Crossing Puma's Path

Chance encounter gives one reason to shudder, think

By Gary Gerhardt, Rocky Mountain News

Three of us were fishing in the West Elks northwest of Gunnison one summer and pitched camp up in the trees away from the stream. After supper, we bunked in a six-man tent – plenty of room and all the amenities of home.

As we lay in our bags talking before snuffing the Coleman lantern and sacking out, the breeze hushed, and in that moment, a puma screamed close enough that it took an hour to pry my fingers off the top of the tent.

Well, maybe not an hour, but I don’t even remember unzipping that bag and heading for the ax near the front tent flap.

The guys with me were stunned for a moment, then burst out laughing as we looked around at one another: big, tough campers frightened out of our wits by the sound of a cat.

Some say a puma sounds like a woman screaming. No way. It has too much gravel in its throat and force in its chest. Hear one, you don’t forget.

The next time I saw a puma up close was in a tree in Golden.

It was a couple of blocks west of Washington Avenue, around Third or Fourth street, before all the houses and roads were built west of there.

The puma, sort of trapped because of all the people standing around, was making those nasty curled-lip growls that showed it was mega irritated.

District wildlife manager Warren Cummings showed up as police cordoned off the area.

The puma was about 30 feet up, and as Cummings prepared a tranquilizer dart, I noticed a small, gray house cat sneaking up beside the yard fence, prowling toward the tree with the lion in it.

The lion was looking down at it with a “Hey kid, you suffering from delusions of grandeur?” look on its face.

A truck with a lift bucket was pulled up, and Cummings was hoisted about eye level with the big cat and zapped it with the dart.

The lion screamed like a banshee, looking back at the dart sticking in its hip, then in a couple of minutes its muscles synapsed and it couldn’t hold on. It slipped and crashed down the tree, hit the ground, then jumped up and took off like a shot, long tawny tail up stiff behind it.

We watched as it made a quick right-hand turn at the corner and disappear from view. But we didn’t lose track because we could hear shouts and screams of unsuspecting residents all the way up that block as it ran straight up the middle of the street.

It made it a couple of hundred yards into a field before the drugs kicked in and it flopped on the ground.

The wildlife officers quickly put it in a cage and took it back up into the hills, where it would be safe.

Run-ins Do Occur

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Puma attacks do happen. But in the past 115 years, there have been only 17 known human fatalities attributed to pumas in the United States and Canada, and about 100 injuries in confrontations.

Tragically, two of those were in Colorado, and a third, a young child, might have been killed, although by the time his tiny body was recovered, it was impossible to say what killed him.

Nothing said will be of comfort to a person who is the victim of an attack or a confrontation. I could point out how many dogs there are in the United States, but if one bit you, statistics wouldn’t count for much.

But your chances of getting attacked or killed by a puma are a gazillion times less than being fatally stung by a bee, hit by lightning or stepping on a rattlesnake. You are far more likely to fall off your mountain bike and conk your head than be chased and bitten by a puma. You could die of a heart attack while jogging long before a cat will chase you up a tree (a bad idea anyway, because they can climb a tree faster than you can fall out of one and they are able to execute a 30-foot, standing broad jump or an 18-foot leap straight up the face of a cliff).

Considering the hundreds of thousands of backpackers, hikers, campers, anglers, hunters, bikers, bird watchers, off-road-vehicle users and a host of people who work in the outdoors for a living, the statistics show the chances of a cat attack are very slim.

Census Undertaken

In Colorado, there are an estimated 3,200 to 3,400 adult pumas. They are very solitary animals, but females, in some cases, will keep their young with them up to 18 months. Mortality is caused by a number of factors.

Females will leave their kittens in caves or other refuges while they go hunting. Once they make a kill, they go back and bring the young one at a time to feed.

While a mother is gone, coyotes, bobcats, bears or adult male mountain lions might kill kittens if they are found.

Also, if the mother is killed by hunters or on the highway while looking for prey, kittens will starve to death.

Ken Logan, carnivore biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has begun a 10-year, $2 million study on the Uncompahgre Plateau west of Montrose to census the puma population there.

He hopes to study births, immigration and emigration, predator-prey interactions and human-lion interactions and determine if there is a correlation between a known population and other indicators, such as track counts.

By Any Other Name . . .

Puma is an Inca word for “powerful animal.” The animal also is called a number of other names, including mountain lion, cougar, catamount, panther, ghost cat and painter.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of the carnivore protection program for Sinapu, a Boulder-based conservation group, said there are 18 names for the animal in the native languages of South America and 25 in North America.

Keefover-Ring has devoted a chunk of her life to studying and protecting pumas and is something of an expert.

In a study titled “The State of Pumas in the West,” which her organization published last month, she states there are two types of terrestrial predators – “coursing predators,” such as wolves and coyotes, which run long distances on open terrain after prey, and “ambush predators,” such as pumas and other wild cats, that have a burst of speed for short distances but are far more successful in catching prey.

In fact, the kill ratio is 25 percent for coursing predators compared with 80 percent for ambush predators.

“Ambush-hunting requires cover to stalk and hide along open spaces where they can run and tackle their prey,” Keefover-Ring said.
Biologists call these areas between hiding and running places “edge zones,” and they include tree lines or rock outcroppings with open spaces beyond them. Experts contend that sufficient edge zone in a puma’s home range might be more important than density of prey.

Pumas don’t jump off boulders or from trees and land on the backs of their prey. They come up on the ground from behind, charge and leap up on the back and, with powerful jaws, break the neck of the prey by severing the spinal cord.

Then they usually drag the carcass to a secluded spot beneath a tree, feed on it and, if anything is left, cover it with leaves, dirt and whatever is available.

There was a debate a few years ago by hunters who thought predators were taking too many deer. (In such cases, the definition of a “predator” is a critter that gets to something before you have a chance to.)

But studies in Idaho and Colorado pointed to bad habitat for deer and elk as being the real culprit. It not only knocks down the prey, but that, in turn, does a job on the predators as well, because without prey, their numbers drop.

A healthy puma needs an average of one deer, elk, bighorn sheep or goat a week to survive.

They eat 8 to 12 pounds of meat at one sitting, then bury the rest and come back for it.

Deer is the favorite prey for puma, although they can survive on any protein from porcupines, hares, beavers, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes, or birds to farm animals such as goats, sheep, calves, pigs, poultry and horses.

Meat is meat. They aren’t particular, and when you leave out barbecue grills and meat products in the trash, they are happy to help themselves as well.

Puma Profile

• Scientific name: Puma concolor (formerly Felis concolor).
• Description: 130 to 220 pounds, 8 feet from nose to tip of tail, coat is sandy-brown to reddish-brown, or gray to dark brown; light beige throat, chest, stomach and inner legs; head small; dark markings around nose; short, rounded ears; longer hind legs; long tail.
• Life span: A mountain lion’s natural life span is about 12 years in the wild and up to 24 years in captivity.
• Habitat: Range from Canada to South America, mostly in mountains, forests, grasslands, swamps and semideserts. Finds shelter in thick undergrowth, rocks, caves or rock outcrops.

• Food: Hunts mostly at evening and dawn. Looks for deer, elk, porcupines, rabbits, hares, beavers, coyotes, raccoons, ground squirrels, sheep, calves, pigs, horses and poultry.
• Breeding: No set breeding season. Will give birth to litter of one to six. Kittens blind at birth, covered with fine fur and black spots. Eyes open in 10 days; weaning occurs about two months. Dependent on mother for food for 12 to 22 months.
• Range: Cats can prowl distances of 15 to 20 miles a day and can be 100 miles or more from where they previously were seen.
• Interesting facts: Good climber, excellent swimmer, excellent sight and hearing, retractable claws.

Sources: Mammals of Colorado by James Fitzgerald, Carron Meaney and David Armstrong; The Cougar Almanac by Robert Busch; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals

What to Do if You Confront a Puma

To minimize the chance of an encounter, don’t hike, bike or jog alone in lion territory and don’t plan activities during dusk or dawn.

• Maintain eye contact. Never turn away.
• Stand straight, pull your shirt or jacket up behind your head to make yourself look larger.
• Stand your ground. Never run – it immediately triggers a “cat-and-mouse” chase.
• If you have pepper spray, use it. If you can quickly get to a rock or stick without turning your back, use them while yelling at the animal.
• Don’t bend, crouch or kneel, and never turn your back.
• If attacked, strike with fists, tools, a pocketknife, rocks, sticks or anything you can, but don’t give up. Target the eye with your fingers or a weapon.
• Back away, but even if you turn a corner or can’t see the animal anymore, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t followed. Be aware.
Sources: Bryce National Park; Clint Miller, former wildlife biologist with the City of Boulder Open Space Department; California Department of Fish and Game.

gerhardtg@rockymountainnews.com or 303-892-5202

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