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  • Author: Alys Granados
  • Publication Date: May 13, 2024

Pumas (aka mountain lions) in California face several threats related to human activity, yet much of the San Francisco Bay Area is still ‘mountain lion country’. Sharing this space with these apex predators benefits us all, as pumas contribute to ecosystem health by keeping prey populations in check. Due to overhunting and habitat loss, they’ve been extirpated from almost everywhere else in the country outside of the western states. Here in California, urban encroachment also threatens their survival. Given the rate at which wildlife habitat is being lost and fragmented and that the Bay Area is a mixture of open spaces and urban environments, you may think that human-puma conflicts are a common occurrence, yet in reality, there are very few (less than 3!) public safety incidents each year. Misinformation about the level of risk posed by large carnivores to humans is prevalent and may contribute to people having a disproportionate fear towards them. This fear may be based on emotion, personal experience, a lack of awareness, or misinformation in the media.  

In particular, much of this misinformation pertains to the likelihood of a carnivore attacking people. Is this fear justified? Pumas are large carnivores, weighing up to 200 lbs and can hunt large ungulate prey, up to three times their body weight. However, the fact is that humans are not on the menu and pumas prefer to avoid humans. Thanks to the rising use of home security cameras and wildlife cameras, today we are more aware of the wildlife moving through our neighborhoods, with news outlets often reporting these sightings. Seeing a wild puma in person however, is a far less common occurrence. Even more rare is the chance of being attacked by a puma

The probability of an attack is less than 1 in 6 million. To put this into perspective, we are more at risk of an attack from domestic dogs, deer-vehicle collisions, getting into an accident because of distracted driving, or from extreme temperatures.

In the Bay Area, there have been 4 puma attacks on humans since 1909, all of which have been non-fatal. Despite the rarity of these events, we must be aware that it does exist, learning from past events, and informing ourselves about how to further prevent the chance of an attack.  Earlier this year, a puma attack on two young men searching for shed antlers in El Dorado County made national news. It was the first fatal attack in CA of a puma on a human in 20 years. 20 years! The puma involved in this most recent incident was a healthy sub adult male and it’s still not clear what exactly prompted the animal to attack. As a young puma, he may have not received full training from his mother before dispersing if, for example, the mother was killed. Cubs stay with mom for up to two years, learning what and how to hunt. But whether this played a role in the attack is not known.

Keeping in mind that the Bay Area is puma habitat, we should take precautions and be aware of how to respond in the event that we do see a puma.  Many of us take advantage of the region’s extensive protected area network for hiking, cycling, running or horseback riding, and It’s important to remember that while these areas provide recreation opportunities for us, they also serve as essential wildlife habitat.  

Before heading out, inform yourself about where you are going. Is there cell service? Have there been recent sightings of pumas in the area? You can check out BAPP’s sightings map and look for verified sightings. If so, you may wish to bring a walking stick or some bear spray with you on the trail as an added precaution.

While hiking, you should remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Stay on designated trails and recreate during daylight hours. Wildlife, including pumas, are more likely to be active from the evening to early morning hours. By not visiting parks and open spaces at night, you are facilitating human-wildlife coexistence hours and providing temporal refuge from human disturbance. Many of us hike with our dogs in nature, so keeping them on-leash is another way to prevent conflicts. Off-leash dogs can harass or chase wildlife, and their presence alone can alter wildlife behavior. You can also avoid startling wildlife by not approaching cubs if you see them and not approaching deer carcasses. Pumas may still be feeding on carcasses and any human presence near a carcass can force the cat to leave its meal and not return.

What about if you see a puma? First, do not run. Remember that the animal is more scared of you. Do not approach the animal and give them a wide berth to leave the area. Most sightings are uneventful with the animal continuing on its way off trail. If the animal approaches you, do not turn your back. Make yourself big and tall and make lots of noise to scare the animal away. You can also throw whatever you have on you, e.g. backpack, sticks, rocks, etc.In the event that the animal approaches, or is aggressive; quick thinking can make all the difference. If you are attacked, fight back, aim for the animal’s eyes or nose to disorient them. Use bear spray if you have it, and use the walking stick as a weapon. Make lots of noise. Call 911 and CDFW to report the incident. 

Pumas have disappeared from most of its historical range in the United States, and we are lucky to share the Bay Area with these apex predators. As human-dominated landscapes continue to expand, increased awareness and education is key and being proactive will help us to promote human-wildlife coexistence.



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