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Vacationing in Cougar County Requires Caution  at Cabela's

Vacationing in Cougar County Requires Caution

Author: Frank Ross

The headlines of newspapers from Arizona to British Columbia are all too often emblazoned with frightening accounts of cougars coming into contact with people, and -if only for the moment- emerging victorious.

A snarling cougar can send chills down your spine.
The headlines of newspapers from Arizona to British Columbia are all too often emblazoned with frightening accounts of cougars coming into contact with people, and -if only for the moment- emerging victorious.

The headlines of newspapers from Arizona to British Columbia are all too often emblazoned with frightening accounts of cougars coming into contact with people, and -if only for the moment- emerging victorious.

Among those stories are accounts such as:

A cougar triggers the electric door of an urban hospital and walks boldly inside, seemingly fearless of numerous people scurrying about.

A cougar enters a school playground, and stalks children before it is frightened away.

A cougar kills a boy on a popular Colorado national park trail, in the second attack on hikers in a week.

Most of the reports are woven together with a common thread of surprise, lone victims, and disbelief. Suddenly, and without warning, a cougar pounces from its silent position and attacks a human - most often a child. It's not supposed to be happening in "Disneyesque" America, where many voters have been living vicariously in cartoon land. In this fantasyland, the owl helps little mice to defeat their foes and lions cavort playfully with characters that are -in real life- their dinner.

When the prudent and professional management of game, especially a lethal species, is diverted to a public vote that is subject to illogical emotion, the consequences are severe. It has been said that a waterfront anti-developer is someone that already owns beachfront property, and the same is holding true for cougar defenders. The majority of people that voted for the ban on hunting cougars live in major metropolitan areas. These city dwellers are almost all opposed to shooting a cougar, until one shows up in their own back yard - and is found eating their dog. While hunting in California was banned to protect the cats, problem cats are being killed at over twice the annual rate of cats previously harvested by hunters.

According to educated sources, the increase in incidents is being exacerbated by the rapid intrusion of people who want to live in the mountains and an exploding cat population. In a public referendum, California voters voted to cease legal hunting activities for cougars. In that time the cougar population has increased a reported 400%.

A cougar can leap 25 feet in one bound.
Since 1890, only 23 fatal attacks have been documented nationally, but five of those have occurred since 1994. While the increasing occurrences of these incidents may be cause for concern, it shouldn't be cause for staying home. Good, commonsense judgement when hiking or camping in cougar country is mandatory.

Most public lands in the west are inhabited by cougars. If you are planning a trip in the west, here are some facts that you need to consider. Known also as mountain lions, puma, and catamount; the cougar is shrouded in myth and superstition that further complicate the issues.

In the scientific community, the cougar is known as Felis concolor, or "cat of a single color." In American folklore it is known as the "ghost of the wilderness." Adult female cougars may weigh from 75 to 130 pounds, but males can be as large as 230 pounds. They vary in length from six to eight feet, including their thick, expressive, dark-tipped tail, which comprises one third of its entire length. An adult cat can spring forward 25 feet in one leap, and up onto a limb 15 feet high.

The following description will assist in identification; however, should you come within striking distance of one, you won't have any difficulty in knowing what you're up against. The cougar's coat is a tawny color, shading into gray in the northern reaches of its range. Its muzzle and chest are white, with dark triangular marking on each side of its powerful mouth. They are primarily nocturnal creatures, but the number of daylight sightings has increased in the last five years.

Based on the fact that these animals live about 15 years and will breed at 18 to 24 months with litters born at two to three-year intervals thereafter, the cougar population has the potential to expand exponentially.

A stalking cougar.
A litter of two to four cubs is born, after a 92-day gestation period, with blue eyes and a spotted coat. Their eyes remain closed for 8 to 9 days. The spots fade away gradually disappearing completely by the age of two years. Cubs remain with their mother for at least one, and sometimes up to two years, while they learn to hunt and fend for themselves. Other than this period of maternal companionship, the cougar is a loner, coming together only to mate. Cougars are very territorial, and the male is especially so. They patrol their chosen area of domination covering 125 to 175 square miles and mark its boundaries with "scrapes" consisting of a mound of dirt and forest litter, urine, and dung. These scrapes serve as sentinels to warn away other male cougars. Females are tolerated within a male's territory, but violating males are in for a fight.

While cougars will eat just about anything from mice and game birds to elk, their preferred prey is the whitetail and mule deer. Knowing the speed of the deer, one might surmise that running from a cougar would not be a good plan. That would be a good assumption. Avoiding an unpleasant encounter with a cougar is a matter of using your head and not your legs. While a sighting is unlikely, let alone an attack, by taking the following precautions and actions, you can reduce the chances of a negative experience even further.

This may seem like a foolish statement, but the number of instances of people being injured after approaching wild game like they were pets is becoming commonplace. Never approach a cougar, especially if it is feeding or with cubs. One of a cougar's most distinguishable characteristics is that of unpredictably. The number one thing you want to do when encountering a cougar is give it a way out. A cat that feels cornered will most likely react violently.

Hike in groups and keep children at your side. Never let them hike ahead or straggle behind the group. If you encounter a cougar, pick your children up immediately.

Jogging in the forest is not a wise workout. People running or moving rapidly may be at high risk. Walking is the preferred mode of transport, and carrying a walking stick will give you a useful weapon in the event of an encounter.

Face Off
The first thing you need to do, when encountering a cougar, is stop in your tracks. Pick up small children, and if you are kneeling or stooping over, stand up straight and spread your arms to appear as big as possible. If you have a jacket on, spread it with your arms.

Maintain eye contact and attempt to back away slowly. While making a measured retreat, be especially sure of your steps. Tripping and falling in an invitation that you don't want to issue.

Be assertive and aggressive, if the cougar acts aggressively. If the cat approaches, wave your arms, shout and throw anything you can get your hands on. If attacked, fight back aggressively. Unlike bear attacks, there are no known incidences of victims surviving by feigning death.

With all of this said, you might be considering a vacation at the beach, but the odds of being attacked by a cougar are scant at best. Nevertheless, knowing what to do is just good judgement. Each year, millions of visitors pass through our western national parks unscathed.

Even with the increased number of cats, and the number of bizarre sightings that have been reported in media, seeing one is still an unlikely occurrence, and should be considered a once in a lifetime bonus. If you should receive this "gift," be sure to notify park officials as soon as possible. Tracking and maintaining information about the location of cougars and their activities is imperative for the safety of others as well as the scientific community.

Author Frank Ross
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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