It was skirting the side of a Montana mountain, picking my way along a rough game trail, when the cougar stopped me cold. She lay in the duff at the base of a fir, about 30 yards downhill, and probably had been watching me for a while. Her body language-prone position, direct gaze, forward ears, closed mouth-seemed to ask, "Who are you, and what's up?"
I answered her by standing tall, spreading my arms until my jacket looked like wings, and slowly backing away, hoping the mountain lion would interpret my movements to mean, "No cause for alarm. I'm big, weird, and I'm outta here."
I had moved only a few feet when I was startled to see the cougar's two yearling cubs, almost as big as she, bedded shoulder to shoulder near a tree just below the mother. Their postures repeated her questions, and I kept up my body reply until I'd backed over the ridge and out of sight. The exchange was short, civil, and one of the most exciting I have ever had.
Body language. All animals use it. A flick of the tongue, a slightly lowered head, a sideways turn of the body-various movements can communicate everything from gender to age to social status. More important, animals' lives often depend on gestures. They indicate where to find food, warn others of impending danger, or remind them who is the leader. Wild-life give directions and indicate to one another when they are mad or glad or relaxed or hurt or feeling sexy. In short, animals organize and run their private and social lives through all kinds of subtle and overt mannerisms.
You may not realize it, but you've been witnessing similar signals for years around the office, in bars, even at the family dinner table. Learn how to recognize and apply these signals to your hooved, winged, and clawed brethren, and you'll open a new world of communication and understanding.
There are four basic "messages" wildlife give off via their body language: contentment, submission, alarm, and aggression.
An animal that displays contentment isn't threatened by your presence and continues to go about its business of eating, sleeping, and moving from one place to another. When a deer is content, it frequently flicks its tail and ears, walks slowly with evenly spaced steps, and lowers and raises its head in an alert but relaxed fashion. Other animals behave similarly, biting at flies, occasionally flicking their ears, but not becoming tense or overly alert.
If you witness this type of disturbing behavior, you're not too close to the animal. The creature may be aware that you're there, but isn't likely to become aggressive unless you do something to change the dynamic. Likewise, and just as important, the animal is telling you that your presence isn't throwing an unexpected kink into its routine, keeping it from food, water, or shelter.
Among packs or herds, you may notice body language that could be interpreted as a sign of alarm, but it is actually an expression of social courtesy and submission to others in the group. When moving past one another, deer and coyotes often lower their heads and flatten their ears. Or they may crouch and curl their tails between their legs. These signs of submission say, "Hey, everything's cool," or "Let's keep the peace." Similar postures show up in other social animals from wolves to wild horses.
On first seeing these movements, you may think the animal is alarmed by your presence and is trying to slink off to find cover. Not so. It's just being polite to its neighbor and probably doesn't know you're there.
"When an animal pricks up its ears and stares at you, it's showing alarm. There's stress going on. You're too close for its comfort," says Greg Kurz, a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park. An animal that's alarmed is not relaxed and is suddenly alert. If it's feeding, it'll quickly stop. If it's walking, it may change direction. If standing, it may move away or suddenly turn to face you. Animals that feel they're being preyed upon will back up, keeping as much distance as possible between you.
Some animals have unique ways of expressing alarm. A beaver slaps its tail on the water. A pronghorn antelope flares the hair on its rump. A deer "flags" its white tail over its back as it hightails it to safer ground. An opossum plays dead by going limp, closing its eyes, and lolling its tongue.
"Skunks and rabbits beat their feet on the ground when they're alarmed," says Vince Yannone, an independent wildlife consultant who has more than 30 years of experience with animals in the wild. "And if you startle a coyote, the hair on its back goes up. It gets stiff-legged and flattens its ears."
Some alarmed ducks and other birds, such as the killdeer, will feign broken wings and flap across the water or flutter across the ground in an attempt to lure you from nearby nests where eggs or hatchlings are hidden.
In short, an alarmed animal is issuing warnings, either to you or its kin. When you see these signs, back off. An alarmed animal is under stress and may become aggressive or flee habitat critical to its survival. (Hikers persistently approaching bighorn sheep in California's Santa Rosa Mountains eventually drove the animals from an important watering hole.) Alarmed animals also expend extra energy, and may even abandon their young.
Sometimes, when you've failed to recognize the early warnings and have invaded an animal's space, it will stand its ground and confront you. This aggressive behavior is dangerous to both you and the animal.
"Animals that become aggressive are generally protecting their young or food, or they're startled by your presence," says Yannone. "I had a squirrel charge me once because her young crawled under the corner of my tent."
I would have felt differently about the three Montana mountain lions, for instance, if instead of lying quietly but alertly, they had crouched and crept in my direction, or bared their teeth and swatted their paws. Those would have been clear signs of aggression, and a possible attack.
Yannone advises responding with body language. "When an animal is showing aggression, every move you make, whether you're conscious of it or not, sends a reply. In most cases you need to stand tall. Make yourself look big. Pick up a large stick. Back away slowly. You'll tell the animal that you're too big to be messed with and have no desire to pick a fight."
It can take years to understand the subtleties of communicating with animals. But if you take the time to learn some of their basic language, the natives will be friendlier and your backcountry visits will be safer.
Sam Curtis talks to the animals near his home in Bozeman, Montana.