Sighting a mountain lion in the wild is something most people will remember forever.
Pedestrian Crossing, Watch for Deer, Beware of Dog -- these are cautions most of us take seriously since it’s more likely we’ll hit a jaywalker, strike a doe or get killed by a dog than suffer an attack by a mountain lion.
But ranging in size from 80 to 150 pounds and growing from five to eight feet in length, cougars don’t come when you call.
Dorothy and Ashley Hunt of Clarkdale have tried.
After a mountain lion was spotted near their 15-acre parcel by two different neighbors, Dorothy took it in stride like a well-seasoned country girl.
“We yell, ‘Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty,’ out the windows on the way to Ashley’s school,” laughs the longtime Clarkdale resident and grandmother.
“I couldn’t believe how big it was,” explained neighbor Theresa Shostakovich who saw the mountain lion coming down into the hidden valley in Clarkdale Dec. 6. “It was beautiful.”
Safe in her vehicle with the lion nearly close enough to touch, Shostakovich never felt threatened, fearful or panicked.
What she experienced, she says, was “awe.”
“I was glad to see it. It was breathtaking.”
According to Eric Gardner, field supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish, a mountain lion sighting is probably an experience people remember forever.
And because the big game’s population stands at approximately 2,500 in the state, Gardner says, “Anybody who spends time outdoors has spent time in proximity to a lion.”
According to Arizona State Parks Ranger Phyllis Halsey, lion sightings are not infrequent at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. “We have occasional reports by visitors at the park,” she explains, noting that sightings have not risen in the last few years.
In 2001, there have been six reports in the Verde Valley including sightings at Jerome State Historic Park, Riverfront Park and Dr. Daniel Bright School in Cottonwood and in Clarkdale.
And since a mountain lion was hunted and killed by Game and Fish on Mt. Elden in Flagstaff last week, Gardner believes education is simply the best ammunition in the fight against unwanted encounters with the fourth largest predator in the world.
“Most people don’t understand that lions are very reclusive animals,” he explains. “It’s very rare they turn from their normal patterns.”
But cougar attacks are reportedly rising.
According to the Calgary Herald, there have been 36 attacks in North America between 1991 and 1999. Only 20 were reported during the '80s and just 17 during the '70s.
In April of 2000, a 4-year old girl, Victoria Martinez, was attacked and seriously injured by a mountain lion at Arizona's Bartlett Lake campground in the Tonto National Forest just after sunset.
It’s these types of encounters the Hunts and Shostakovich are determined to avoid.
“I don’t walk at night or dusk anymore,” explained Shostakovich. “Ashley used to have free rein to wander. Now she stays right at the house. She’s not happy about it, but she’s concerned, too.”
Earlier this month, another Hunt neighbor, Charles Jordan, also reported seeing a lion on the property between Clarkdale and Cottonwood. Although Jordan wouldn't provide further comment for this article, Gardner said an officer did follow up on the report and it was determined no extreme action was warranted.
To report an encounter, call Eric Gardner at (928) 713-1545.
Face to Face
The mountain lion is a cautious, primarily nocturnal animal. Its prey includes elk, bighorn sheep, wild burros, deer, rabbit, porcupine, peccaries, rodents, skunks and bobcats. Cougars can leap up to 30 feet and can run faster than deer and are particularly adept at climbing trees. Mountain lions are also called pumas, catamounts, panthers and cougars.
Eric Gardner of Arizona Game and Fish Department suggests if you encounter a mountain lion, make yourself as big as possible. Put young children on your shoulders to make yourself appear larger and to prevent the child from fleeing. "Just don't turn and run away," said Gardner. "Back away and you can make noise but just don't run."
He also suggests rocks and sticks for defense. Other experts advise yelling Cougar! or something more specific than help.
To help prevent encounters, don't hike alone or with your dog. Don’t allow pets to roam free and keep both children and household pets close to home between dusk and dawn.