Avoiding cougar attacks

Encounters are unlikely, but most stalking incidents are not reported

Gary Lewis /

If you want to avoid being attacked by a mountain lion, conventional wisdom says, you should travel in groups. If you encounter a mountain lion by yourself or with children, stop and make yourself look as big as possible. Pick up a small child and put him on your shoulders to make yourself appear even larger.

Defend your position, pick up a branch and get ready to fight. Speak loudly. Sing opera.

I added that last part.

According to statistics from the last decade, there are an average of 5.6 reported cougar attacks in the United States and Canada each year. The chances of being struck by lightning they say, are greater than being attacked by a cougar.

So what are the chances of being struck by lightning? According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, about 1,000 people are struck by lightning in the United States each year, so with 280 million people in the country, the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 280,000.

A fellow named Robb Montajano tried to video lightning while standing in the middle of a field near Green Lake in Washington on Saturday. Boom. It got him. Fortunately he lived to tell about it.

Just as a lightning strike counts only if it gets you, a mountain lion encounter is not considered an attack until the cat pounces. A lot of stalking incidents go unreported. Not so with 40-year-old Kyra Kopestonsky from Colorado. Kopestonsky, who doesn’t look like the typical opera singer, was hiking in Down Valley Park near Placerville. She caught a glimpse of brown out of the corner of her eye and then saw the lion. As she backed away, it approached, to within eight feet. That’s when, she says, she began to sing. Opera. Loud.

The thing about opera is that like in dog years, what passes for a minute seems like seven minutes. So if Ms. Kopestonsky says she sang for 10 minutes, what the cat experienced was more like 70 minutes.

This was, presumably, when the lion began to yawn, excused itself and went looking for a restroom and a bag of popcorn.

I wonder, what opera does one sing when being stalked by a cougar?

Exactly one week earlier, my cousin’s 13-year-old daughter, Alexa Lewis, was stalked by a mountain lion along a creek in the mountains of Curry County. Lexie had walked upstream, away from her dad, to grab something at camp. Her 4-month-old pup, a Walker hound, was with her.

As soon as she was alone, she began to sense something but continued to work her way up the creek.

“My hair rose on the back of my neck and goosebumps formed on my arms.” She reached camp, grabbed the item she’d been sent to get and then turned back downstream.

“I faintly became aware of a strange smell. Sugar Bear, our hound dog, looked behind me, sniffed the air and suddenly put his tail between his legs, and took off running for my dad.”

That is when she saw it, “a huge, dark, furred animal.” The big cat stalked from tree to tree.

“He was a dark brown with very big paws, a huge head with caved-in ears and long whiskers. He had a lighter long tail, but his overall size was overwhelming.”

Downstream, her dad saw the dog and yelled for Lexie. When she didn’t answer, he started to run.

“I was frozen and could not move,” Lexie said. “It became hard to breathe, and I started shaking violently. My knees felt weak and came close to buckling. I kept telling myself in my head to scream.”

Sounds a lot like the opera.

Lexie screamed, threw the pan she was holding and started to run. She could hear the cougar behind her, its feet hitting the ground, and then she saw the dog and her dad, and the cat turned and ran. Lexie credits her pup and her dad for saving her life.

Perhaps Lexie could teach herself some opera or something from a musical for the next time she encounters a cat.

For the guy who videoed lightning on a plain in the rain near Green Lake, Washington, my daughter Mikayla recommends a song from the musical “My Fair Lady.”

Well after all, I’m an ordinary man,

Who desires nothing more than an ordinary chance,

to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants...

An appropriate sentiment for Montajano’s poststrike attitude is found in the song “Without You” from the same play: What a fool I was, what an addlepated fool. What a mutton-headed dolt was I.

Note to small children: Both mountain lions and lightning strike from above. If you go out of doors, put an adult on your shoulders.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “John Nosler – Going Ballistic,” “A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.