A Story From My Life
by Julia Larke
On September 5, 2003, a cougar stalked me at Jughandle State Reserve near Caspar, California. Around 7:00 in the evening, I was walking with my two dogs along the Staircase Trail about 1/2 mile east of Highway 1. I noticed that the dogs very suddenly veered off the trail and when I looked in the direction they were headed, I saw a mountain lion about 25 yards away slowly walking through the woods towards me. It ignored the dogs, who seemed curious about it, but kept a safe distance. The cat was totally focused on ME.
My first fleeting thoughts were "Wow, a beautiful big cougar....when it sees the dogs it will run away....seeing me will scare it away....Oh, NO! It's coming for me!" When it was still about 20 yards away, I grabbed a 6 ft long brushy branch and STOOD MY GROUND and began YELLING at it to GO AWAY! I had no inclination to turn my back or to run. The cat had big eyes that were focused on me and I was caught in its gaze.
For a moment, I appreciated that this predator/prey relationship is all there is in the world of living things...the cat was not angry or vicious, in fact, it was completely calm. It did not hate me and I did not hate it. The autumn evening was very beautiful and all was as it should be. After this illuminating but necessarily brief revelation, I immediately entered 'fighting-for-my-life-hooting-ape' mode. The cat approached to within 8 to 10 feet (!!!) and ranged slowly in a short arc in front of me preparing to spring. All the while, I am YELLING VERY LOUDLY and holding the branch between it and me. When the cat crouched to spring, I threw the branch, but it shrugged it off and tensed to spring again.
At this point, my younger dog, Monk, a year-old Jack Russell terrier mix, who was close at my side, suddenly leaped in at the cougar and back out in a flash. This caused the cat to look at Monk and lash out a paw. When this happened, I immediately felt a physical release...I was no longer the focus of the cat's hypnotic gaze! I could sense the cat thinking..."And WHERE is that other dog?" My older dog, Jack, a Catahoula hound-Lab mix, had circled round to where the cat had first appeared. The mountain lion flew back to where Jack was and snarled and lashed out at him. Jack's ruff looked like a hyena's and he stood his ground.
The moment the cat left me by the trail, I frantically backed away in the opposite direction and then scrabbled through the woods fearing there would be a blood bath if a fight started. The cat might then run after me and leap on my back...so frightening a thought! As I ran and got some distance away, I called to the dogs hoping they would follow. Thankfully, they both appeared at my side, quite cheerful and enthused. We ran through the woods for a few minutes until we came to a woman's home at the edge of the reserve. We all were unharmed. The dogs saved me by diverting the cougar's attention, but, I feel I was a hair's breadth from a mauling and possible death. It is both frightening and enlightening, to be prey!
Mendocino County has one of the highest populations of cougars in California. Mountain lions rarely approach humans...their preferred prey is deer and we have an over-population of deer. Where they have attacked people, it is often because the lion is guarding a cache from a previous kill and people come near it. This happened recently in Orange County to a mountain biker who was killed by a cougar. An interesting and awful fact about the Orange County incident (according to a local Dept. of Fish & Game man) is that a landowner who kept goats adjacent to the location on the bike trail had reported cougar predation just days before the attack! Hello, isn't staking out a goat a classic method of attracting big predators! Environmental planners might take note of this when developing wilderness trails in mountain lion territory.
I wrote this account to share with others a story from my life and to contribute to an information base about cougar encounters in Mendocino County, California. The mountain lion is a wonderful creature, a top predator whose presence keeps the ecosystem healthy. The more we know its habits the less likely it is that dangerous interactions with humans will occur. In cougar country, we can discourage their presence in populated areas by not feeding deer and by not letting pets run wild. When hiking in wilderness areas, we can take certain precautions. Enjoy the woods and be wary!