King of the Mountain
Though rarely seen, the cougar looms large in the popular consciousness of all Texans.
By E. Dan Klepper
First he cleared the Grove of Zeus of a lion, and put its skin upon his back, hiding his yellow hair in its fearful tawny gaping jaws.- Euripides, Hercules
The Nemean lion, a wily beast that once terrorized the countryside of Greece, was no match for the power of the mighty Hercules, according to the writer Euripides in his chronicles of the strongman’s life-tale. The story recounted Hercules, commanded to rid the region of the man-eating nuisance, cornering the lion in its cave and then subduing the animal with nothing but a single rudimentary weapon — his powerful embrace. Bring it on, Ultimate Fighting Champion!
The lion in the Euripides tale was the African species, Panthera leo, rather than Texas’ own North American lion, Puma concolor. But taxonomy and Herculean strength notwithstanding, earth-bound men have wrestled for centuries with the lion in their pursuit to knock the king of the animal world off nature’s throne. The lion, however, whether African or North American, has managed to prevail. And the big cat’s own deadly sleeper hold, on its prey as well as the human psyche, has proven to be the true measure of muscle.
The ancient Hebrews had several names for their lions, each according to the animal’s formidability and age. Caphir was a strong young lion, Arie signified a voracious adult, Shichets indicated a ferocious lion of middle age and Lice was the name for an old lion (a name that succinctly describes a cranky old hunter who has spent his entire life stalking, killing and eating wild game). In North America, the Spanish call the lion léon de montaña, the Mayans cabcoh and the Guianans tig rouge. Texans also have names for their lions, including puma as in its taxonomic designation Puma concolor, cougar, panther, and catamount, meaning “cat of the mountain.”
The lions of Texas have been routine inhabitants of the state for thousands of years, according to the fossil record. The mountain lion roamed throughout its borders at one time; in fact, it previously inhabited the entire northern hemisphere, from Canada to South America, giving it the broadest known distribution of any wild cat. These predatory animals coexisted with all other wildlife in the natural world until the dawn of our agrarian society. For a time, we were willing to share nature’s bounty with the lions, if only by default — we ate the same things they did. But then they had the temerity to kill a few fruits of our labor (like domesticated livestock) and later our house pets, and then one or two of our own kind. Thus a demon was born, and a battle ensued.
The healthy balance between predator and prey is a simple and indisputable concept, and to argue otherwise would be to enter the realm of, well, mythology. But for humans, predation is a good thing only when the circumstances place the interests of Homo sapiens on the winning end of the ordeal. In Texas, where the domestic livestock industry and property ownership have dominated the dialogue about the state’s native predators, the mountain lion has remained the elusive unregulated animal. It is officially classified as nongame and is not protected from hunting any time of the year.
Information on the mountain lions of the Lone Star State, including their range, behavior and total population, is at best sparse and often speculative. Anecdotal stories on Texas lions abound and make for great reading but are inadequate when attempting to comprehend the true nature of the cat. Several excellent research studies by TPWD biologists Mike Pittman, Gilbert Guzman and Billy Pat McKinney; university researchers Louis Harveson, Mike Tewes, Bruce Leopold, Jane Packard, and David Waid; and legendary lion trapper Roy T. McBride have given us much of what Texans know so far about the wary predator. But one fact has never been in doubt — the mountain lion is nature’s consummate takedown master.
Counter to popular thought, mountain lions do not chase after their prey in hot pursuit or pounce down from cliff edges or tree branches. The sheer power of a lion enables it to overtake prey of equal or smaller size by stealthful stalking until the meal is within close range. Then the cat simply rushes the prey and body slams it.
Downing larger prey, however, requires the cat to utilize its powerhouse finisher. A mountain lion does so by mounting its bigger prey from the side and then biting through the esophagus. The estimated bite force of a lion’s jaw is somewhere around 600 to 900 pounds depending upon the size of the jaw muscles, the length of the jaw bone (providing leverage) and the overall area of the teeth. A human’s bite force, by comparison, is about 180 pounds. The sharp, dagger-like canines and muscular jaws of a lion manage to inflict considerable damage, oftentimes puncturing the jugular vein and almost always suffocating the prey.
Deer, one of several prey species of the mountain lion, are often bitten beneath the neck during an attack. But rather than suffering the deer’s sharp hooves to do so, the lion will headlock the deer from behind or the side and twist the head around to expose the neck. Then the lion bites down and holds on until the deer expires.
The mountain lion’s stalking and killing techniques make it the premier deer hunter of Texas. Deer populations are healthy in Texas thanks to the long-term management of hunting practices, and this gives the state’s top predators — mountain lions and human deer hunters — an opportunity to share the wealth. However, lions are frequently accused of reducing deer populations whenever a decline is recognized, especially in the arid country of the Trans Pecos, where water is scarce yet necessary for maintaining herd populations of larger mammals like deer. But in reality the culprit is usually drought or loss of habitat. Research indicates that in areas where neither lion nor deer are hunted, including Big Bend National Park, both species are capable of maintaining healthy populations in response to available resources. Drought, for instance, reduces both predator and prey numbers while habitat gain or recovery increases each population to stabilized levels.
Contrary to common lion lore, a lion will kill the animal it wants rather than “culling” a herd of the weaker members. Thus, lions typically kill what they have a taste for, including white-tailed and mule deer, javelina, coyote and porcupine. Beef, on the other hand, is not among the lion’s favorites. As long as deer and javelina populations remain healthy, cattle have little to worry about. But do humans?
Mountain lion attacks on the human population are few and far between. But they do happen, especially in circumstances where individuals are rambling about in lion country. Prey behavior studies indicate that humans often unintentionally mimic prey by running, walking or swimming like prey, or by wandering about alone and stopping frequently (as if browsing), and, well, by simply qualifying in the lightweight class. Fighting back aggressively with fists or any sort of hand weapon has proven effective in preventing fatalities.
These facts shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors. Chances of suffering a rattlesnake bite are far greater in Texas than catching even a passing glance of one of the state’s big cats. But by better understanding predator behavior, Texas hikers, hunters and mountain bikers can stay safe and be prepared. Some of the following suggested rules of engagement, originating out of studies in other states with lion populations, may help.
For instance, if a mountain lion is sighted at greater than 100 yards and is moving away, enjoy the view. If it is more than 50 yards away and its attention is directed at you, the cat is probably curious — gather up the kids, stay in a group and keep moving with an eye on the cat. If it sits down, looks away or starts grooming itself, then its intentions are nonthreatening for the moment. But if the cat begins to stare at you while crouching and hiding and sneaking towards you and is doing so anywhere within 200-yards, it’s time to get your game on! Raise yourself up, spread your jacket or other article of clothing out and above you, and make menacing sounds — yell! Stay as upright as possible and, if you do bend down to pick up stones or sticks for weapons, maintain eye contact with the lion.
These actions usually suffice in deterring an attack. If the tail starts twitching, if the cat is keeping its body and head low to the ground and if its back legs start pumping like a sprinter’s, then you better get ready to rumble! But forget the Herculean hug. Think like a boxer. Better yet, if you’re carrying a firearm, don’t be afraid to use it!