It’s walking into the jaws of death,” I whispered. Two zebras had broken away from the herd and were moving through the tall grass toward three lions snoozing in the sun. One zebra lowered its head to graze. The other set a course straight for the lions.
Suddenly the dozing felines were alert. Heads raised, they watched lunch on the hoof come closer. One lioness crouched with the tip of its tail twitching. We could see the muscles bunching and releasing beneath her tawny coat as she stared intently at the zebra. Then, ever so slowly, she began to slink through the grass.
I was with a group of friends and family on safari in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. These weren’t the first lions and zebras we’d seen. But it was the first stalk and potential kill we’d witnessed. The silence in the jeep was palpable.
Then the lioness broke cover, racing toward the zebra. It turned to run but within a few strides the lion leapt and sunk its claws onto the black and white striped haunch. There was a collective “Oh!” from our vehicle. The zebra bucked and kicked with its rear legs causing the lion to lose its grip. It chased the fleeing animal for few metres, then gave up.
In the distance we saw the zebra limping and wondered if the deep, bloody gashes would become infected or attract other predators.
Although a similar colour, African lions are much bigger than cougars and live in large prides unlike the more solitary cougar. (We saw as many as 35 lions lounging together!) But the two species of big cats are equally opportunistic when it comes to prey. And the lion’s total focus and manner of approaching her prey was exactly how a cougar would respond to an unaware deer coming its way.
But the story wasn’t over yet. As the lioness sauntered back to her companions our guide said, “She’s coming back for a hug.” When the lion reached one of the others, she placed her head on its shoulder and the supine lion reached up to wrap her foreleg and paw around the other’s neck.
Mountain lions often hunt alone but on occasion a female with cubs or two young adults will tackle prey together. I wonder if cougars also provide consoling hugs if their prospective meal escapes?
Dogs chase cats and dogs that chase cougars seem to be particularly enthusiastic.
One of the most famous cougar hunters, former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote about “dogs that climbed trees.” He said a bloodhound named Turk scrambled almost nine metres (30 feet) up a pinyon tree before plummeting to the ground. And a half-breed bulldog regularly went as high as six metres (20 feet) or more after cougars. Apparently, the branches broke the dogs’ falls as, no matter how far they fell, they continued to “climb trees.”
Winston Vickers, associate veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, told me about a cougar that jumped out of a tree, landed in the middle of a pack of research tracking hounds, grabbed a dog by the head and took off. Of course, all the other hounds gave chase. One got close enough to grab the cougar by the tail. That was enough to make it drop the dog it was carrying. The dog survived but wasn’t keen on tracking cougars after that.
But until recently, I’d never heard of a dog catching a cougar by the tail and going up a tree. The footage on this short video clip is incredible. And yes, both the dog and cougar survived.
It’s unbelievable how stealthy and quiet cougars are. And how often they can be near humans – on trails or even in urban areas – without anyone noticing.
Visit here to view images and a video clip of a cougar casually strolling the streets of a residential area in southern California.
As well as being silent, cougars can remain still for hours. Scroll down to the third and fourth photos at this site to see the spot where the cougar known as 46m hid on a busy street in the San Francisco Bay area for six hours. Despite hundreds of people walking, biking and driving by, no one knew a cougar was in the bushes until 46m decided to make a run for it.
And it doesn’t only happen in California. In 1992, a four-year old, 60 kilogram cougar was tranquilized and removed from the underground parking garage of the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria, BC.
This photo by Jessie Dickson shows just how well a cougar can blend in.
Although many cats don’t like water, cougars are excellent swimmers. And they don’t just go for little dips either. One, wearing a GPS collar, was tracked swimming 6.5 kilometres from downtown Nanaimo to Gabriola Island.
In the last two years I’ve seen four YouTube videos featuring cougars swimming off Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. And in each video, the big cat went straight for the boat.
Was it curious or had its chase instinct been triggered by the fast moving object? Who knows, perhaps it just wanted to hitch a ride.
As curious as you may be, there are documented cases of cougars attempting to climb into moving boats so it’s best not to get too close.
A friend who loves to kayak asked what she should do if she saw a cougar swimming towards her kayak. My advice: pray, prepare your bear spray and paddle like hell!
This is one of my favourite swimming cougar videos. (It’s at the end of the article.)