photo by ucumari
The most important information about the wild Cougar is how we as humans interact with this largest of the small cats because it is our interaction that has by far the biggest impact on the life of this animal. You can read all the information you want about appearance and diet etc. but this post looks primarily at human interaction and its impact. Human activity that affects the life of the wild Cougar are by necessity (a) sport hunting and (b) human population growth resulting in habitat erosion and prey reduction, and (c) conservation. There is also the general background attitude to the wild Cougar (and wild animals in general) that underpins the above that needs to be touched on.
The cougar has many names. Cougar (also Mountain Lion and Puma ), it seems, are used in the USA, while Mountain Lion is used in Canada and Australia and Puma in the UK. Panther is another name that is used. Although I am sure that these names are used interchangeably across the globe. There are other less frequently used names.
The name Cougar comes originally from the Tupi, native Indian "susuarana". This means “false deer”. This word was used and altered in Brazilian Portugese as "cuguacuarana", which in turn was used and altered to "cuougar" by a French explorer and naturalist. Thence to "Cougar" (src: www.cougarfund.org).
It has been postulated that the cougar became extinct in North America at the same time as the Saber Tooth tiger some 10,000 years ago and that North America was repopulated by a migration of Cougars from South America. It is thought that originally the ancestor to the Cougar came to North America via the Bering Straight (opens to a map), which about 8 million years ago, was a land bridge between Alaska and Russia as they now are.
Scientists now consider there to be 6 subspecies, covering the largest range of any wild land animal. The area on the map left shows the range which extends from the north of North America (Canada) to the southern tip of Chile in South America.
The area extends to almost the whole of South America and the south western third of North America. It would seem that the reason the Cougar is restricted to part of North America is because of a lack of suitable habitat in the other areas, which in turn is due to a more concentrated human occupation of those areas and looking further north, an unsuitable natural habitat for all but specialist animals.
The range includes a small area in Florida, surprisingly. I have posted an article about the Florida Cougar, which tells us a lot about our interaction with large wild animals generally.
This map is published under a Wikimedia creative commons license versions 2.5, 2.0 and 1. The map is by Java13690
The subspecies of the Cougar are:
--Eastern South American Cougar
--Northern South American Cougar
--Southern South American Puma
--North American Cougar
--Costa Rican Cougar
The wild Cougar is like a domestic cat in many ways in respect of its hunting techniques and the sounds she makes (no roar). When the Cougar is ready to attack prey there is the domestic cat tail waggle, focused eyes and hind leg treading. Unlike big cats the Cougar kills prey in the same way as the domestic cat, by breaking the spine of the prey at the nape of the neck by inserting her teeth between vertebra. She is in many ways a big domestic cat. It size the wild Cougar is about the same weight as an adult human or less, so is much less intimidating to us that big cats that can weigh 5 or more times the weight of human. The biggest big cat is the Liger (900 lbs but this is an "artificial cat" having been bred in captivity). The Tiger is the biggest cat.
There have been only 14 fatal wild Cougar attacks in 100 years, 60% being children (presumed unsupervised). In that time 14,000 people have been killed by deer (src: Sierra Club, Arizona). I have just seen a really nice and enlightened article by
Wild Cougar - Hunting
When talking about hunting it is my view that we need to look very deeply into human behavior and history. There is no doubt that hunting did and still does play a major role in the diminishing population of the wild Cougar. It is relatively easy to find stories about Cougar hunting that demonstrates a continuing ignorance and arrogance (sorry to be critical but it is true) about our relationship with other animals. Of course, the amount of hunting is dependent on the amount of people, on two levels.
Legal hunting to remove the cougar as a pest over the period 1907 to 1978, under the Animal Control Program resulted in a minimum of 66,665 being killed! Astonishing. The program still exists and hunting is legal over the USA albeit regulated, except for California, where it is prohibited. See:
- Mountain Lion Tracks -how to spot Puma paw prints
- Mountain Lion Attack -human and animal attacks are discussed
- Mountain Lion Sounds - these are based on those of our pet cat
- Mountain Lion Cubs - a page on the early years plus vids + pics
- Florida Panther*** - about business and politics and death
- Cougar sightings
- Cougar Pictures - captive - wild - camera trap - game farm
- Puma Cat the Name - a well used name and there are lots
- Texas Mountain Lion - look at the range/distribution of this cat
- Conservation of the Puma Cat - Threats and conservation
Firstly, when there are more people there will be more people who want to hunt the Cougar. Secondly, with increased human population there will be an encroachment by humans onto what was Cougar territory, probably in the form of new ranches and settlements in relatively wild country (sprawling development encouraged by the large amount of space in the US). This leads to a conflict. The Cougar, following wild instincts, will kill livestock and attack the occasional person (extremely rarely and usually children) as they are forced to live in close proximity to people, through no fault of their own. In retaliation, and as justification for killing, people hunt the Cougar.
Not a wild Cougar sadly. Photo by Property#1
This same scenario (although in a far more parlous state) is happening with the big cats such as the Cheetah, Bengal Tiger and White Siberian Tiger. Although, the big cats mentioned have another enemy, the biggest enemy of all for the big cats, Chinese Medicine.
Before the European settlers of 1492 and beyond, North America was populated by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They are called Native Americans or First Nations and "Red Indians" (the last name is wrong and I am sure not liked by Native Americans). Diseases to which the Native Americans had no resistance and which were imported by European settlers killed a high percentage of First Nations people, all but wiping out some tribes.
Before the settlement of the Americas by Europeans the Cougar lived in relative harmony with Native Americans. This, it seems, is because of lower population of people and a natural respect by Native Americans for wildlife and the wild Cougar. The intention being to live more in harmony with nature. Perhaps they were wise enough to realize that this improved the prospect of survival for the Native American.
They believed (and still believe as I understand it) that the Cougar spirit can teach us to assert ourselves to become leaders (src: www.animaltotem.com). The wild Cougar spirit also guides us to understand the environment, which helps us to become leaders and be good leaders. It seems the Cougar, through this animal's grace and power, carries these qualities.
Each individual person has a natural affinity towards a certain animal (represented by a symbol an "animal totem") and by getting in touch with the animal's qualities, the person can use the animal as a guide to better achievement and contentment. You have to decide which is your animal totem and this process shouldn't be rushed. My animal totem is the cat totem. I don't profess to necessarily completely agree with the idea of animal totems but I do thoroughly understand the need and benefit gained from connecting with nature, which includes other animals.
It is a method it seems to me to draw from the animal world some of the strengths found in the animal world that we lack. It also creates a gentle and constructive connection with wild animals. This helps to protect the animal and assist the person - a natural harmony. This philosophy is it seems a way of connecting with nature, which the Native American's were probably obliged to do as they were very much living in it.
This is in stark contrast to the culture and philosophy that underpins Ancient and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Although the same process is at work; in both cases people are trying to enhance their lives by "using" other animals (usually wild animals and wild animals that have powers greater than our own).
In Native American culture the "use" of animals is mutually beneficial but in Chinese culture it is nothing but destructive. In Chinese Medicine in order to receive the benefit imbued in the animal it is necessary to eat it or the part of the animal that is meant to carry the benefit. That of course means killing the animal. This is a connection with nature in a physical and destructive sense whereas in the former it is a spiritual (mental) and more beneficial connection.
As stated, in both cultures, humans are demonstrating a respect for the animal but the animal does not receive a reward in Chinese culture; the opposite is true in Native American culture.
This difference may arise from a fear of the wild and nature. A wise Native American chief once said that, "what we don't understand we fear and what we fear we destroy" (this is not a quote). This is exaggerated perhaps but has an underlying truth. Native Americans didn't fear the wild Cougar because they connected with this animal via the animal's spirit. They felt that they understood the wild Cougar and in doing so could not fear this fantastic and handsome animal.
This graph shows wild Cougar hunting and killing in Western USA from 1900 to 200o showing the sharp increase despite the vulnerably low population of this animal. This graph is reproduced here courtesy of this website: www.pumaconservation.org I have taken the liberty of reproducing it without asking for the sake of the Cougar and given a link in exchange. The figures for the graph come from research carried out by Torres et al in 2004.
The European settlers in America hunted voraciously, it seems (but it is worse now - see the graph above). As long ago as 1906 in British Columbia, the Game Commission there at that time declared that the extermination of the Cougar was necessary, even at a high cost, to preserve "game" that the Cougar was hunting. Game had a value to the country as it was (and still is) an animal that was hunted for food. In other words the Cougar was eating food that people would have eaten. What's so bad about that? It wasn't a matter of life and death or survival for the human. And isn't there room for both of us? Yes, if we control our population explosion (see graph below).
Similar behavior takes place in the present in British Colombia. Not much has changed, just the excuse or reason, to kill a fine creature. Over the period 1998-2003, in the Kootenay region of BC near the border with USA, the wild Cougar population took a nose dive because of hunting. The Cougar population dropped from 1.47 to .85 animals (about half) per 100 sq.kms. 92% of the dead Cougars had been shot.
Bizarrely, the reason for the hunting and killing was that people in the region had thought that the Cougar population had increased substantially because a lot more Cougars were seen and were coming into conflict with people. The opposite has happening. Cougar population in the area had, in fact, declined to half that of other similar areas due to hunting. The wild Cougars remaining were young and it is the young and less experienced Cougars who approached people and got shot. This demonstrates the lack of knowledge and regrettably ignorance of some people.
Update: 1st September 2008: the problem of deciding wild cougar populations mentioned above is still happening. In an article in the Oregonian the journalist stated that Cougars killed in "encounters with humans" has risen substantially to 532 last year (presume 2007). It is not clear if this is because there are more Cougars. Some people think that this is the case stating that the conservation process is succeeding. Some disagree saying encounters are more likely to happen because of more roads and people etc. One person said that the wild Cougars are less fearful of humans and should be more fearful (agree with that). This seems to be a repeat of the above. Young Cougars are less experienced and therefore less fearful. An increase in young animals means a lower population as described above. This was not mentioned in the report. People don't know the true wild Cougar population so guess it and in doing so guess a figure that suites their interests, which usually means hunting and killing - a barbaric act in a modern world.
Frighten don't kill, don't stimulate hunting instinct
In fact wild Cougars can often be chased away by aggressive movement and noise with arm waving. Fighting back by throwing a rock or a stick or making a noise that is unusual to the Cougar should have a good chance of seeing off the animal (src: www.wemjournal.org). Other things that could be done to avoid a cougar are (a) don't approach (b) avoid triggering the cat's hunting instinct by not running past the cat or away from the cat (c) don't bend or crouch in the presence of this cat (d) back away slowly and (e) cats are crepuscular, they hunt at dawn and dusk, so avoid these times to go near an area where the wild cougar might be.
I am afraid that humans like to deceive themselves into thinking that they need to kill. The truth is that sometimes there is the urge to kill and the justification follows. Update July 21st 2008: ABC News reported an attack on a 5 year old boy by a Mountain Lion (wild Cougar) in the New Mexico's Cibola National Forest. He was with his family on a trail. All very normal. The Cougar dragged the boy away by the back of the boy's head (his scalp). The father chased and when close jumped at the Cougar. This single act scared the Mountain Lion away. The boy recovered well (fully) and is frightened of cats and dogs.
I wish him well and that he learns to like cats and dogs one day. This is not the Cougar's "fault". Fault is not in the language of wild animals. It shows how relatively easy it is to frighten Cougars away. They are not that big, no bigger than a man so the fight is even and most wild animals only fight when they have a high chance of success for the sake of survival. If they get injured they die in the wild. There is no need to hunt and kill wild Cougars other than for pleasure and that is immoral.
photo by ucumari
Many centuries ago hunting was a way to survive; it isn't anymore. It is now done to satisfy the deeply ingrained need that remains in some people. It is therefore done for pleasure (sport hunting). It cannot therefore be justified as it is at the expense of a living creature that will suffer pain. We cannot base our pleasure on another animal's pain and the loss of their life. This is immoral.
It also surprises me that hunting is still allowed. The World Conservation Union considers the wild Cougar as "near threatened". I will presume that the position is deteriorating for the Cougar. The animal is regulated by CITES but so is the tiger and that cat is near extinction as CITES regulations go unenforced. In many countries of South America hunting is prohibited but in North America it is "regulated hunting" i.e. allowed. How can that be justified?
Further in the USA the wild Cougar is hunted with dogs to exhaust the animal and then the "brave" and "skilled" hunter shoots and kills (this is an ego trip). In California the wild Cougar can only be killed under strictly controlled circumstances. Yet this regulation seems to go unheeded or perhaps abused and unenforced as this chart indicates. It is relatively easy to create a situation which justifies the killing of the Cougar and in any case it will be a fait accompli (an act done) (src for data for chart: Wikipedia - US Department of Fish and Game):
This shows the increase in wild Cougar killed in California over the period 1970 to 2006. For each year in the period 2000-2006 the figure is per 2006. The Californian authorities say that the wild Cougar population is at 4-6,000 in California at 2006. I don't know if this is good or bad or less or more than before.
Wild Cougar - Habitat
As usual humans (the top primate) is rapidly eroding the habitat of all other animals including that of the top predators (the big cats). In eastern countries the situation is more pressing as population growth is quicker. In countries like India large families are an asset for the parents as offspring can provide a source of income. In Namibia, the last stronghold, almost, of the Cheetah, the human population increase is ruining the chances of preserving the Cheetah. Bangladesh, the most densely populated country in the world is the major home of the Bengal tiger - what chance the Bengal tiger for survival?
But the West in not that much better. In the eastern countries there is little in the way of really reliable data on Tiger populations and the same seems to be true about the USA in respect of the Cougar. One reason is that this animal is very secretive (it has to be to survive). But when people see more Cougars they think the population is increasing when what is happening is they (the people) are populating areas that were once the exclusive habitat of the Cougar and her prey.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources says that the total breeding population at 50,000 (worldwide) and declining, while individual US States provide more optimistic figures (I guess they would).
USA people population growth 1790 to 2000. Projected for 2010 of 308,000,000. What hope the wild Cougar habitat? Published here under a Wikimedia commons license. Graph and Image by Crotalus horridus.
Not only does increased human population mean more Cougars hunted it also means more Cougar prey hunted. The Cougar then has to find alternative habitats which are becoming harder to find.
---We must learn to respect and live with the wild Cougar and other wild animals.
---We must control human population growth. This has been an ongoing issue for decades and nothing happens. Some economists probably encourage population growth to fuel economic growth. This is a reflection of how our world and the world of wild animals is run by commerce and few greedy people.
---Hunting must be banned generally and certainly in respect of this animal.
Photos published under a creative commons license:
- Top, heading photograph - by ucumari. This persom makes fine photographs of wildcats including the wild Cougar. This is no exception.
- 2nd down on RHS - by Airstream Life
- 3rd down on RHS - by ucumari