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North American Cougar Attacks

Far and away the most frequently asked question we get after receiving a sighting report is, "Is this cat dangerous and am I [or my children] in any danger of being attacked?" So to answer that question we analyzed the available data on cougar attacks and here is what we discovered...

Attacks are on the rise

Graph of Cougar Attacks in North America, 1970 - March 2004

Unprovoked cougar attacks on humans are on the rise. Between 1890 and 1969 there were six attacks - with three of them ending fatally - and all occurred on or very near the Pacific coast. To be fair there were probably more incidents than were recorded in the surviving data, nevertheless it's apparent that during this time encounters between humans and cougars were a rare event since the cougars themselves were rare creatures due to the shoot-on-sight mentality prevailing during that time.

However in 1970 reports of human/cougar encounters began a steep rise. This was almost certainly due to increased human penetration of cougar territory as people began settling in remote areas to "get back to the land" and hiking the back country in increasing numbers - a response to the environmental movement then in full force.

The environmental movement was also responsible for a greater appreciation and understanding of the natural world and the role of predators in it. It culminated in the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 which made cougars a managed and protected species. Ironically, as humans began invading cougar territory the cougar population - thanks to the Endangered Species Act - also began a steep rise as well.

The decade of the 1970's saw eight cougar attacks on humans with three of them ending in fatalities - as many fatalities as had been recorded in the previous 80 years. Throughout the 80's and 90's each succeeding decade topped the previous one in numbers of attacks and fatalities (see graph). With the current decade not yet half over it appears that this trend will continue - although it's beginning to show signs of leveling off as humans learn to co-exist with their large feline neighbors.

Distribution of Attacks

Map of Locations of Cougar Attacks in North America, 1970 - July 2004

Since 1970 records that we consider reliable show that there have been at least 72 cougar attacks in the United States and Canada with 15 of them resulting in human fatalities. Significantly over a quarter of these attacks - and over half the fatalities - have occurred in two places: British Columbia and California. Both areas have either banned or severely curtailed the hunting of cougars which has given rise to a population explosion among the cats and both areas are experiencing a large rise in human population.

Vancouver Island

Far and away the highest incidence of encounters has occurred on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Cougars are basically trapped on the island and as a result there is no outlet for surplus cats. This, coupled with a no hunting policy and an increasing human presence has made Vancouver Island the leader in human/cougar interactions. A second, mainland area of high activity in British Columbia centers on the area surrounding Tofino in southern BC. Again, ideal cougar habitat, an expanding human population and a no-hunting policy have all conspired to increase the number of human/cat encounters.

California

California presents the same problem as Vancouver Island though on a larger, less intense scale. A no-hunting policy in effect since 1974 has caused an explosion in the number of cougars in the state. Couple this with an expanding human population that increasingly seeks recreational opportunities in cougar territory and the result is an increase in cougar attacks. Significantly in California the vast majority of the serious incidents occur in parks and national forests.

Other areas

Two other areas of high activity are in the Colorado Rockies and Big Bend National Park in Texas. In both of these areas cougars are encouraged to be cougars. Yet people insist on becoming alarmed when the cougars act like wild animals. Taken together these four areas - Vancouver Island and the Tofino area in British Columbia, California, Colorado and Big Bend National Park account for roughly three quarters of the cougar attacks that have occurred in North America.

Characteristics of the Cats

A second factor in cougar attacks centers on the cats themselves. In over 85% of the cases where data on the cougar involved in a human attack were known and/or recorded the cat was either young and inexperienced, starving, sick, elderly, or exhibited some combination of these factors. In short most human attacks are the result of desperation on the part of the cougars involved.

The Victims

A third factor in cougar attacks is the age of the victim. Nearly every attack involving a healthy adult human was unsuccessful (from the cat's point of view) since the individual involved escaped alive by (usually) successfully fighting off the attack. Fatalities nearly always occurred in males who were under the age of 12, with the average age being 11.8 years. When the 35 year old cyclist in California was removed from the data the mean age of attack victims dropped to 9 years of age.

Female fatalities on the other hand went to the opposite extreme with a mean age of victim fatalities being 35. When the single 7 year old girl was dropped from the data the mean age of victims rose to 40.6 years of age. While it's speculation on my part as to why this differential in the age and gender of victims occurs it seems that two factors are involved.

Young boys are far more likely to explore new areas and wander off alone away from the protection of a group than are girls. This coupled with their inability to defend themselves makes them easy prey for opportunistic cougars. The one girl who ended up as the victim of a cougar was snatched off her swingset in her backyard (in British Columbia).

Adult women on the other hand are more likely to wander off alone in cougar territory where they become targets for hunting cats. From what is known of these fatal attacks on women it appears that in nearly all cases they ran from the cat, triggering it's attack. Aside from the fact that it's impossible to outrun a cougar, a cat approaching from behind has all the advantages on its side and the outcome is almost predetermined.

Assessment of Danger in the Midwest

So now we return to the question that originally started this discussion: "Is this cat dangerous and am I [or my children] in any danger of being attacked?"

If you live east of the Mississippi River the answer is a qualified no. Cougar populations are still very low, there is lots of non-human game, there is plenty of space for the cats to roam and no reason for the cats to purposely seek out human prey. Remember that even in areas with dense cougar populations attacks on humans are rare events. In nearly every case the human invaded the cat's space, not the other way around. Humans (from a cat's perspective) are dangerous, unpredictable and potentially deadly prey with a very high risk of injury to the cat. Except in cases of extreme desperation cougars do not purposely seek out humans as prey. Healthy cats never hunt humans.

With all that said, however, it's still a good idea to keep a close eye on children. Cougars aside, there are far more dangerous predators out there who do hunt children. But if the threat of cougars keeps us all more vigilant about our children then I say good for the cougars. Perhaps a few more cougars wandering about would be good thing for everyone concerned...


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