SoCal Hiking- Hiking Amongst the Cougars

By Sasha Pechenaya, Girls Who Hike LA Ambassador

Those that have hiked with me know my irrational fear of a mountain lion (aka cougar or puma) encounter. The only wild life that I have actually seen with my own two eyes on the trails have been rodents, deers, snakes, birds, and pesky insects, and yet, I always have mountain lion on the brain. 

Maybe it's that screeching clip of a mountain lion that sounds way too eerie and human-like (*please note, GWHLA and I do not take any responsibility for nightmares that ensue after listening to this clip*). Maybe it's the image I've created in my mind of a fellow hiking friend who had to pass a mountain lion feasting and was happy it wasn't her (I'm looking at you Kaitlyn). Maybe it's all the scary movies I watched as a child coming back with a vengeance. I'm not quite sure where this fear comes from, but I do know that when I was hiking alone on a trail that was barely open after the Burbank fires with a lovely "mountain lions are waiting for you" sign at the entrance (okay, maybe that's not exactly what it said), my pepper spray and little Swiss Army knife were not leaving my hands (thanks to Sharron, I have since added a 120 decibel sound grenade to my collection ). I have heard a lot of mixed messages of what to do with a mountain lion encounter so it finally dawned on me that I need to do my own research if I'm going to overcome this fear. 

Now I am by far no expert so please do your own research, but these are some tidbits that I have found that may be helpful to you. 

Facts about mountain lions: 

  1. The National Park Service is currently tracking 10 mountain lions (including 3 breeding males) in the Santa Monica mountains region spanning the Pacific coast, hollywood hills, and Griffith park. This does not include unknown/uncollared ones. 
  2. Since 1890, there have only been 16 verified attacks on humans in California, 6 of them fatal. The last attack was in Humboldt county in 2007. 
  3. Although deer is their main source of food, pets and livestock attacks are not uncommon. 
  4. Los Angeles is the only megacity in the world where mountain lions live side by side with humans. 
  5. The Santa Monica mountains are experiencing overcrowding with mountain lions, putting these territorial cats at risk (such a small area usually has only one male roaming it, but the mountains are blocked in by freeways). Lions often turn to incestuous relationships and then kill their mates to survive. 
  6. P22 in Griffith park and P41 in the verdugo mountains are a couple of our well photographed and tracked pumas. 
  7. Males tend to hunt in wooded areas near water and generally avoid human developments. Females tend to hunt closer to water sources in human developments since they're more likely to travel with offspring and want to protect them from males. Recently, cougars have been found closer to civilization due to the drought. Mule deer are attracted to these water sources and being that they are a mountain lion's favorite entree, they are naturally followed in suit. 
  8. Proposition 117, passed in 1990, declared mountain lions a "specially protected species," making hunting illegal in California. (Some exceptions apply. Go to https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/mammals/mountain-lion/faq#359951244-why-cant-mountain-lions-be-hunted-in-california for more information). 
  9. Mountain lions usually live in solidarity and are elusive ("ghost cats"). They prefer to be unseen and unheard, often living amongst humans. The mountain lion's instinct is to be wary of, not attack, humans. Sometimes, mountain lions carry diseases (i.e. rabies, feline leukemia) that may cause them to act strange and attack humans. 
  10. A human is far more likely to be struck by lightning in the wilderness than be attacked by a mountain lion. 

That being said, people have been struck by lightening and mountain lion attacks on humans have occurred. It is good to be prepared mentally and physically in case you find yourself face to face with our feline friends. 

Know how to prevent an encounter:

  1. Hiking in bigger groups is always recommend, especially at night/dawn/dusk when cougars are most likely to be hunting. 
  2. Make noise so they know you're present and are not startled by you (fight or flight mode). Remember to be louder by streams or fierce winds. 
  3. Prevent them from coming to you. What have we learned? Mountain lions love deer and hate to be seen. Deer-proof your landscape, remove dense vegetation around your home, and install outdoor lighting. It's not a guarantee, but they'll have less reason to pay you a visit. 
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Know what to look for:

  1. Paw prints usually have four toes with no claws since their claws are retractable. The heel of the paw resembles an "M". 
  2. Look for trees with fresh claw marks. 
  3. Turn around and go home if you see these signs. 
  4. Most adult males weigh between 110 and 180 lbs, with a few at 200 lbs. Females range from 85 to 110 lbs. Their fur is tawny red-brown or gray-brown with a thick long black tipped tail half the size of their body. Until 18 months, kittens may have black/brown spots that disappear. Cougars have a black "mustache" and long whiskers.
  5. Cougar scat may resemble that of a large dog, coyote, or bobcat depending on the size. Hair, bones, and teeth is often seen in it, but not necessarily. 
  6. Don't go looking for trouble. This may seem like common sense, but I have heard too many stories of people seeing a wild animal and trying to get closer for the perfect *bloody* photo op. Just don't do it. You have entered THEIR land so have some respect. 
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Too late. Now what? 

1. Go big or go home. Make yourself look big and powerful. Stand on your tip toes, put your hands up, and make some noise. This is where a sound grenade may come in handy.

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2. Do not run from it. Remember the game "cat and mouse"? Yeah, I don't want to be the mouse either. They can chase you anywhere. They will outrun you. Don't turn your back on the animal. Face it and back away slowly. If the mountain lion is in a corner, give it room to escape. If it becomes aggressive, do not back down, acting as prey. Prepare yourself for what you may use in case of an attack (trekking poles, etc), maintain eye contact, and aim for the eyes and face. 

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3. Do not approach a deer carcass. It may be food that a nearby mountain lion is watching. Do not get in its way. Mountain lions often take a few days to eat their prey and may try to hide it from other animals by covering it with leaves, pine needles, and other debris.

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4. Do not mess with the kittens. A mama is likely close by and will take any means to protect her young. Don't be fooled by the cuteness of the kittens!!

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So not only have I picked up some neat little "Snapple facts" I can impress my friends with, I now have a new insight into the feline world. These animals are living in a place where they are just trying to survive and thrive. They are not interested in humans and would rather be far from them, but if they feel threatened or are diseased, there is still a chance you may become their next chew toy. Does this mean I can go into the night alone and hike amongst these cougars fearlessly? Probably not. This did help me find a greater sense of peace with the wild and hopefully calm my heart rate in the future. 

Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear your feedback and experiences. 

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Sasha is the Ambassador for our Los Angeles chapter! You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Los Angeles chapter by clicking here