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Lessons Learned From a Mountain Lion Encounter

We had planned to spend the day hiking up to Shuteye Pass, off of the Mammoth Pool Road. We were hiking in Nature’s backyard and my 70 pound Weimaraner named Sally met a 130 pound Mountain lion up close and personal. She is a very lucky dog and this is her story, along with lessons to be learned.

Where: Sierra National Forest
Distance: 8.05 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Range: 5,050′ – 7,360′
Date: February 17, 2015
Maps: Little Shuteye Topographic Quad, Sierra National Forest Map

As we headed up the trail at about 9 am, Sally was in front, then myself, Rick and Gail. We were traveling up the trail, which was littered with slash, making quite a bit of noise, talking and stomping through the slash. We had gone a little over a mile when I saw a quick flash of something light colored move next to the trail, then I heard Sally screaming. Since Sally was only about 20 to 30 feet or so in front of me, I moved quickly to see what was going on. My first thought was that it was a coyote but I was very wrong. In a low area on the trail between slash, a large Mountain lion was locked on Sally.

The mountain lion’s mouth had Sally’s head in it and its claws were locked on Sally’s body. I was yelling and yelling to try and have the cat let go, but it wasn’t paying any attention to me. The cat’s ears were laid back and with its teeth locked on Sally’s head, it gave me a look that I will never forget. The cat was trying to employ their characteristic neck bite, attempting to position its teeth between the vertebrae and into the spinal cord. I slowly backed away, fearful that Sally was history and there was nothing I could do.

To my surprise, Rick ran up and started hitting the cat in the head with his hiking pole but the cat wasn’t going to let go. Finally, all of that hitting somehow convinced the cat to release the dog and the cat quickly fled up a nearby tree. It should be noted that Rick wasn’t in a position to turn his back on the cat so he took an aggressive posture to ensure the cat didn’t elect to drop the dog and go after him. All of this transpired in seconds so options were limited.

I called Sally and she came to me and we backed away, heading back down the trail. Sally was able to walk down to the car. She wasn’t bleeding a lot but had numerous puncture wounds and tears on her. Sally jumped in the car and into her crate. We headed down the hill and discussed our game plan to figure out which Vet we would go to. Since we were out of cell range, Gail was able to get texts through to her daughter and Rick was watching the bars on his phone as I drove down. We learned that Sally’s regular veterinarian’s office was closed and another local veterinarian was in surgery. They recommended that we take Sally to Fresno Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital on Blackstone Avenue, so that is where we headed. Sally was a good passenger and slept on the way down.

Oh, and in case you don’t believe this story about Rick beating the cat with his hiking pole, here is what his hiking pole looked like after.

Lessons Learned 2Here are some pictures of Sally and some of her wounds as soon as she was loaded into the car.

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We arrived at Fresno Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center a little before 1 pm and since Sally had become a little bit shocky, they wheeled out a cart for her to ride in on. She looked like she was surfing, standing on that cart on her ride in. We weren’t there too long before Dr. Lazarcheff met with us to hear the background on Sally and laid out a game plan for Sally. He thought the wounds probably weren’t real serious but wanted to take head and chest X-Rays to make sure there wasn’t some unseen damage. Sally was anesthetized, treated for major bite wounds, given a rabies shot booster even though she was up on her shots, sewn and sutured up. Antibiotics were also administered.

The most severe wound was the one on her head, where the cat’s teeth had partially torn the muscle on her scalp away. They sutured that back up and placed a drain in it. Many of what look like small puncture wounds actually went much farther. I learned that the claws go in and sink far deeper into the flesh than I imagined, causing multiple tears under the skin that I couldn’t see. I haven’t counted up all of the areas that were sewn up but it was about 10 or so. I was able to take Sally home at about 6:30 pm, but she was very dopey.

As I write this the morning after, Sally is doing great. I am giving her antibiotics, pain medications and an anti-inflamatory. Sally is a very lucky dog. I reported the incident to the United States Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Sheriff’s Office.

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My hiking buddies and I think there are lessons to be learned from this experience but wanted to be careful in how we shared the information. We didn’t want to create a panic. Mountain lions are our neighbors and we were in this mountain lion’s backyard. This cat was doing what mountain lions normally do when they shop for groceries. When I share the hiking blogs, I don’t discuss the dangers out there in detail but they are out there. There a myriad of things that can happen. There are critters that can cause harm, trees and rocks that can fall on you, or you can just fall down all by yourself. Those are things that you can prepare for but how do you prepare for a mountain lion encounter? Are there things that we could have done differently?

What did we do right and what could we have done better?

Good stuff:

• We had shared our itinerary for our hike with a person outside of the group before we hiked. They knew where we were going and what time we should return.
• We had cell phones with us on the hike. Although coverage is spotty in this area, many times you can get to a high point and get a call out or a text may get through.
• We were traveling in a group making noise. Hikers should avoid solitary backcountry travel in areas known for mountain lion activity. Aggressive encounters are extremely rare, though not unheard of, when groups of adults are present. Make noise during times of prime mountain lion activity: dawn and dusk. Mountain lions will usually attempt to leave an area when humans are present.
• Once the mountain lion attacked, we did not run. We yelled, made ourselves big. If you are confronted by a mountain lion, stay calm and talk firmly to it, and do everything possible to appear larger, such as opening a jacket with arms outstretched.
• Rick whacked that hiking pole on the cat. If attacked, they recommend that you fight back with your fist, walking stick, camera, or whatever object is available. People have successfully driven lions away using their bare hands. Always remain standing.
• As we exited the area where the mountain lion attacked, we backed away slowly, keeping together. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack.
• We drove straight into Fresno Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center where they were well prepared to handle a potentially complex situation such as this.

Needs Improvement:

• Sally was not on leash, ahead of us. Honestly sometimes Sally roams much farther out but on this hike she was close in. I should have kept her on leash or not brought her on this hike. Roaming pets are easy targets for lions, and may act like bait in drawing the attention of a mountain lion.

I think it is also helpful to understand some information about mountain lions. More than half of California is Mountain lion habitat. Mountain lions generally exist wherever deer are found. They are solitary, rarely seen, and their nature is to avoid humans.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars, prefer deer but, but sometimes they turn to eating pets and livestock. Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for National Wildlife Federation told me that “when deer are scarce, however, cougars are opportunistic killers, especially since they can’t nibble on berries or acorns. Unlike coyotes or bears, a mountain lion is a true carnivore and rarely, if ever, consumes vegetation, as its digestive system rejects it.”In extremely rare cases, even people have fallen prey to mountain lions. Mountain lions that pose an immediate harm are killed. Those that prey on pets or livestock can be killed by a property owner after the required depredation permit is secured. Moving problem mountain lions is not an option. It causes deadly conflicts with other mountain lions already there. Or the relocated mountain lion returns.

As people move and live into the wildland, mountain lion ranges increasingly overlap with areas inhabited by humans. Attacks on humans are very rare and they do not generally recognize humans as prey.Beth also shared that in California, mountain lions have attacked only sixteen people and killed just six since 1890. These statistics don’t diminish the tragedy when a person is killed or injured by a lion, but it puts the risk in perspective. Attacks on people, livestock, and pets may occur when a mountain lion habituates to humans or is in a condition of severe starvation. Attacks are most frequent during late spring and summer, when juvenile mountain lions leave their mothers and search for new territory

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has posted the following information on their website that can help prevent deadly conflicts with these beautiful wild animals.

Living in Mountain Lion Country

• Don’t feed deer; it is illegal in California and it will attract mountain lions.
• Deer-proof your landscaping by avoiding plants that deer like to eat. For tips, request A Gardener’s Guide to Preventing Deer Damage from DFG offices.
• Trim brush to reduce hiding places for mountain lions.
• Don’t leave small children or pets outside unattended.
• Install motion-sensitive lighting around the house.
• Provide sturdy, covered shelters for sheep, goats, and other vulnerable animals.
• Don’t allow pets outside when mountain lions are most active—dawn, dusk, and at night.
• Bring pet food inside to avoid attracting raccoons, opossums and other potential mountain lion prey.

Staying Safe in Mountain Lion Country

• Mountain lions are quiet, solitary and elusive, and typically avoid people.
• Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare. However, conflicts are increasing as California’s human population expands into mountain lion habitat.
• Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.
• Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active—dawn, dusk, and at night.
• Keep a close watch on small children.
• Do not approach a mountain lion.
• If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.
• If attacked, fight back.

Facts about Mountain Lions
Habitat and Home Range

• Cougars use steep canyons, rock outcroppings and boulders, or vegetation, such as dense brush and forests, to remain hidden while hunting.
• Adult male cougars roam widely, covering a home range of 50 to 150 square miles, depending on the age of the cougar, the time of year, type of terrain, and availability of prey.
• Adult male cougars’ home ranges will often overlap those of three or four females.
• Female home ranges are about half that of males and there in considerable overlap in female home ranges.
• Often female progeny will establish a territory adjacent to mother, while virtually all males disperse considerable distances from the natal area.

Food and Feeding Habits

• Cougars are most active from dusk to dawn, although they sometimes travel and hunt during the day.
• Adult cougars typically prey on deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, and wild sheep, with deer being the preferred and most common prey.
• Other prey species, especially for younger cougars, include raccoons, coyotes, rabbits, hares, small rodents, and occasionally pets and livestock.
• A large male cougar living in the Cascade Mountains kills a deer or elk every 9 to 12 days, eating up to 20 pounds at a time and burying the rest for later.
• Except for females with young, cougars are lone hunters that wander between places frequented by their prey, covering as much as 15 miles in a single night.
• Cougars rely on short bursts of speed to ambush their prey. A cougar may stalk an animal for an hour or more.

Daybed Sites

• A cougar’s daybed is used for rest, protection from the weather, and to raise young.
• Cougars don’t use dens like bears do. They may settle down for up to six weeks while the kittens are immobile, but afterward are almost always on the move, making daybeds as they go.
• In rough terrain, daybeds are usually in a cave or a shallow nook on a cliff face or rock outcrop. In less mountainous areas, day beds are located in forested areas, thickets, or under large roots or fallen trees.
• Daybeds are frequently near kill sites. No day beds preparation takes place.

Reproduction and Family Structure

• Cougars can breed year-round, but breeding is more common in winter and early spring. Several females may breed with a resident male whose home range overlaps theirs.
• After 91 to 97 days of pregnancy, one to four (but usually two) kittens are born.
• The bond between male and female is short-lived (about ten days), and the male cougar plays no role in raising the kittens.
• Kittens stay with their mothers for 12 to 19 months following their birth.
• Female cougars usually breed every other year.

Mortality and Longevity

• The two most common natural causes of death among cougars are being killed by other cougars, or by the prey during an attack.
• Humans, through hunting, depredation, and vehicle collisions, are probably the main source of mortality among cougars.

Male cougars can live 10 to 12 years in the wild; females normally live longer.

I want to thank several people who helped me write this Blog. Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for the National Wildlife Federation shared facts, along with a sneak preview of her up-coming book. Tim Kroeber, Wildlife Biologist with California Fish and Wildlife, gave me information on living with mountain lions. Of course, I can’t thank Dr. Lazarcheff enough, plus the wonderful people at Fresno Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital, for saving Sally and mending her up. I couldn’t have told the story as well without the help of my hiking buddies, Rick Lawin and Gail Gilbert. I neglected to mention that they accompanied me down to the hospital with Sally and waited til they were sure we were both alright before they would even think about going home.

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  1. We live in Fishcamp and have been hearing a mountain lion almost daily for the past month. Something to keep in mind is that in addition to the typical scream they can also make a sound called chirping. We thought it was some kind of a bird until I looked it up. They are beautiful but I wish it would move on to the rest of its range

  2. While I think your article is well written, documented and researched there is only one problem that concerns me.

    You were hiking with adults, you were making noise, however the mountain lion attacked your dog only 20-30 feet up the trail from you.

    I can assure you, as you probably already know, that mountain lion in question detected your group hundreds of yards away if not much further. Yet it still attacked your pup within ten yards or less of your group of adults that were making noise on your hike.

    That particular lion is a huge threat. If a mountain lion is after prey and humans are only 30 feet away at 9-10am it’s a major problem.

    You and your party may very well be lucky you did bring your dog on that hike. It very well may have attacked one of you, but went for the smaller target.

    Glad everyone ended up ok, and thank you for the article.

  3. Peggy Decker-Anderson

    Thank you for the well written article, and I’m glad you guys and Sally are all safe. Additionally thank you for not blaming the mountain lion and turning it into the “evil beast” that so often people do when attacks happen. First time I’ve seen common sense re a cougar attack in years. Thank you.

  4. Thanks. We have a cabin in central camp and have done the shut eye trail often. What month was your hike you did not say? The last 2 years have been so dry and all the fires this does not surprise me. We had a sighting 2 yrs ago in camp. Glad everyone is ok.

  5. Sharon, the date of the hike was February 17, Tuesday of this week.

  6. Like Ken mentioned, a lion should have a healthy fear of humans. The fact that it attacked your dog when it knew you were there means its very likely it could be a danger to humans. We all hike with our kids 20-30 feet in front of us (or more), right? Did you notify the forest service?

  7. Excellent article! I’m so glad you’re all ok & that you didn’t vilify the lion. I hike alone with my dog very close (as the lion roams) to where this attack occurred and appreciate the information. I’ve never been afraid of lions thinking that most attacks happen in more inhabited areas. I’ll take lessons from your article,though. In a side note, there have been a lot of recent lion sightings in the Auberry area. Thanks again for your post.

  8. Great post… thank you for taking the time to share your experience and valuable information that may help others in the future. Although these animals are not as common to us here in the East, there are similar hazards that we can benefit from by reading this. I’m very glad for Sally and the rest of your crew… nicely done.

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