Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty
Cougar sightings are on the rise.
It's been about a decade since I have seen or heard much about cougar activity around Silver City; then things began to change along come December 2013.
A lady at church told the first story; I was passing by as she related her story and I heard only part of it, but from what I heard, her neighbor in Silver heard a commotion going on with his dog. It sounded like it was being attacked, and he rushed out to find an adult lion attacking Fido. The man took a shovel to the animal and had to beat it off of his pet.
Then in early December a friend of mine was going for her usual jog over at Fort Bayard. She left the parking lot at Arenas Valley and ran east on the same trail that is used by the Cobre cross-country team. She was passing an oak bush when something erupted from beneath the bush. She thought it was a bobcat since she saw it was brown with black spots.
Suddenly she heard a loud noise behind her and turned to see an adult cougar chasing after the smaller animal. The lion stopped and looked at her, and she had the common sense not to run, but stared back at the cougar. It soon turned and left after the other cat.
I surmise that she had flushed, not a bobcat, but a lion cub, and the mother came to check on it. The trouble with this scenario is that the lion wasn't afraid of the jogger, which might mean that it is acclimated (lost its fear) to humans in the area.
If this is the case, then joggers must be on the alert, or we could read about cougar attacks in Fort Bayard, just as has occurred to joggers and bikers in California. I advised her to not use the sanctuary for a long while until things sort themselves out. A word to the wise.
As an aside, I researched the number of cougar attacks on humans and pets in North America since the year 2000; I was shocked to find 73 documented attacks!
Cougars (aka mountain lions) are America's second-largest predator (not counting the rare jaguar). When they are acclimated to humans and pets and see them running away, it triggers an auto-attack response as it does with all predators including pet dogs!
That same week, I had my own experience with abnormal behavior in a lion. My buddy and I were predator calling in the Burros, and suddenly, 15 minutes into the call, a mountain lion appeared and ran towards my buddy, who was operating the caller. At 30 yards it stopped and he shot it.
It turned out to be a very old female with front teeth worn down to her gums, and worn-down incisors. There were several odd things going on here: She had a very large pot belly, indicating that she had just eaten. She should not have answered our call, especially at a run! Lions tend to answer distress calls very slowly and with stealth, and seldom after they have just killed. In most cases both lions and bobcats will take up to an hour to answer (what sounds like) a screaming rabbit.
Then, just before the new year, I was walking in my sandy wash, below the house not 40 feet from the abode. I came upon fresh tracks of a big adult lion! I have not seen cougar tracks on the property in at least five years. I live close to Silver — was this the same lion that attacked the dog I'd heard about in church?
Let me add that Huey, my larger dog, goes 80-plus pounds and his track is a third less in size than the cat's. Hmmmm?
According to the state game department, cougar populations are on the increase — so much so that last year they extended the season to year round, allowing two adult cougars per licensed hunter. That confirms my experience these past five months; I have located no less than five cougar tracks within 30 miles of Silver City. This is something I have not experienced in at least five years, which is the last time I called in a cougar. Last year I came upon only two tracks the entire year and a cougar was standing in one of them!
An adult cougar will weigh between 80 and 180 pounds, with a good-size male sometimes going over 200 pounds — no small kitty. They can bound 40 feet when running, and can travel at a steady 10 miles an hour for long distances. They can leap 15 feet in the air and can carry a dead prey that weighs far more than they do. They can sprint at 50 miles an hour!
Their sharp claws are an inch long, and carry all sorts of nasty bacteria. When it attacks, a lion will kill its prey by biting the back of the neck and severing the spinal cord, or it will bite open the jugular and esophagus. Usually they will cover their kill with debris or dirt, but not always. They can also use those sharp claws to disembowel a human!
Any cat's track will differ from those of canines by the following: A lion's track will be similar to looking at the palm of your hand without fingers, in the size and shape. A feline never leaves claw marks in front of the toes, while a dog will. Felines have three pad marks behind the toes, while a canine leaves two. A dog or wolf's track will leave the impression of an "X" in the middle of the track.
A lion will set its rear foot in the print of the front track, while a dog or wolf leaves a staggered track with all four feet showing in the soil.
A leading cougar-rights group claims that only 10%-14% of lions are killed by hunting, thus hunting doesn't seem to have all that great of an effect on lion populations.
While an adult male cougar usually has a range of 10 square miles, if it finds a local source of prey, it will stay in that area until the prey is killed out or moves away. A lion kills a deer every week to two weeks.
If the prey source is depleted, as with our current declining deer herds, the cougar will seek alternative food sources, and that may well explain why we are having common occurrences this fall/winter. Food for thought: The state game department has taken steps to drastically reduce deer herds within the surrounding developments. This is a catch-22 situation. Too many deer will bring large predators and too few deer could change those predatory eating habits!
If you encounter a cougar, DO NOT RUN AWAY! Instead, stand your ground and make yourself appear as large as possible, with your arms or clothing. Do make eye contact and speak loudly and firmly to the cat (also true of encountering a bear). If it decides to attack, throw rocks or sticks, or if you have a gun, shoot in front of it twice then aim to kill. If it still comes on, fight with all you have — kick, punch, gouge. Use a knife or pepper spray.
Historically, the cougar is known by 40 different names in North and South America. In the US, the more common names are mountain lion, cougar, catamount, puma, lion painter and panther. By whatever name, mountain lions are rarely white or black, but mostly tawny. I knew a hunter here in Silver who once killed a black cougar in the Black Range; he did it many decades ago. A game warden told me about 10 years ago that he picked up a road-killed black cougar near Steins on I-10.
As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!
When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner lives in Silver City.