Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In Mountain Lion Country

I discovered my interest and my love of mountain lions largely because of my visits to Big Bend National Park. The beauty, ruggedness, and openness of Big Bend has always called to me, and I get out there as much as I can to restore my sanity and my soul. I took a few days last week to head out the park.

The first day and night I spent in a backcountry campsite near Pine Canyon, i.e. Pine Canyon 3 to be exact. Pine Canyon is one of those places it’s rumored that mountain lions like, and it is one of the places in the park where mountain lion/human confrontations have taken place. PC3 is far enough away from the canyon itself and in open country so the odds of a lion being here are small. It’s up in the canyon itself where there is some forest and even a waterfall after it rains that the cats like a lot more.

Frankly, I didn’t make it up into the canyon. I was hiking with some new boots, and they became problematic very quickly. So, I didn’t hike much when I was there and didn’t get up into the canyon at all. Other people did. I heard nothing about anyone seeing any cats up there.

The next day I moved to a campsite in Juniper Canyon and hiked the trail that eventually snakes up into the mountains not far from Boot Spring. On the way in, I met up with a bunch of younger male hikers; and they said the rangers had warned them to be on the lookout for mountain lions. One, in particular. I thought that strange since I had always known Boot Spring as more of an area for black bears. When I had seen a bear up there, it had been between Boot Spring and the South Rim. Indeed, the trailhead sign warned abut bears, not cats. Later, I would discover that the reason for the warning was that a camper in a Boot Spring campsite had reported being stalked by a lion, though the cat had not attacked. That was one of two recent incidents that had happened a month previously to my trip and about two weeks apart. The other incident involved a mountain lion stalking a mule train making its way up the Laguna Meadows trail. The spacing of the events made me think the same cat had done them both, and the fact that nothing had happened in the last month led me to believe that the specific threat from it had probably passed. The park was covering its legal ass by posting signs warning there was heightened mountain lion activity at most of the trailheads and in the Chisos Basin campground.

The desert was proving a bit hotter than I had hoped for (80 degrees or better even in February), so I moved by activities up into the cooler Chisos Mountains. I got a campsite on the campground’s east side right along a little ravine. The camp host told me that folks staying in my campsite a few days before me had seen a mountain lion near the ravine just before dawn; if I continued to get up early, maybe I would, too. Well, one could hope. To me, seeing a mountain lion is a glorious thing, as long as I don’t see him in the air with claws out…

Once established in the campground, I hiked down the Windows trail toward mid-day, doing my usual “alone” thing a little later in the day than the cats were usually out. I didn’t see hide nor hair of any kitty, and neither did anyone else. The only real mountain lion activity of the whole trip would come a day or so later when Ranger Dan gave a little talk up at the Chisos Trailhead about mountain lions and how to stay safe around them.

The ranger was a young and affable guy in his late twenties or early thirties, a seasonal ranger who was hoping to go full time. As part of his rites of initiation, another, older ranger was videotaping his talk which would be later “peer reviewed” by established bureaucrats in the Park Service who would use it to help determine if this young man had the “right stuff” to become one of them. Whatever that meant. To move on, without the use of any aids other than his storytelling skills, the young ranger proceeded to reveal the Secrets of the Mountain Lion via stories about the two most recent encounters between man and mountain lion that had occurred in the park. Together, they illustrated the “right” and “wrong” way of handling oneself when confronted by a “cat”, part of which was due to the Park Service’s education of visitors about mountain lion safety. While I knew many details of the stories, I did learn more about what actually happened than I previously knew; and for that, I was grateful. One attack had been performed by an old cat desperate for food and on her way out, and the other was by a young male, the most likely age and sex for a cat to get into trouble.

The Park Service is in the business of making people wary about the mountain lion. Respect but not fear of the animal is always warranted. Most of the time, you’re probably not going to know you’re even near one of them, a fact borne out by a Big Bend study that logged an animal within feet of a heavily used trail and not one person reported seeing the cat. Even if you do see one, more than likely, it’s not going to be interested in you if you’re an adult. The odds go up significantly that it might think you’re prey if you’re petite and scared. Children are especially at risk, which is part of why the Park was exhibiting a schizophrenic approach to mountain lion safety. They were warning adults not to hike alone but then were doing nothing to stop or mitigate the activities of an elementary school class from Houston that had traveled up into the mountain trails in mass. That told me that the warning signs were mainly a legal maneuver. But back to the real subject, which is the difference between respect and fear.

Most people have never even seen a mountain lion, and what they know of them are from stories told in the press or by people who have something to gain by making the animals appear as ferocious as they can. My experience with them is that they neither completely fear nor respect people. As long as they don’t see you as prey (and they usually don’t), they will move away from you. Admittedly, when we handled them, they were drugged silly; still, they exhibited no hostility toward us. That said, an experience I had with one young cat suggests that the “prey response” is fairly automatic, and they can kick into seeing you as prey if your behaviors or other factors of your physicality suggest you are. The worse thing you can do is exhibit strong fear when you’re around them, not only because they can sense it but because it can cause you to do the wrong thing. There’s a lot to be said for having a peaceful soul when dealing with them or any other animal; yet, at the same time, accepting them for what they are and not some morphed cartoon of what you’d like them to be is part of what will keep you safe. They are built to be predators, but they are not built to prey on you.

Most mountain lion attacks are not fatal. The difference between whether you survive an attack or not can and does depend on whether you fight back. One of the houndsmen on one of my trips told me how he fetched his dogs trapped in a cave with a mountain lion by attacking the cat with a ball cap, a maneuver that startled the cat just enough to allow him to get the dogs out of harm’s way before the cat killed them. The attacks at Big Bend also illustrate that you are more likely to suffer debilitating or fatal injury if you let the cat get behind you. Its modus operandi is to attack from behind where it can more easily sink claws and fangs into your neck or head. In both confrontations at the Park the ranger talked about, the confrontations began with the cat facing people “head on”, a sign that something wasn’t right with the cat in the first place. In one case, a little boy who ran was jumped and seriously hurt by the cat; in the other, the adult of the group suffered serious lacerations of a hand, but no one else suffered any injury. The difference was that the second group continuously banded together and faced the cat. Mountain lions are very smart and fragile killers; they seem to weigh the odds of their own injury even during an attack; if you cause them to doubt they can carry it off without getting hurt, I believe they will more than likely break it off.

Whenever I hike in mountain lion country, I always put some good size rocks in my pockets and carry a walking stick I can use to help fend off a lion. The rocks are to throw at a critter that is becoming too curious or threatening; in the case of the latter, I will aim to hit him as hard as I can between the eyes. The stick is to hopefully keep me out of claw range, though I’m never sure I could really keep a good grip on the thing if a cat swatted it hard enough, which will be one of the first things he would try. Will I automatically start yelling and screaming and throwing rocks just because I see a mountain lion? No. I’m not going to do anything to bother him unless he starts stalking me or acting interested. At that point, I will take the attitude that a good offense if the best defense; and I will act decisively to scare it or drive it off. But that’s just me. Most advocates will advise you to take offense immediately; and that is the “better safe than sorry” approach.

So, how do you know if a mountain lion thinks you’re prey or if he’s going to attack? If you want to learn what attack behaviors might look like, then just watch your friendly house cat as he goes after his “prey”, no matter what that is. The mountain lion and the domesticated cat are of the same biological family and genus and their behaviors mirror each other in many respects. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that, because that is so, you can walk up to your neighborhood mountain lion and give it a pat on the head. I’ve seen people do it when a cat was drugged silly and the cat hated it so much that it made the effort to raise its head and snarl, despite the fact that we thought it otherwise asleep.

They’re beautiful animals, but they’re still predators.

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