Chances are, the cougars aren’t after you.
But you would have been hard-pressed to tell that to Kyle Burgess on Saturday, when he came face to face with a cougar while on a run in Utah’s Slate Canyon. The animal followed him for nearly six minutes, at times appearing to pounce aggressively towards him. Burgess filmed the entire encounter, which has since gone viral. The video has over 4 million views on YouTube, was covered by a local TV network, and has spread across social media.
“I was definitely scared because there was a cougar right in front of me,” said Burgess.
But while many reported that the cougar was ‘stalking’ Burgess, that doesn’t quite capture the reality of the situation. Burgess had originally approached some cougar cubs he mistook for bobcats, which he said he’d seen in the area before. Unfortunately, the cubs’ mother wasn’t happy about this.
“She was trying to look big and fierce and scare him away,” said Winston Vickers, a wildlife research veterinarian who directs the California Mountain Lion Project at the University of California, Davis.
The cougar also wasn’t “stalking” Burgess. As a rule, you wouldn’t see a mountain lion “stalking” you, said Petros Chrysafis, an independent scientist in California who studies human-wildlife interaction and predator deterrence.
“They stay low, they try to stay in the foliage as much as possible, and they’ll pounce on you as close as they can get,” said Chrysafis. Obviously, he said, the cougar was not doing that and was simply trying to scare Burgess with a “mock charge.”
“In reality, they’re not looking for a fight,” said Chrysafis. “They’re looking for you to back off.”
So, how did Burgess do when faced with a mountain lion? Not bad, said Chrysafis. In a twitter , he noted that Burgess did many of the right things, such as keeping his eye on the cougar while backing away and making noise to try to scare it off. But he could have gone even further.
“Be louder, be gruntier, be anything you see that spawns a moment of hesitation,” Chrysafis tweeted. He said Burgess also could have made more consistent noise or thrown a rock at the cougar sooner, which is ultimately what made the cougar go away. Vickers recommended doing anything you can to show the cougar that you are “big and strong and loud and nasty.”
Both Vickers and Chrysafis also recommend using bear spray, which is a deterrent similar to a big can of pepper spray, or even firing a gun at the ground to scare the animal if you’re carrying one.
Of course, neither Vickers nor Chrysafis fault Burgess. It’s one thing for researchers like them to say what should’ve happened when they aren’t confronted with an aggressive mountain lion.
Growing up in Utah, Burgess said he was taught that if confronted with a large animal like a bear or mountain lion, he should make himself look big and scary. But he also wanted to make it clear to the mother cougar that he posed no threat to her babies.
“I think that if I were to have made more aggressive movements towards her she could have attacked,” he said.
But Vickers and Chrysafis say that it’s unlikely aggression would cause a cougar to attack. Vickers actually says that it can sometimes be good to show aggression in return, although he knows it’s not something that most people are comfortable with. What likely would have gotten Burgess in trouble is turning his back and running, which may have caused the cougar to chase him. If you encounter an angry cougar, it’s best to back up slowly but confidently, make lots of noise, and throw something its way if you can.
But the good news is that you probably don’t have to worry about any of this. It is rare to see a cougar at all, says Vickers — they are usually timid and good at staying out of sight. If you do see one with or without cubs, he said, it’s best to immediately stop and observe it from a safe distance.
“Most of the time, they just slip away quietly,” he said.
Aggressive cougars are even rarer. In the nearly twenty years he’s researched mountain lions, Vickers has never been pursued by one, and only knows one colleague who has (he, too, was pursued by an angry mother). A 2005 found that out of the roughly 250 times a group of researchers approached cougars, they only showed aggression in 16 cases (6% of approaches), and 14 of those were females with cubs. Another 2011 noted that cougar attacks in the United States and Canada only happen about four to six times a year and are unlikely to result in harm or death, especially if the person’s an adult and avoids running or moving quickly.
As for why this cougar pursued Burgess for so long, neither researcher could say. Vickers said that it’s unusual for a cougar to approach a person for this long, but stressed that while cougars tend to be timid, individuals can act differently. Chrysafis thought it might have been because of her age.
“She seemed kind of young and inexperienced,” he said.
As for Burgess, he says he wouldn’t have done anything differently. He is glad he maintained some level of calm through the encounter, and that the cougar ultimately left and went back to her cubs. He’s still figuring out how he might better prepare for a situation like this, but said he’s been enjoying researchers like Chrysafis taking the opportunity to teach people about cougar behavior. He also says he has a new appreciation for the mostly unseen animals of the mountains.
“We aren’t alone when we go into the mountains,” he said. “That’s not our home.”