than African lions. They are also the second largest wild cat in the Americas, just behind the jaguar.

I like to think of cougars as overgrown house cats. Having trained and lived with a bobcat for 16 years, I see many of the same traits when I come face-to-face with a cougar.

Remember, you are the Alpha male (or female) when you see a cat. If you act like you’re in control, don’t run, make noise, throw rocks and wave your hiking sticks around, you will most probably not only survive the encounter, but even find yourself bragging about it down the line.

To see a cougar is close to a miracle. It’s an amazing experience you will never forget.


Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy.




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1 Comment

  1. Evelyne Vandersande says:

    Welcome to SCVNews Dianne and congratulation.
    It is good to see you there.

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