When an image of a pair of mountain lions flashed on my laptop, I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder.
I was sitting on a stump just a few feet from where my newest trail camera, which caught the images, was mounted. The photos were more than a week old, and the cats were long gone, but my heart was thumping in my chest nonetheless.
This wasn’t the first time I had photographed cougars near my home in the Leavenworth area, but it was the clearest evidence to date of what was hunting in the woods around me.
The footage reiterated what I already knew: Mountain lions (also known as cougars and pumas) live among us, and even thrive in the Pacific Northwest.
Still it was a cold truth.
The closest thing we have to an African lion walked by the spot where I sat just a few days ago in broad daylight. When I imagined meeting the pair on the trail, I shuddered.
The first time you photograph a large adult cougar outside your house, there’s a sense of awe, followed by a touch of wooziness. You find that you decide a few things very quickly.
Number one: I have to accept that there are strong, fast, scary animals with sharp teeth and claws sharing my domain.
Number two: I’m not going to let my kid walk very far from the house alone.
Number three: I’m going to start hiking with bear spray.
Cats that adapt
Cougars live in all corners of Washington state, from the foothills in Issaquah to the eastern mountains to the San Juan Islands. If you live or hike in places that support deer or elk, then you also have cougars.
They are well adapted to rocky terrain, arid brushy landscapes, dense woodlands and coastal areas. Game cameras make their presence hard to ignore.
And yet, the reality is that you almost never see them in person.
In all the years I’ve spent in the outdoors, I’ve never seen one in the wild. Never wandering across a Forest Service road, nor backpacking, not car camping or living next to a game trail — never with my own eyes. And that’s a common story among the outdoor junkies I know.
As menacing as cougars can seem, I’ve developed a healthy respect for them over the years, in part because they have learned to thrive by avoiding humans. It’s very likely that cougars have seen me in the wild hundreds of times, but on every occasion they’ve decided to remain discreet.
Big cats are incredibly stealthy when they have dense cover. I’ve tracked wild felines around the world, and it’s the same story everywhere you go. From 400-pound tigers in India to leopards in Sri Lanka to jaguars in Central America — whenever big cats have heavy cover, they’re almost impossible to see if they want to remain hidden.
The same is true of cougars.
It gives me some relief to know that mountain lions could target humans — but they choose not to. Otherwise we would have a lot more encounters. Thankfully they have learned to thrive precisely because they avoid humans.
A bad reputation
One of the biggest reasons mountain lions get a bad rap is because when they do attack someone it’s so dramatic. It makes the news.
There are wild creatures living in our neighborhoods that can dominate us — and that makes us uncomfortable. I mean, just look at those flexed muscles. Imagine fending off a swipe from the juvenile while the adult sneaks up behind you.
While tragic, cougar attacks on humans are quite rare. In Washington state during the past 95 years there have been only two human fatalities and 19 recorded attacks, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The biggest reason that I’m a fan of the mountain lion is because when I’m in their habitat, they remind me of something primitive. When I feel that cold shiver ripple down my spine, I’m tapping into something ancient. It’s a reminder that even in the modern age, humans are not always on top. And I think it’s healthy to remember that.
I was on a safari in Kenya many years ago, and our group stopped for a lunch break. It was one of the few places where we could get out of our vehicle, so I strolled to the edge of the picnic area to stretch my legs. When I looked across a small ravine, I suddenly found myself making eye contact with an adult male lion.
I quickly did the math and realized that in a footrace, he could reach me faster than I could reach the Land Cruiser. I slowly walked backward to safety. And when I reached my group, I was awash in relief and exhilaration.
It’s ironic that one of the best ways to feel alive is to go someplace where you could become the prey.
Writer and photographer Jeff Layton lives in the mountains near Leavenworth. You can see more trail camera photos of wild Northwest animals on his blog MarriedToAdventure.com.
10 myths about cougars
1. They only hunt at night. While their eyesight works best in low light conditions, and they tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, they can hunt during any hour. Of the last 12 cougar sightings on my cameras, 10 were at night and two were during the middle of the day.
2. They seek out bulls and bucks that hunters prize. According to scientific research published in National Geographic, prize deer and elk account for only a small fraction of a cougar’s diet, and they actually go out of their way to avoid big males.
3. They reduce the deer population. While their primary food is deer and elk, cougars play an essential role in improving the overall quality of the herd by culling weak, sick and injured animals. Studies have shown that eliminating cougars does little to change the overall deer and elk population.
4. They will wipe out your livestock. When raising animals in cougar territory, strong pens and fences are the cost of doing business. Penning animals at night and using guard animals will drop your chances of a cougar encounter to almost zero, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
5. If you see a cat you should remain quiet. In fact, you should stand tall, make noise and be as big as possible. Pick up children. Throw rocks and sticks. If you act loud and scary, the cat will probably disappear. Don’t run away or it may trigger their chase instinct.
6. If attacked, you should play dead. Your best defense is to fight back as if your life depends on it, because it probably does. Go for the eyes and try to protect your head and neck area.
7. Cougars can’t swim. In reality they’re good swimmers and regularly cross rivers, lakes and Puget Sound waterways.
8. They will mistake children for deer. Deer and humans have different profiles, and cats aren’t likely to confuse the two, even if the human is small.
9. Mountain lions are different than cougars and pumas. Nope, they are all the same.
10. I saw two cats, they must be mates. In truth, males and females are rarely together except when breeding. More likely it was a mother and her offspring. Juvenile cougars can stay with their mothers up to a year before they’re abandoned to fend for themselves.
— Jeff Layton