Mountain lions usually go out of their way to avoid humans. The sound of human voices alone can scare them enough to abandon a meal, one recent study found.
And when a mountain lion saw two humans in California's Sequoia National Park last month, it initially retreated as expected. The humans had seen it, too — one even caught it on video before it slipped around a blind corner. Yet despite being nervous, the men had just begun a 12-day hike and didn't want to turn around.
"Mostly I was tired, and the sun was setting and I wanted to go to sleep," one of the hikers, software project manager Brian McKinney, tells National Geographic.
So they kept going, one still filming with his phone. Once they reached the bend where the mountain lion had disappeared, the steep terrain offered few routes other than the trail, leaving them to hope the cat had been spooked enough to run away.
As they would learn a few seconds later, it had not.
The hikers crept around the corner and scanned the forest — then looked up to see the mountain lion looming over them. It was perched on a ledge a few feet away, staring down "like she was entertained," McKinney tells the Associated Press.
The pair froze in their tracks and whispered to each other about their next move. "What are we supposed to do, back up?" one asked. "I don't know," the other replied. "I don't think you're supposed to run or go away from it."
They were wise not to run, but with the cat showing no signs of backing down, they did decide to slowly reverse course. That's when they stopped filming, although as the men tell the Los Angeles Times, their ordeal didn't end there.
Just lion around
After they had backed up, the puma climbed off its perch and laid down in the trail. McKinney had to ignore his instincts to "get away as quickly as possible," he tells the Times. Mountain lions rarely mess with humans, especially if they lack the element of surprise, but their calculus can quickly change if people act like prey.
So McKinney and his hiking companion, math teacher Sam Vonderheide, did what's generally recommended for situations like this: They demonstrated they weren't an easy meal. They yelled, threw rocks and used a bear whistle, all of which tend to be good tactics. Like bears, mountain lions usually flee when people make noise — even when food is at stake, as researchers reported earlier this summer.
But for some reason, this mountain lion seemed unfazed. It lounged in the trail for about 30 minutes, McKinney says, before eventually standing up and walking back around the bend. The hikers hoped that meant it was moving on to other matters, so they again tried to forge ahead. To their dismay, however, the cat was back on the ledge again, and with less relaxed body language than it had shown earlier.
"I don't know if it was to see us better or a more aggressive stance," McKinney tells National Geographic. "But I certainly didn't want to find out."
That's when they finally gave up, hiking back a few miles to camp somewhere else. They barely slept that night, they tell the Associated Press. When they hit the trail again the next day, the only sign of the mountain lion was paw prints.
Making peace with pumas
The NPS found these mountain lion kittens in the Santa Susana Mountains in June 2016. (Photo: NPS/Flickr)
This is not typical behavior for a mountain lion, says Mike Theune, a ranger at Sequoia National Park. "Mountain lions are solitary creatures," he tells National Geographic, "and human-animal interaction is very rare." The hikers also showed their video to a biologist at the park, who speculated the cat acted this way because it had recently finished hunting, according to Los Angeles' KABC-TV.
But whatever the reason, this mountain lion may have unwittingly done a service for its species. By starring in a viral video that highlights important dos and don'ts for encounters like this, it could help future hikers avoid conflict with cougars — conflict that takes a heavier overall toll on the cats than it does on humanity.
"They were very calm, and that's a good thing," research ecologist Michelle LaRue, executive director of the Cougar Network, tells National Geographic. "And it does seem like they were trying to be pretty respectful."
"The big thing these visitors did right was that they didn't panic and run," wildlife biologist Daniel Gammons tells the AP. "Probably the most important message to get out to visitors is not to act like prey if they encounter a mountain lion."
Still, it would've been wiser not to follow it around a blind curve, LaRue adds. "That's just Hiking in the Wilderness 101," she says. And if you do find yourself face-to-face with a puma, it's best to focus on de-escalating the standoff above all else. "Put down the camera, and get out anything that can make noise," LaRue adds. "You want to be able to make yourself into something that they don't want to be curious about."
If a puma does approach you, the National Park Service (NPS) suggests doing what these hikers did: yell and throw stuff. It also discourages crouching, which could make you look like four-legged prey. And in the unlikely event that you are attacked, the NPS advises fighting back with any object available, or your bare hands if necessary.
For more advice on co-existing with cougars, check out these tips from the NPS.