Facts and Helpful Information About
Mountain Lion Attacks
On People in the U.S. and Canada

Table of Contents

General Advice About Lion Encounters
Statistics of Attacks
List of Mountain Lion Attacks
Bibliography on Mountain Lions
Source Abbreviations

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This page is a complete, or very nearly complete, list of mountain lion attacks on people in California, and attempts to list all such attacks in the U.S. If you know of an attack not listed here, please email me.

Mountain lions are known by many names: cougar, panther, and puma. The "lion" term is due only to their color; in fact cougars are more closely related to leopards than to lions. In the text below, lion will always refer to cougar.

Mountain lion attacks on people have increased dramatically since 1986. For example, in California, there were two fatal attacks in 1890 and 1909, and then no further attacks for 77 years, until 1986. From 1986 through 1995, ten verified attacks occurred, an average rate of one per year. That average rate has continued through 1999. Attacks are now numerous enough that there is a support group for attack victims, called California Lion Awareness (CLAW; Outside, 10/95). Since 1970 there has been an average of 14 cougar attacks per year on people in the entire U.S.

Mountain lion sightings have increased dramatically as well, from 59 in 1991 to over 300 in 1994 in California. However, because mountain lions are camouflage experts, and eyewitness sightings are notoriously inaccurate, perhaps 80% of all lion sightings are actually deer, bobcats, dogs, and even domestic cats. Part of any increase is also surely due to the heightened awareness of lions with the increase in attacks.

The reasons for the increase are unknown. Some think the increase in California was a consequence of the end of recreational hunting of mountain lions in 1972, and then the passage of Proposition 117 in 1990, which declared the cougar a "specially protected mammal". However, it is even hard to tie the timing of the increase in attacks in California to those events, and a similar increase in attacks has occurred in other states where recreational hunting is still allowed.

It is important to keep in mind that lion attacks are still extremely rare in California and nationally. For some reason, humans worry much more about rare dangers than about common dangers. For example, in California, from 1986 through 1998, exactly two people died from mountain lion attacks, whereas in one year alone, over 4,000 people died in traffic accidents, including 800 pedestrians. So we should be much more worried about meeting a dangerous car rather than a dangerous lion, but we aren't, because we are much more familiar with being in a car than we are with being around an uncaged mountain lion. Rationally, if one avoids hiking because of fear of mountain lions, one should also avoid driving in a car, or crossing a street as a pedestrian.

Another example: an average of several people per year die from recreational activities in the San Gabriel Mountains, yet no one has ever died from a cougar attack in the San Gabriel Mountains. You are probably much more likely to die from a misstep off a trail than from a mountain lion attack. So pay attention to where you are putting your feet rather than worrying about if there is a mountain lion about to pounce on you!

If you want to virtually eliminate any mountain lion danger to yourself, don't hike alone. All hiking fatalities in California have occurred to single hikers. However, recognizing that the danger is low, I continue to hike alone. But I admit that when I do so, I carry a big stick, which at least makes me feel better.

See also relative outdoor dangers (the numbers and reference are given in MLCSP), compiled by an expert on cougar attacks on humans, Professor Paul Beier, a wildlife ecologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Although one can quibble with his numbers (for example, you can almost completely avoid the danger of death by lightning if you don't hike in Florida or during storms), his point is correct. Considering only outdoor activities, there are many other things to worry about that are more likely to occur than lion attacks, including auto collisions with deer, lightning strikes, bee stings, dogs, rattlesnake bites, and black widow spider bites. (outdoor hazards)

By far the best web reference on mountain lions and people is the Outdoor California magazine special issue on mountain lions, available as a single long page or individual articles.

General Advice About Lion Encounters

The general advice to avoid being eaten by a mountain lion is to travel in groups. If you encounter a mountain lion by yourself or with your children, stop, make yourself look as big as possible, and pick up small children and put them on your shoulders to make you appear even larger. Aggressively defend your position. The idea is to deter their attack by making them think that it isn't going to be easy for them. Pick up a branch or a rock to help fight them if needed. They are just big kitty-cats, so you don't want to appear as smaller prey to them. In particular, running away makes them think you are prey, and will encourage an attack. However, you may not have to worry about taking action to prevent an attack, since mountain lions ordinarily either lie hidden, waiting for prey to approach beneath them, or approach unseen, and then attack and kill by a bite to the back of the neck that severs the spinal cord. This was the modus operandi for the attack on Barbara Schoener.

Also see:

Statistics of Attacks

These are quotes or summaries from various sources that have given numbers on the total number of attacks within a given period.

List of Mountain Lion Attacks

List of Mountain Lion Attacks On People in California

List of Mountain Lion Attacks On People in the U.S. and Canada not including California

Bibliography on Mountain Lions

Source Abbreviations

CWRColorado Wildlife Report, 10/22/97
LATL.A. Times
MLCSP Mountain Lions and California State Parks
OC1995 Outdoor California magazine special issue on mountain lions: DFG single long page or individual articles
OCROrange County Register
PSNPasadena Star-News
SDUTSan Diego Union-Tribune
TP Term Paper On Mountain Lions

I thank Jane Strong for several of the links given above, and motivating me to finally write this webpage, after gathering the information for years.

Copyright © 1999-2000 by Tom Chester.
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 26 January 2000.