When we first moved to Colorado, neighbors and friends gave us the basic rules to Mountain Living.
“Never leave your trash out.”
“Have your kids and pets in between dusk and dawn.”
“Never leave food in your car.”
“Always hike with a friend or a dog. If he’s big.”
Pretty basic. Very simple.
We heard stories and warnings of local peoples encounters with the wildlife here. The bear stories are always great and kind of humorous. It was interesting to learn that even the docile deer can cause injury or even death. Elk too. The most awe inducing stories though, were that of the mountain lion.
“They pin you down by the shoulders with their front paws and then use their back paws to rip open your stomach and pull out your entrails. Basically, you are eaten alive…”
“They see you long before you see them.”
“If you hear the sound of a woman screaming…it’s them.”
The best was the tale of an incident that happened about a year before we got there. Most homes here are un-air-conditioned. We sleep with the upstairs windows open, letting in the cool mountain air and then close them in the morning to trap it all in and keep the house cool for the day. This particular tale was of a family who even left their sliding glass door open at night. One night a lion came into their home, plucked their golden retriever from the foot of their bed and took off with it. In the morning half of their beloved pet was found. Wildlife Services (WS) set up a trap saying that the lion would come back for the other half. Indeed she did.
“How did the lion know the dog was on their bed?” I asked.
“They watch you for awhile to learn your habits,” Caren’s Man explained. “They are stalkers and they watch you.”
One fall Shalah came to visit and we took a night time dip in the hot tub. It was freezing cold so we ran outside in our bikinis, ski hats on our head and a glass of wine in our hand. It was a fun time of more talking and giggling. At one point there was a quiet lull in the conversation.
“Shay, I feel like I’m being watched,” I stage whispered over the bubbles and gurgling of the tub.
“I just got that same feeling!” Shalah answered.
With out discussion, we grabbed our things and ran back inside. No way were we going to sit out there in a big boiling pot of Michal and Shalah stew!
The morning of the last day of school, Caren called.
“Were your dogs going nuts last night?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. My Poor Man was up and down bringing them in because they were making so much noise outside and then putting them out because they were making such a fuss inside!”
“Well…I have some bad news. Rascal is gone. Just gone. Not a trace to be found.”
Rascal is one of Caren’s dogs. She adopted Rascal and Rosemary about two years ago.
“What do you mean? Did he dig out again?”
“Nope. My Man checked the yard and there is no sign of digging. We believe a lion got him.”
“Yes. We were laying in bed last night when we heard a scream. At first we thought it was our youngest daughter screaming but then we heard Rosemary and she was yowling loudly over and over. When my man went to check on her she wouldn’t even leave the back patio. She was terrified and there is no sign of Rascal anywhere. Rosie won’t even go out to go potty. I had to take her to the front yard on the leash. When I tried to walk her up into the back yard she got very scared and was crying. It was a lion.”
It made sense. Only a lion could leap over the fence and into their yard with out disturbing anything else and then leap back over with a dog in it’s jaws. Caren called Wildlife Services.
“How do you know it wasn’t a bear?” they asked.
“Because there is no trace,” she answered.
A bear is not so stealthy like a cat. A bear is bumbling oaf. I’ve seen a bear jump about 4 feet up into a tree. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s higher than most humans could jump. I can’t even imagine, however, a bear jumping OVER a fence. Just do that now: Picture an animal that’s as wide as it is tall and that ways about 200 lbs, jumping over a fence. I think a bear would climb a fence before jumping it. That would leave some claw marks somewhere too. On top of that, very improbable scenario, Caren had put her trash out that night for waste services to get in the morning. A bear is going for the trash before it goes for a pet. They just don’t want to work that hard.
Wildlife Services said, without an actual sighting there wasn’t much they could do.
“My concern is that this is the last day of school. With summer here, our kids will be outside playing a lot. Can’t someone come out and search for Rascals remains? Look for tracks?”
“It’s just part of Mountain Living,” they told her.
They also said that all the lions are tagged and they know where they all are. Pfft. I call BS on that. They are breeding all the time and there is no defined breeding “Season” for cats.
Every year Caren has an End Of School Year Bash at her home. That afternoon, while the kids ran around in her yard in a water gun war, the moms sat on the deck sipping cocktails and nibbling on celery and chips. Rosemary, not usually one for socializing, stayed on the patio with the ladies. Caren explained Rosie’s new found neediness and then the stories flowed.
“There was a family that was hiking. Their little one was trailing behind them. They turned to check on him and he was just gone with out a sound or a trace. Later Wildlife Services found bits of his clothes in lion scat.”
We all looked up the hill towards our children, happily and naively playing on the hill. There was concern that the lion would come back that night. As dusk approached we moved the party inside. When we left that night, it was as a group. My family walked the other families to their cars and we walked two doors down, My Man keeping the kids between he and I.
Would the lion come back that night? Maybe 2 days later? Maybe a week later? My Man saw a lion cross the highway right in front of his car just a few days before Rascal’s demise. Was it the same lion? How big is their territory? The incident made us realize we had very little information on the habits of the Mountain Lion. Wildlife Services told Caren they would send out a packet.
I’ve read the packets and here is what I’ve learned:
Lion’s do not eat their prey alive. They are killed in an instant by snapping it’s neck. They then take their kill a short distance away, covering it with dirt and leaves, returning to feed on it for several days.
This would explain why our dogs were upset nearly every evening for about a week. Our dogs often are alerted to something and bark at night because the mountain is teeming with wildlife but that past week was a little different. There was crying and growling mixed into the barking. It was something other than our usual fox, skunk, or deer. Likely, it was the return of the lion to feed on poor Rascals remains but he was not returning for another kill.
The amount and frequency which they kill prey does vary depending on age, sex, condition, the season and availability of prey but most lions will kill once a week or even as infrequent as once every two weeks. It will not go very far from it’s kill. It’ll go somewhere near to rest until hungry again and then will come back to consume the rest. A typical meal is about 20-30 lbs. of meat.
My Man has seen a cougar twice since we’ve lived here. Both times he claims the lion to be 7 to 8 feet long. I’ve always found this to be a bit of an exaggeration. I was even with him at one of those sightings and was not convinced that she was 7 ft. long, but I’ve learned that on average, a male lion can grow to be 8 feet long (including tail) and weigh from 130 – 200 pounds. Females grow to 7 feet and weigh anywhere from 80 – 150 pounds. So My Man was right!
Caren’s Man was also right in that they are stalkers. Mountain Lions will stalk within 50 feet of prey before rushing and leaping on it. They have small lungs and can’t last in a long chase, hence the need to stalk and move in close for the surprise attack.
Their territories are marked by scrapes and scratches. Sometimes, a lion will urinate or defecate on top of the scrapes for a more visual or stinky evidence of their territorial boundaries. Their boundaries can range from 25-40 square miles. Female lions have a smaller territory of 15-30 square miles and can overlap and be shared a but with other females. So chances are the lion that got Rascal is the same lion My Man saw on the highway and the same one that Melissa heard screaming while she was watching TV last week and quite possibly, the same one I just saw dead on the highway this a.m. Hit by a car. Poor thing.
Yes, “poor thing.” Though she committed a dastardly deed, she was just being a lion and we are in HER territory, not the other way around. The facts are that (according to this article written in ’98) there have been only 13 fatal encounters by humans with cougars in the last 100 years! To put that in perspective, more people are attacked and injured by GOATS than by lions. About 300 people have been killed by bee stings and more than 1000 have died in hunting related accidents for EACH fatality from cougars. They are there though, and due to hunting laws set in place to protect them, there are more than there once was. There are also more humans moving out to where the lion lives.
So how do we co-mingle with the lion? You educate yourself on the animal and you learn what to do to protect yourself:
DO NOT FEED WILDLIFE: If you feed the deer, foxes, etc. in your yard, you are inviting mountain lions. Where there is prey, there is the lion.
DUSK AND DAWN: Make sure children and pets are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn. Also, do not run, hike or ride bikes between dusk and dawn. It’s a good idea to escort your children to the bus stop in the morning and to make sure the bus stop is clear of shrubbery.
KEEP PETS SAFE: Wandering pets are easy targets. If they are kept outside, it is advised to keep them in an enclosed kennel with a top on it. Feed pets inside or bring their food dishes in as soon as their done eating as pet food can attract the smaller wildlife that lions prey on.
Caren’s dogs sleep in their own room in the house that has a dog door out into the yard. They had apparently unlocked the dog door and got out that sad night.
REDUCE HIDING PLACES: Near your home, walkways, entrances and around children’s play areas, remove bushes and dense vegetation that the lions can hide in/behind. Basically, don’t make it easy for them to stalk you and your family. Install flood lights and motion detectors.
DO NOT HIKE OR CAMP ALONE: Go in groups. The size and noise of groups seem to deter lions. (I won’t be telling Bug to be quiet on a hike anymore.) It’s also good because in case of an attack, a lion can be fought off by the other hikers. There are many instances where that has worked. Also, when hiking with children, keep them in the middle. No one too far ahead and no stragglers!
DO NOT RUN: Running stimulates a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. If you have kids with you, pick them up if possible so they don’t try to run themselves. It’s a good idea to talk about mountain lion safety with kids before starting out on a hike or camping adventure with them.
THINK TWICE ABOUT BRINGING PETS: If you bring a dog into lion country you must be especially careful about attracting cougars. Keep them on leash, as often dogs have returned to camp with a lion chasing them.
DO NOT APPROACH A LION: Duh. Most lions will try to avoid confrontation so give them a way to escape. Always leave baby wildlife alone.
DO NOT CROUCH DOWN: Research has shown that a human standing up is just not the right shape for a cat’s prey. However, a person squatting, crouching or bending over can look like a four-legged prey animal. If you’ve got to tie your shoe maybe prop your leg up on a tree or rock so you can stay upright.
DO ALL YOU CAN TO APPEAR LARGER: Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one. Keep your group together to appear as one large shape. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud, low voice.
FIGHT BACK IF ATTACKED: Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach with out crouching or turning your back. People have fought back successfully with rocks, sticks, tools, jackets, and their bare hands. Since lions usually try to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. It is not recommended that you play dead.
I have heard a story of a cyclist who was pulled off her bike by a cougar and the other friend she was riding with used her bike to beat off the lion. A recent story from Canada was that a guy beat off a lion that was attacking him, by using his skateboard. This is also a good reason to hike with a walking stick or to just grab a fist sized rock at the start of your hike to have handy. Just in case. Pepper spray has also been proven to ward off an attack.
KEEP EACH OTHER INFORMED: Tell your neighbors if there has been a sighting or tracks in your area so that we can all be on alert. Our neighborhood has chalkboards that residence will sometimes post bear or lion sightings on.
Fear had nearly made the mountain lion extinct. Extermination was the theory for our best protection against them. That was eventually stopped and now the mountain lion population has increased. I’ve been told that it is illegal to hunt cougars but that is in fact false. There is a limit to how many can be hunted a year though, so hunters must first call and see what the hunt count is for the year. If a lion poses a SERIOUS threat to human life of livestock (which to me means that it’s on my property), a person has the right to kill that lion. A lion taken under these circumstances is property of the state. Not a trophy. The incident must be reported within 48 hours and the lion must be turned over to the Division of Wildlife within 5 days. If you decide to shoot a lion under these circumstances, be sure of your shot. A wounded lion may be a greater problem to the neighborhood. You will also be expected to pursue and kill any animal you wound.
It is widely believed that they only hunt at night. Dusk and dawn do seem to be their prime time for dining, though they will hunt during the day. I’ve also heard that when hiking you should look up to the tops of boulders and into the trees because that’s where they come from. Yes but no. They will pounce down on you from a high post but they often stalk at your level too, hiding behind shrubbery and rocks.
Look and know how to identify lion tracks. Tracks are 2-3 inches in width on the front foot and 1.75-2 inches in width on the hind foot.
There are three distinct lobes and two indentations at the posterior margin of the heel pad. Also the toes are tear drop shaped and narrowly spaced, unlike the more rounded toes of a dog. Lions travel in straight lines, where as dogs travel without any definite direction and their line of travel will sway back and forth.
Lion scat is much like a house cats but bigger and may have bone and hair present. They will also try to cover their poo like cats. Dung heaps are often found near their kill.
Predators are a necessary component to the ecosystem and the balance of our environment. Eradicating a species is an old-fashioned notion. This blog is not meant to induce fear of the lion but to educate so that we can protect ourselves and the mountain lion. Following the rules and knowing what to look for are key to our living safely in Mountain Lion Country.
My kids do not know that our friends Fur Baby was taken by a lion. They do know that there is a lion in the area and have read the articles I read and have been reminded of what to do if they see one. They also know that encounters with mountain lions are rare. They are most certainly there but in the 14 years that Caren has lived here she has never once seen a lion. Granted, Man has seen two in three years. Caren’s daughter saw one at the mailboxes when she was being carpooled home from volleyball. I guess those of us who have spotted them are lucky but considering how often we see elk, foxes or even the bear, the mountain lion is not often seen or encountered.
My dogs are staying in at night, no matter how loudly they bark to go out. Especially when Drake’s muscular body is flexed at a window and growling….yeah…I think it’s best that we all stay inside.