By Diane Dragotto Williams
There is an animal in the forest who is highly misunderstood and greatly feared, and that is the mountain lion. Being known for its prowess and hunting skills, the cat lives a solitary life and is a trophy game animal in many states. Yet mystery surrounds the life and nature of this marvelous creature. Powerful enough to take down its prey in short order, this feline is a formidable predator. However, in our urban environment, it struggles to stay alive.
The cougar (Puma concolor), also known as the puma, mountain lion, panther, or catamount, is a large cat of the family Felidae native to the Americas and the greatest of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Mountain lion males can weigh up to 220 lbs and females can weigh up to 140 lbs. Adult cougars stand about 24 to 35 in tall at the shoulders. Adult males are around 8 ft long nose-to-tail and females average 7 ft. Of this length, about 25 to 37 inches, is the length of the tail. Cougars use their long tails for balance, maneuvering rocky outcroppings and mountains, as well as, warmth for a cold winter’s night in high altitudes.
Tawny in color, and sleek of body, this feline is easily recognized in the wild. Its powerful forequarters, neck, and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey. It has five retractable claws on its forepaws four on its hind paws. The larger front feet and claws are designed to clutch prey. Cougars are well known for their screams but sometimes they hiss, growl, purr, as well as chirp and whistle.
An excellent stalk-and-ambush predator, the cougar pursues a wide variety of prey. It stalks through brush and trees, across ledges, or other covered spots, before delivering a powerful leap onto the back of its prey and a suffocating neck bite. The cougar is capable of breaking the neck of some of its smaller prey with a strong bite and momentum bearing the animal to the ground. It’s not unusual for a cougar to bury its kill, and return to feed on it over a number of days. Large prey can last a cougar every one or two weeks. However, during the raising of young, kills every three days are normal.
Female cougars are fiercely protective of their kittens, and have been seen to successfully fight off animals as large as American black bears in their defense. Males are not a part of the process of rearing the young and are chased away soon after courtship. Litters between one and six cubs are denned in caves or rock alcoves. Young lions are expected to be on their own by the second year.
California prey includes deer and bighorn sheep, as well as cattle, horses and sheep. This cat prefers habitats with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas. The cougar is territorial and survives at low population densities. Individual territory sizes depend on terrain, vegetation, and abundance of prey. Life expectancy can range from 8 to 13 years in the wild. However, in areas where large prey like deer and big horn sheep are scarce, many yearlings cannot survive, starving to death. It is not unusual for sanctuaries like Wildhaven Ranch to receive spottings of young lions found in pools in the desert drinking water and hoping to capture prey at the “watering hole”. We have great compassion for these incredible creatures of the wild. We promote the understanding that these cats are not dangerous to man, unless confronted, or if the human runs or “looks like” prey on the run. Reclusive and avoiding people, fatal attacks on humans are rare, and are a gift of beauty!
Contact Wildhaven Ranch for wildlife tours at (909)337-7389 or visit their website at www.wildhavenranch.org.
By Diane Dragotto Williams