No, That Mountain Lion Wasn't "Stalking" a Runner

A viral video of a mountain lion has inspired headlines about the cat "stalking" the runner who recorded it. But that's not what the clip shows.
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mountain lion

A mountain lion (not the one from the video.)

By now, you've doubtless seen *that* viral mountain lion video. Shot in Utah, the six-minute clip shows a mountain lion advancing, snarling and batting at the air, as Kyle Burgess, the trail runner holding the camera, slowly backs away down the gravel path. Since first appearing online, the video, titled "Cougar Attack in Utah | Mountain Lion Stalks Me For 6 Minutes!" has appeared in publications from CNN to Newsweek, many of which have parroted its language about "stalking" and "attacks" in their titles.

Beth Pratt has a problem with headlines like those.

"'Stalking' implies you're hunting something, right?" she says. "I always say this: If a mountain lion is stalking you to hunt you, you will probably not know."

Pratt has had her fair share of encounters with cougars, both personal and professional. As the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation, she works with conservation groups trying to protect mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, and has helped collar the animals for National Park Service projects. She's also encountered lions, on lawns and in backyards, near her home outside of Yosemite National Park.

As Pratt points out, mountain lions are ambush predators, sneaking up on their quarry and staying hidden until the very last minute. 

In contrast, she says, the snarling, lunging cat in the video is trying to warn off a creature that it likely sees as a threat. She points out that the cougar's reaction begins after Burgess, the runner, approaches its offspring. (In interviews, Burgess has said he thought the kittens were bobcats.)

Pratt uses the analogy of a mother on a playground to explain the lion's reaction.

"She looks over and a strange man is going up to one of her little kids," Pratt says. "So she's probably responding. 'That's a threat. Oh my God, I don't know who that is.'"

Aside from approaching the kittens, Pratt acknowledges that Burgess did many things right: He made himself as tall as possible, backed away while talking firmly to the mountain lion, and threw a rock to dissuade the animal when he felt safe doing so. She worries, however, that sensational headlines and fear might prompt some hikers to take more drastic measures.

"You have people panicking and saying the cat needs to be shot, or that you should run with a gun. It just incites fear where it doesn't need to be," Pratt says. "I think it actually makes people less safe, because [they believe] they can behave in the wrong way around wildlife. And it certainly makes the wildlife less safe."

While there are no guarantees around wildlife, mountain lion attacks are extremely rare: In the United States, roughly 20 people have died in cougar attacks over the past 100 years. (In contrast, about five people die from venomous snakebites countrywide every year, while about 86 die annually from bee and wasp stings.) Speaking to the New York Times about the case, Scott Root, the conservation outreach director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife Resources, said he couldn't recall a fatal cougar attack in the state in his 30-year career.

To ward off encounters like the one depicted in the video, Pratt suggests giving mountain lions space and learning a little about their behavioral cues so you can "read the room" should you run into one. For those who feel the need to carry some kind of protection, bear spray—which Pratt carries regularly—works as well on cougars as it does on grizzlies. 

Ultimately, though, she says a mountain lion you can see is unlikely to attack you.

"If you see a mountain lion and it sees you...you probably aren't in danger," she says. "That mountain lion knows you're aware of it, and it's not on the hunt."