Did you hear about the mountain lion who ate the biker? Or the one found outside a preschool in Santa Monica salivating over tots? How about the one that crossed the ten lane Hollywood freeway or the one that stalked the dog walker that one night?
These are the sorts of questions my mother likes to bring up as I walk out her door on holiday evenings to walk the dog in her suburban neighborhood butted up against the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s worried her genetic investment might be eaten, and now, as I walk up the road at 9 PM with only a tail wagging labradoodle named Kali as a guard dog, I wonder: should I be too?
I’m a far cry from Bear Grylls, but I’ve dabbled in New England woods where bears likely roam and swam in California waters known to house large sharks. Though I take the proper precautions—hanging food away from my campsite and steering clear of sea lion rookeries—I don’t usually spend my outdoor time fixated on the fact that I could get eaten.
So why, as I walk the dog down a Los Angeles street at the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, am I looking over my shoulder like Goldilocks looking for the big bad wolf?
To begin, these big cats have more aliases than Snoop Dog: Puma concolor, panther, cougar, brown tiger, painter, catamount, mountain screamer, and mountain lion. In North America, we mostly know them as mountain dwellers, but cougars naturally roamed flatlands as well. The highlands are merely the “last refuge from settlers’ guns, traps, poisons, as well as government sponsored programs aimed at eradicating predators,” Douglas Chadwick’s article points out.
While they used to span all the lower 48, their numbers plummeted by the early 20th century, and are now rising again due to greater protective measures in the last 40 years. Currently, they span much of the western states with isolated sightings in the Great Plains, Midwest, and New England. There is even a subspecies in Florida which inhabits marshes.
Average adult male territory is 200 miles, but with little habitat left young males often make quite the pilgrimage looking for new territory. One was killed in 2011 by an SUV on a Connecticut highway. Genetic testing showed this young bugger had wandered roughly 2,000 miles from South Dakota, “setting the continent’s distance record for a journey by four-legged wildlife,” said the article.
So how worried should Kali and I be about these enigmatic felines? In California, perhaps not too much. Though the state has the most cougars, it curiously has one of the lowest rates of cougar-human conflicts. Counter-intuitively, the reason may be because California has not allowed hunting since 1972.
When hunter’s hunt, they usually want the big prize: the adult males. Adult males occupy prime territory forcing the youngins to seek shelter elsewhere. This sets an upper cap on the population for a given area, the article said pointing to a Washington State University study. When the head honchos are hunted down, “footloose young males,” come together in the now vacant territory. “Fierce competition pushes more of them to the fringes of the space, often closer to human habitation. Meanwhile, females may roam more widely to avoid the influx of unfamiliar males, which sometimes kill small kittens,” wrote Chadwick.
Since 1890, cougars have attacked humans about 145 times in the U.S. and Canada, about 20 of which were fatal.
The Santa Monica Mountains, next to which Kali and I embark on our evening strolls, can actually only support ten to fifteen cougars due to their range. Given their stealthy nature, it sounds unlikely I’ll see one. But as I peer up into the foothills as Kali does her business, I can’t help but ponder my potential escape plan. Run or freeze?