Our Natural World: The Panther’s Shadow

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Mountain Lion on moss covered rocks during spring time

Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly
Originally printed Friday, April 13 2018, in The North Island Eagle

Learning about our sneaky neighbours – the cougar

My last column focused on things we can all do to help keep the wilderness wild and the environment clean. I talked about the need to leave baby animals alone, the issues of attractant management, and matters pertaining to garbage and illegal dumping. I received some feedback asking me to write on wildlife safety based on my experiences as a Conservation Officer here on the North Island. I thought that the subject would make a fitting follow up article. There are many species we could talk about. For example, bears (yes, I love these little guys – put the garbage away!), whales (be whale wise!), wolves (keep your dog on a leash while hiking in Cape Scott!), and cougars. Oh cougars, mountain lion, puma, panther … “kitty”; the slinky, sly, brown big wild cat that all North Islanders have come to know. Every year there are reports of sightings, sometimes reports of pet attacks, and in rare circumstances harm to humans. In light of some pet attacks here on the North Island, I have chosen to focus this second column on the subject of the bold and majestic Vancouver Island Cougar, its habits, its behaviours, and some basic actions we can take to co-exist during what I’m sure will be another wonderful summer.

Expect our wild cats

Big cats live all over the world and British Columbia is no different. We are fortunate to be able to still share vast forested areas that wildlife can call home. The Vancouver Island cougar (also known as a puma, mountain lion, or panther) shares its home with us all year around. Many sources state that Vancouver Island has the highest population of cougars in B.C. and North America. These claims are completely unfounded. British Columbia does not inventory its wild populations of cougars and the truth is we do not actually know how many of these amazing creatures are left. What we do know is that cougars are a native species and a healthy cougar population is essential to bio diversity balance and the predator prey cycle here on Vancouver Island. Recently, radio collaring projects here on the Island have sought to engage in activities that track cougar movement and also capture DNA for population management estimates. What does this have to do with safety? Seeing a cougar should be a rewarding and rare experience (for both you and the animal) that leaves both of you unharmed. Unfortunately, when many people see a cougar there is an inherent sense of fear that quickly sets in. The cougar is a very private and secretive animal. Coupled with its strength, predatory skills, and elusive behavior, many human inherited assumptions, fears, myths, stories, and beliefs have surrounded these creatures for decades. When I worked as a Conservation Officer it was common that a simple sighting on the edge of town would quickly spread into social media feeds, complaints to the Police and CO Service, notifications in schools to come pick up your children, and a situation which became aptly coined, “cougar hysteria.” While it is always important to call for help in the event of a wildlife emergency, it is also important to be educated on the species that live in our area, their behaviours, and general safety precautions we can all take.

The cougar basics

In an effort to dispel some fears and promote public education on this resident species, I would like to focus on the basics of what a cougar is as an animal, what behaviors you can expect should you encounter one, how to avoid cougars in the wild, how to control attractants, and in the highly unlikely event that you are pursued or attacked, the actions you should take.

While sightings of cougars are unusual it is actually quite normal. They live here. Historically, their range has been quite expansive and covered the entirety of Vancouver Island. Over the last century and a half, industrial logging and mining operations have built roads all over the Island. Not only has this contributed to habitat loss, but these roads open up new travel corridors to human inhabited areas along the coast. As logging camps and fishing villages have become budding rural municipalities, hydro greenways and paved highways often intersect on the edge of our ever expanding communities. Just as we find it easy to take the road or trail into town to go to the beach, so too does wildlife.

On the North Island cougars are in and out of our town’s green spaces on a routine basis, usually at night or early dawn – we just don’t see them. As with any forested green space on the edge of the BC Coast, they are usually searching for food. Island black tail deer is their preferred prey or elk depending on the location. However, if they are unsuccessful in their hunting endeavors, a cougar’s behavior can change from targeted prey (like deer) to opportunistic prey (like house cats or small dogs, raccoons, mice, birds, and other small animals). The majority of rare attacks on pets and humans, while they may seem like targeted predatory behavior, are opportunistic. According to the government of BC:

In the past 100 years, a total of five people have been killed by cougar attacks in B.C. (in comparison, bees kill upwards of three Canadians every year). All but one of these fatal cougar attacks occurred on Vancouver Island. During the same period, there were 29 non-fatal attacks in British Columbia – 20 of which occurred on Vancouver Island. The vast majority of these attacks were on children under the age of 16 (Safety Guide to Cougars, 1996).

Despite these facts that suggest attacks are rare, for North Islanders (including family and friends visiting this summer), it is still prudent to be cautious and the best actions we can take to avoid a negative interaction is recognizing the signs of a cougar early and leaving the area. 

Knowing if a cougar is around

Tracks – The most notable part of a cougar track is that a cougar’s claws are retractable, so they do not usually leave imprints (unlike a dog that will have a little claw dot above the pad). Cougars have 4 toes with 3 distinct lobes at the base of their pads. Cougars are solitary animals. If tracks show multiple cougars traveling together it is usually a mother with kittens.

Scat – The scat of a cougar can be found along trails, by scrapes, and by kills sites. It can be difficult to tell the scat of a cougar form that of a dog or coyote. Teeth, hair, and small bones can be found in the scat of a cougar. Scat is usually segmented (like a house cat), about 1 – 1.5 inches long, is rounded, and can have tapered ends.

Scratch post (“scrapes”) – Much like a house cat, cougars also like to find scratch posts. Shredded bark with vertical pull lines can be an indication of a scratching post. (Graphic credit: Living with Wildlife in BC, n.d. citing BC government safety guide to cougars, 1996)

Getting to know cougars

  • The cougar, also called a mountain lion, panther or puma, is Canada’s largest cat. Cougars have long tails which may be one-third of their total body length
  • An adult male cougar weights between 63 and 90 kilograms (140 to 200 lbs) and a female cougar, between 40 and 50 kilograms (90 to 120 lbs).
  • The cougar’s primary prey is deer and elk, it will also feed on rabbits, beaver, raccoon, grouse and occasionally livestock.
  • Cougars are most active at dusk and dawn, however they will roam and hunt at any time of the day or night in all seasons.
  • During late spring and summer, one to two year old cougars become independent of their mother. While attempting to find a home range, these young cougars may roam widely in search of unoccupied territory; this is when cougars are most likely to conflict with humans.
  • The cougar can live up to 13 years, is a variety of brown and yellow shades with some black, and has a very long tail which is approximately one-third of their total body length. Because sightings of cougars are often fleeting, people can mistake deer or other animals as cougars. As a Conservation Officer, one question that I always asked when an individual stated they saw a cougar was, “can you describe the tail to me?”
  • A cougar typically stalks prey from behind or by surprise attack (i.e, jumping down from above).
  • The cougar’s diet is primarily comprised of deer and elk. The cougar will also eat rabbits, beaver, raccoon, grouse, geese, fish, and seals. Opportunistic prey may include livestock or pets.
  • Cougars are most active at dusk and dawn. However, cougars will roam and hunt at any time of the day or night in all seasons.
  • An adult male cougar weighs between 63 and 90 kilograms (140 to 200 lbs). Female cougars can weigh between 40 and 50 kilograms (90 to 120 lbs).
  • Much of rural interactions with cougars happen in late spring and summer. During this time young cougars between the ages of one and two years old leave their mothers in search of their own territories. Referred to as “dispersing sub-adults”, these young cougars are often noticeably smaller and can be more aggressive as they compete for territory.
  • Cougars have night vision that is significantly higher than humans.
  • Cougars also mark their den sites and territories with urine soaked piles of dirt or other debris.
  • They are great swimmers.
  • They can jump over 20ft in length and over 15ft in height.
  • Cougars typically make dens in tree hollows, old stumps, caves, between rocks, or dug into the side of steep slopes.
  • Will store kills and return to feed.

Cougar behaviour to be aware of

Pets:

  • Unattended pets that are free ranging are easy prey and can considered an attractant for opportunistic cougar hunting. This is especially true of house cats and small dogs.
  • Livestock like sheep and goats, that is free ranging in rural areas, can attract cougars.

Children:

  • It is unknown the exact reasons cougars appear to be attracted to children. It is believed that high pitched voices, small size, and fast erratic movements may make it difficult for a cougar to identify the children as human and not natural prey.

Watching:

  • Cougars are cats. Like many cats they are curious and they like to play. It is normal (if you are lucky enough to see a cougar) for a cougar to sit with its ears up and watch its surrounding environment. It is also normal for cougars to checkout flashing or glinting objects.

Stalking:

  • Stalking behavior is very distinct and unmistakable. When hunting prey a cougar will hunch low to the ground, usually with its ears back or slightly forward, lower its head and stare at its target. Like most cats, this stalking is easily noticed by high shoulder blades and tense muscles.

The Don’ts in cougar country

  • Do not leave children unattended.
  • Do not wear ear buds or head phones that can deaden surrounding noises.
  • Do not leave pets out overnight or off leash.
  • Do not stay in an area where cougar signs have been noted.
  • Do not leave livestock in unsecured or free ranging areas unattended or overnight.
  • Do not feed pets or other wildlife on your yard, property, or on hikes/camping. Pet food, seed, and fruit can attract other animals like mice, raccoons, and deer that young sub-adult cougars may consider prey.

The DOs in cougar country

  • Educate children on cougars, cougar behavior, and wildlife safety.
  • Consider getting a large canine if living in a rural area. A canine can smell and see a cougar before a human can and may act as a deterrent.
  • If there has been cougar sightings in the area escort children to and from school or the bus stop.
  • Keep hedges around your child’s outdoor play areas or assembly areas trimmed and cleared at least 30 feet from outdoor gyms or outdoor assembly areas (like bus stops).
  • Keep children near-by and when playing outdoors encourage playing in groups.
  • Consider fencing outdoor play areas and electric fencing livestock pens.
  • Be cautious at dawn and dusk. If there has been sightings in the area do not allow children to play at these times.
  • Keep pets on a leash.
  • Learn about cougars and inform others about wildlife safety.
  • Stay in groups if hiking and use a walking stick that can be used as a weapon.
  • Carry bear spray and an air horn and know how to use them.

What to do in the event of a cougar encounter

Most British Columbians will never see a cougar much less have an encounter with one. However, should you be out in the breathtaking wilds of this great province and encounter one of our resident big kitties remember these point below:

General encounter on your property or while walking/hiking:

  • Pick all children up. A frightened child is likely to make rapid movements which could provoke an attack.
  • Stay calm. Speak directly to the cougar in a firm, loud, and assertive voice.
  • Do not turn your back. Face the cougar and make yourself as tall as possible. Especially for children, placing your hands and arms above your head or removing your backpack and placing it high in the air are ways to make yourself larger.
  • Do not run. While speaking firm and facing the cougar, back away slowly.
  • Never approach a cougar. Like all wildlife cougars are unpredictable. In most cases they will actively avoid confrontation. However, if they are protecting a kill or their young they can be dangerous.
  • Always give a cougar an avenue of escape.

If the cougar attacks or behaves aggressively:

Many people in BC have grown up believing that playing dead when attacked by wildlife is advisable. This is not the case with cougars. With any big cat it is important to fight back by any available means. In the highly unlikely event that you are ever attacked by a cougar, remember:

  • Know how to use your bear spray and air horn. Be prepared to use them.
  • Using a large stick, walking stick, rocks, and shouting can help the cougar understand that you are a threat and not natural prey.
  • If you do experience a cougar attack, fight back! As a Conservation Officer I have known people to survive attacks by fighting back with sticks, fists, and rocks when a cougar has mistaken them for prey in the dusk.

Pushed to the brink of extirpation in California, Florida, and in parts of South America, we are fortunate that the cougar is still a part of our North Island home. They are essential to the environment. I hope this piece was informative and helpful. Stay safe this summer and write in to the North Island Eagle with your rare cougar sighting!

“While it is prudent to be cautious and responsible for those actions you can control, it is unwise to have an irrational fear of resident wildlife.”

Bryce Casavant is a former B.C. Conservation Officer for the North Island. Bryce made international headlines in 2015 when he declined a provincial kill order for two small bear cubs. The cubs, Jordan and Athena, were successfully released back into wild. Bryce ran for the BC NDP in the 2017 provincial elections. Bryce is currently a Doctoral Candidate with Royal Roads University. He writes for the Eagle from his home in Port McNeill.

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