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Why a cougar is unlikely to “chase” you – and what to do if it does

Chances are the cougars aren’t after you.

But you would have had a hard time telling Kyle Burgess on Saturday when he faced a puma while running in Utah’s Slate Canyon. The animal followed him for almost six minutes and sometimes seemed to pounce on him aggressively. Burgess filmed the entire encounter, which has since gone viral. The video has over 4 million views on YouTube, was broadcast on a local TV network, and has spread on social media.

“I was definitely scared because a cougar was right in front of me,”

; said Burgess.

But while many reported that the Puma was “chasing” Burgess, that doesn’t quite capture the reality of the situation. Burgess had originally approached some cougar cubs he thought were bobcats that he said he had seen in the area before. Unfortunately, the boys’ mother was not happy about this.

“She tried to look big and wild and put him off,” said Winston Vickers, a wildlife research veterinarian who directs the California Mountain Lion Project at the University of California at Davis.

The puma wasn’t “chasing” Burgess either. Typically, you wouldn’t see a mountain lion “chasing” you, said Petros Chrysafis, an independent scientist in California who studies human-animal interactions and predator deterrence.

“They stay low, they try to stay in the foliage as much as possible, and they will pounce on you as close as possible,” Chrysafis said. Obviously, he said, the cougar didn’t and just tried to scare Burgess with a “bogus charge”.

“In reality, they are not looking for a fight,” said Chrysafis. “They are looking for you to withdraw.”

How did Burgess fare against a mountain lion? Not bad, said Chrysafis. On a Twitter, he noticed that Burgess was doing many of the right things, such as keeping an eye on the cougar while he pulled back and made noise to deter him. But he could have gone further.

“Be louder, be grunt, be anything you see that creates a moment of hesitation,” Chrysafis tweeted. He said Burgess could have made more even noise earlier or tossed a stone at the cougar, which ultimately led to the cougar disappearing. Vickers recommended that you do everything you can to show the cougar that you are “big and strong and loud and bad”.

Both Vickers and Chrysafis also recommend using bear spray, a deterrent that resembles a large can of pepper spray, or even firing a gun at the ground to scare the animal if you’re carrying one.

Of course, neither Vickers nor Chrysafis fault Burgess. For researchers like her, it’s one thing to say what should have happened if they weren’t faced with an aggressive mountain lion.

Burgess grew up in Utah and said he learned to make himself tall and scary when faced with a large animal like a bear or a mountain lion. But he also wanted to make it clear to the cougar mother that he poses no threat to her babies.

“I think if I had made more aggressive moves on her I could have attacked,” he said.

But Vickers and Chrysafis say that aggression is unlikely to cause a cougar to attack. Vickers actually says that showing aggression in return can sometimes be good, although he knows that it is not comfortable for most people. What probably would have got Burgess in trouble is turning your back on him and running, which may have resulted in the cougar chasing him. When you run into an angry cougar, your best bet is to slowly but surely back up, make a lot of noise, and toss something in the right direction if you can.

But the good news is that you probably don’t have to worry about that. Seeing a cougar is rare, Vickers says – they’re usually shy and good at staying out of sight. If you see one with or without a boy, he said, it is best to stop immediately and watch them from a safe distance.

“Most of the time, they just slide away quietly,” he said.

Aggressive pumas are even rarer. In the nearly twenty years researching mountain lions, Vickers has never been followed by one and only knows one colleague who has (he was also followed by an angry mother). A year 2005 found that of the 250 or so cases a group of researchers approached pumas, only 16 cases (6% of approaches) showed aggression, of which 14 were women with cubs. In another year 2011, it was found that puma attacks in the US and Canada only happen about four to six times a year and are unlikely to result in harm or death, especially if the person is an adult and avoids running fast or himself to move.

Why this Puma chased Burgess for so long, none of the researchers could say. Vickers said it is unusual for a cougar to approach a person for so long, but stressed that while cougars are shy, individuals can act differently. Chrysafis thought it might be her age.

“She seemed a bit young and inexperienced,” he said.

As for Burgess, he says he wouldn’t have done anything different. He’s glad he kept some degree of calm during the encounter and that the cougar eventually left and returned to her cubs. He’s still pondering how to better prepare for such a situation, but said he enjoyed seeing researchers like Chrysafis take the opportunity to teach people about puma behavior. He also says he has a new appreciation for the mostly invisible animals of the mountains.

“We are not alone when we go to the mountains,” he said. “This is not our home.”

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