The mountain lion is referred to in many different ways: cougar, puma, panther, catamount, mountain screamer, painter, and dozens of others. In fact it holds the Guinness record for the animal with the greatest number of names.
Mountain lions are the largest small cat. This sounds contradictory, but what it means is that in evolutionary terms, they are more closely related to small cats while being the largest of them. One of the reasons for the ‘small cat’ classification is that they lack the specialised larynx and hyoid apparatus to roar. Instead they are well known for their habit of screaming, a sound which can be mistaken for a human scream and is consequently unsettling if not confusing.
Except for humans, mountain lions are the mammal with the widest range in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. This doesn’t mean that they are a dominant species, however. They are in competition with other large predators in some areas, and will cede to wolves and grizzly bears. One distinct subspecies, the Florida panther, is in danger of extinction with only 100 left in the wild. That is against the 30,000 mountain lions which are estimated to inhabit the Western United States.
Being cats, mountain lions must eat meat, but they have adapted well to prey on the species available in each area, and this may include the regular attacking of livestock, including surplus killing of sheep and lambs, much like a fox in a henhouse. They are primarily ambush predators, stalking under cover till they’re able to leap on the back of the victim and bite its neck, attempting to insert their teeth between the vertebrae and sever the spinal cord. They sometimes break the neck of smaller animals with their bite and the momentum of slamming it to the ground. They cover their kill with brush and keep coming back to it over a period of days. Generally speaking they aren’t scavengers, but they have been known to eat carrion.
These slender, agile and powerful cats are, of course, able to kill humans, and are a serious danger to hikers and trailbikers in remote areas where they may stalk for some time before striking. The best current advice for self-defence would seem to be firstly, always be in a group if possible and stick close together. Mountain lions tend to select isolated individuals. Secondly, if attacked, run away only if you’re agile and not likely to fall. Otherwise stand and face the animal, stare them down, shout loudly and use a walking stick or similar as a weapon, making yourself seem as big and threatening as possible. About three-quarters of people survive except for children, who are much more vulnerable. As with coyotes, when there are increased instances of attacks these can usually be attributed to desensitisation to humans because prey recognition for mountain lions is a learned behaviour and humans aren’t part of their normal repertoire.
The law varies across the United States with regard to the mountain lion’s level of protection from humans. Texas, which has quite a large population of these animals, is the only state which offers no protection at all. They are listed as nuisance wildlife and anyone with a hunting or trapping permit can kill any number of them, of any sex and any age, all year round. There is not even any requirement to report a killing. The way mountain lions are hunted is usually with packs of dogs until the animal is ‘treed’. The hunter will then shoot it at close range.