Cougars in Canada
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.
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!