Cougars killing and eating people. Why?

This cougar was killed after attacking two mountain bikers in Washington, killing one.  

On May 19, two mountain bikers were riding near North Bend, Washington, when they noticed a mountain lion (also called a cougar or puma) was following them.  I don't have the full details, but I've read that they stopped, yelled, put their bikes between them and the lion... things that almost all lion experts recommend to discourage an attack.  The lion persisted, however, grabbing one cyclist by the head, then chasing the other cyclist as that cyclist ran away.  The first cyclist attacked got back on his bike, escaped, and called for help. The second cyclist, Sonja J. Brooks, tragically, was found dead.

“They stopped to confront the cougar, they did everything right, everything that we counsel people to do,” WDFW Captain Alan Myers said. “Do not play dead — fight back. Fight back with everything you’ve got,” he said. “In most instances, people survive attacks from cougars that occur if they fight back.”

Why did this cougar attack these cyclists?  Indeed, why would a cougar, who normally eats deer, bighorn, maybe rabbits... mammals in this size range... attack a cyclist?  

You'll learn a lot about lions and attacks by reading the book, The Beast in the Garden, by David Baron.  In this book, Baron describes the 1991 fatal attack on 18-year old Scott Lancaster in Colorado, and discusses the escalating lion sightings in nearby Boulder happening at the same time.  He reviews the natural history of mountain lions, and connects human actions (and inactions) with the attack (here's a review I like).

For years, I had the students in my wildlife course read this book, concluding our discussion with a mock trial to see who, if anyone, was responsible for Scott Lancaster's death (hint: the Colorado Department of Wildlife usually didn't come out blameless).

Cougar that killed Scott Lancaster.

Unless you live east of the Mississippi River, or in a dense urban setting, chances are that at least once in your life you've been watched by a mountain lion.  Well, that was true up to a few years ago.  Mountain lion range is expanding eastward (one has been verified to have dispersed from South Dakota to Connecticut).  And lions are living and dying in the greater Los Angeles area.  We just go about our lives, never thinking we are being watched by a 100+ pound lion, unless it is brought to our attention.

Ronald Caspers Wilderness Park in California.  A lion attacked 5 year old Laura Small here in 1986.  She "was blinded in her right eye, suffered brain damage and was left partially paralyzed in the attack." This is a photo of Caroline in the park about 30 years later.  Now, visitors are told there are lions present.  After Caroline learned of the history here, she wasn't smiling.

When I run or bike up Green Canyon by myself, I know I am in lion habitat.  I am being watched.  And I know that it would be pure luck if I saw the lion.

This is the midpoint of a 17 mile run from my house.  The last 3 miles are pretty lonely, except for those cougar eyes boring holes in my back.

Over the past 200 years, we've not treated lions very well.  They do kill livestock and deer, and if you value sheep and mulies more than cougars, well, the cougar loses.  Along with gray wolves and grizzly bears, cougars were targeted for harsh action.  Unlike wolves and bears, however, cougars were harder to eliminate.  I think this is primarily due to two things.  One, cougars are secretive and solitary, so they are hard to hunt.  Second, unlike wolves and bears, they are not really attracted to carcasses, preferring fresher meat.  This trait made them less exposed to the predicides (predator poisons like strychnine) used to kill wolves, bears, and coyotes before 1972 when these toxicants were banned on federal lands by President Nixon.

The photos above were taken when traveling in Mendocino County, California, in the late 1980s.  We noticed the drag marks crossing the road.  When we got out of the Jeep to investigate, the trail ended at the dead ewe in the chaparral.  Those marks in the dirt were the ewe's legs dragging as it was being carried by a lion.  And we were probably being watched.

In Utah, I just consider myself surrounded by mountain lions (depending on who you talk to, there are 2000-4000 lions in the state). Hunters kill 300-400 per year, and dozens of lions die because of vehicle collisions, predator control, or illness.  Poaching kills an unknown number.  In other words, the primary mortality source of cougars in Utah (and most places, I suspect) is humans.  For a cougar, interact with a human, and you may end up dead.  If you don't die, you may have a scary experience that influences your future behavior... you've learned to avoid people.

So why was 
Sonja Brooks killed by a lion?  Why was Laura Small attacked?  Why was Jim Hamm attacked by a lion in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, California, in 2007?
"[Jim Hamm's] 65-year-old wife did all the right things. She approached and screamed at the lion. Then she grabbed a branch and began beating it on its back.  “It wouldn’t let go, no matter how hard I hit it,” Nell said in an interview at Mad River Community Hospital Thursday, where her husband was in intensive care recovering from surgery."
Obviously, we can't enter the mind of this or any other cougar.  However, people still try to find the reason for these attacks.  In the most recent case with the Washington cyclists, Wes Siler of Outside magazine mulled over a number of potential scenarios:

• The Cougar Was Starving

• The Victims' Behavior Triggered the Attack

• The Victims Could Have Done More to Stop the Attack

• Suburban Expansion Is Increasing the Chances of Cougar Encounters

• Hunting Is Altering Cougars' Behavior

• The Attack Is Part of a Broader Trend (cougar populations increasing).

The premise behind most of these thoughts is that something was wrong, that in a world functioning correctly, cougars don't attack and kill people.  
Take, for example, the notion that the cougar was starving.  This was promoted widely as a rationale for the attack.  Here are some statements on this topic:

“The animal did appear skinnier than normal, and slightly emaciated — so there is one indicator that there may be something wrong with the cat,” [WDFW Captain Alan Myers]  said."

"Myers said a preliminary examination of the animal, which has been euthanized, revealed that the 3- to 4-year-old, 100-pound male cougar was slightly emaciated. Adult male cougars usually weigh 140 to 180 pounds."

"Slightly emaciated," to me, means hungry.  The weight of an adult lion is variable, as are the weights of elephants, voles, and people.  What is a cougar to do when it is hungry?  Look for food.  And although there are "normal" foods, don't underestimate the ability of cougars to adapt.  Here are a few quotes regarding cougars from Wild Cats of the World, by M. Sunquist and F. Sunquist:

“Pumas can … be quite individualistic or idiosyncratic when it comes to prey selection.”

“Cats are opportunistic predators, and thus it is not surprising that in many parts of North America puma diets change with the seasons.”

“Pumas will kill almost any animal that puts itself in a vulnerable position.”

These adaptable animals, like most other predators, sample prey when given the opportunity.   They experiment.  What, you think they'd starve to death because there are no deer when other animals are running around?

Here is the explanation that the Outside article missed.  Sometimes, people are prey.  Period.  No explanation necessary.  The cougar is just being a cougar.  Mulies are just being mule deer.  And people are just being people.  Sometimes the intersection of cougars, deer, and people don't work in our favor.  Life is not risk-free.

According to the Outside article, Lynn Cullens, the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, "...agrees the cat likely thought the riders were prey. “I think it’s likely that it mistook the [riders] for deer,” she says. “Mountain lions don’t see well in bright sunlight."

I doubt this.  Cougars are deer experts in a way no person can be.  And to insinuate that a cougar can mistake a cyclist for a deer is, well, beyond far-fetched.  The other explanations?  The victims' behavior triggered the attack?  There is no indication that the behavior of the cyclists was any different from other cyclists.  When Sonja Brooks ran from the site, the running was no different than any other runner.  The cougar, however, was already looking at these people as potential prey.

Sometimes cyclists, runners, and hikers see mountain lions.  Usually, they do not.  So we know that, in the vast number of interactions, no harm, no foul.  But when things go south, cougars are extremely capable predators.

What factors affect risk of human attacks? This was analyzed by David Mattson and others. In summary, risk factors included "even moderate levels of rapid or erratic movement at the time of an encounter..."  Cyclists.  Runners.  Kids.

Sign in Ronald Caspers Wilderness Park.

What should we (society) do?  We put up signs warning that lions are in the area.  We tell people how to behave in lion country.  And usually, we remove, lethally, lions that attack people.

So here is my summary of the issue.

•  Cougar attacks are rare.  REALLY rare.  You have a greater chance to be killed by a lightning strike than a cougar attack.  Many, many more people are killed by deer-vehicle collisions.  But the risk is not zero.  Don't ever let anyone tell you it is zero.    

•  Cougar attacks are “new” for managers.  There is no wildlife biologist or manager who has had a lifetime of experience with this issue.  Well, there is a biologist, Terry Mansfield, who used to be responsible for this issue in California (and he was a defendant in a multi-million dollar suit filed for victim Laura Small).  Terry and I coauthored a paper that touched on managing crises in wildlife management, which mentioned lion-human encounters.  But for the most part, "experts" giving their opinions are playing with SWAG... "scientific, wild-ass guesses."  Managers don't have the answer.

•  There is no “normal expectation” for animal behavior OR human behavior.  Think of it... you know the "average" behavior of people, but based on this, you can't predict the behavior of any one individual.  We are quite idiosyncratic.  The same goes for cougars.  Cougars define cougar behavior, not people.

Here's the question Bob Timm and I discuss for coyotes.  Where, in the spectrum of cougar-human interactions, is action warranted?  I would never say that it is when you see a cougar track on a trail.  And if there is a fatal attack, in hindsight that is too late.  David Baron, in The Beast in the Garden, discussed lion sightings in Boulder in the late 1980s.  People were not of one mind when it came to this thin blue line between people and cougars.  "Protect the children" versus "Cougars were here first."

How do you develop a management plan that is compassionate for both people and cougars?

Wesley ready to dive, Fire Station, North Shore, Oahu.

Maybe I'm a bad parent, but when Wesley was 12 years old or so, I took him diving at Electric Beach (Kahe Point) on Oahu, at the exact spot where a tiger shark had killed and eaten another diver.  Now, in my defense, that act of predation had happened in 1989, and this was 2003 or so.  Clearly, that tiger shark wasn't hanging around for 14 years, but it was the ocean, a vast connected wilderness.  The risk was not zero.  That didn't stop us from diving.  And I don't use the excuse that cougars are in Green Canyon to stop me from cycling and running there.  But I am aware of lions.  I promote knowing how to behave in lion country (I gave a presentation to the Logan Parks and Recreation Advisory Board about signage and education... they ignored me).  And I am the first to say that "we" should have a conversation about cougar management in Green and Logan Canyons.  What lion behaviors trigger actions?  Which behaviors do we ignore?  Who collects this information, and who makes this decision?

Robert trying to shake "hands" with a coyote. As President Dale said in the movie Mars Attacks, "why can’t we all just get along?"

Cougars kill and eat people because they can.  Luckily for us, they either choose not to eat us or don't want to eat us, or are scared of us or ignore us, almost all the time.  But we are not invulnerable to cougar attacks.  Know before you go.  Heed Ed Abbey:

"A lion will never attack a man unless the lion is too old or too sick to catch decent game. Or unless the lion is cornered, or angry, or wounded, or bored, or curious, or very hungry, or just plain mean." Edward Abbey, writing in Fire on the Mountain.


Addendum:  In September, 2018, there was another fatality, of a hiker in Oregon.


  1. Successfully avoiding becoming a victim of predation is much like successfully avoiding causing roadkill: both begin with recognizing what animals one is likely to encounter in a given habitat, avoiding risky behavior, and then having a plan of action in mind in case the unexpected happens. Knowing, for example, that most puma (and leopard) attacks on their favored prey occur at dawn or dusk, and from above & behind, one should not walk, jog, or bicycle beneath an escarpment or tree that might conceal a puma, or leopard, if one is in habitat likely to include either animal. Some roadkill prevention tips that might also help people to avoid being eaten, at least to the extent that taking a "defensive driving" approach can help, are at:


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