Cougars and lions

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.

Walking toward the jaws of death.
Walking to­ward the jaws of death.

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.

Cougars, like all cats, focus intently on their prey.
Cougars, like all cats, fo­cus in­tently on their prey.

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?

Catch a cougar by the tail

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. 

Cougar running in snow.
Isn’t that tail just beg­ging to be pulled?
Photo cour­tesy California Fish and Game.




Cougars in urban areas

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.

hidden cougarThis photo by Jessie Dickson shows just how well a cou­gar can blend in.

Cougars are excellent swimmers

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.)