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Cougars in Canada

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Cougars attack
Does Puma concolor consider us a threat or just another meal?
By Asha Jhamandas

Cougars are one of Canada’s most dangerous predators, capable of killing prey up to six times their own weight. Considering that the most formidable of their quarry — 270-kilogram moose — are not safe, where does that leave us?

Records show that cougar attacks on humans are definitely on the rise. There have been 110 documented attacks in North America since 1890, yet almost half of those occurred after 1990. Many of the attacks before 1990 occurred on Vancouver Island, possibly because some prey species that cougars usually hunt, such as porcupines, Virginia opossums, cottontail rabbits and badgers, are now absent.


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Due to these statistics, one might glumly conclude that cougars have taken a liking to us and that we are the new preferred prey. But according to Linda Sweanor, a cougar biologist at the University of California at Davis, the increased attacks are not necessarily because cougars consider us prey, but are rather due to a burgeoning human population and changes in cougar management.

"After the 1970s, cougar populations were given the chance to rebound, as most western states and Canadian provinces had begun to either manage cougars through hunting seasons or give them full protection," says Sweanor. "The human population in the West also grew by enormous amounts, so the opportunities for cougar-human encounters have increased."

Despite more and more people encroaching on their habitat, human avoidance is the natural instinct of the cougar. Yet they have been known to follow human footprints in the snow, and watch humans working or playing outside from a high perch, sometimes for hours. At times like these, they are motivated by the most feline of instincts — harmless curiosity.

Young, hungry cougars are the wild cards. In the greatest percentage of cases where cougars have attacked people, the cougar was underweight and less than two years of age. "Such inexperienced cougars may be more willing to take risks," says Sweanor." But it is possible that over the past 100 years, we have actually selected for cougars that are more likely to avoid people, since we usually attempt to kill any puma that has attacked or shown threatening behaviour toward a human."

When cougars attack humans, their motive remains a mystery, as humans usually track them down and kill them before they have time to feed or cache. But children are the most vulnerable, perhaps because of their resemblance to cougar prey. "Children are smaller, closer to the size and shape of more natural cougar prey," says Sweanor. "They may more easily attract the attention of a cougar because of their rapid movements and high-pitched voices."

All in all, cougar attacks remain exceedingly rare events. But in the case of a cougar encounter, one of the worst decisions is to run. Fleeing will trigger their instinct to chase and attack. Pick up all small children and face the cougar and look as large as possible. Open your coat if you are wearing one, and make lots of noise. As scared as you might be, the best thing to do is fight back!

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