The more time I spend in the backcountry observing big game animals, the more I value and enjoy interacting with them. Since boyhood, I have been fascinated by the big cats of the west, the cougar or mountain lion (Puma concolor). That fascination was fed by the stories of the old timers who had interacted and hunted them. On one occasion when I was about seven years old, I saw the fresh track of a very large cougar in the sticky mud of an irrigation ditch. As I studied that track, my heart rate quickened, my mind imagining the size of that critter! I expressed my fears about that cat lurking around in our hay field to my dad. He assured me that the old cat would not bother me, and the chances of ever seeing him were very slim.
In all the years I spent on that Montana ranch and in the surrounding mountains growing up, I never actually encountered a cougar by sight. I saw plenty of tracks and sign in the mountains, but I never actually saw a live cougar, until my hounds put a big one up a tree when I was seventeen. That was an incredibly exciting moment for me, as I was finally able to see for myself the ghost predator that wandered the mountains of my homeland. To say that cougars are secretive and rarely seen in daylight is an understatement.
As far as I am concerned, a cougar is very simply a super-sized house cat, light brown in color and muscular. In terms of pure agility, I am not sure that a cougar has an equal. In leaping, bounding, and climbing at a very high rate of speed, there is no critter in the Western United States that can compare. Just like their miniature version that stalks around your house, the cougar is very particular about how and where they place their feet. Unlike other large game animals that will sometimes run head-long with little regard for hazards. The cougar has a plan for every step it ever takes. Deer and elk often plunge off of a steep embankment. Cougars study it out and choose the safest route down. If you are driving down a mountain road looking at animal tracks in the deep snow, the Cougar tracks will be those nice, big round holes in the snow with no slide or drag marks.
Cougars hate water when it comes to getting their hair wet. If you doubt me, just grab your average house cat, fill the kitchen sink with water, and stuff that furry little beast into the water. Go ahead, don't hesitate, just get it done. After the cat is good and wet, I highly recommend that you turn it loose, and then rinse those lacerations on your fingers and forearms with plenty of clean water and apply some neosporin before you start with the bandages.
I have followed cougar tracks for miles down a mountain road in the winter time, only to discover that the cat is looking for a bridge or a deadfall tree to cross the adjacent stream. After crossing the stream and staying dry, they go right back to the point where they wanted to cross, unwilling to bail in the water. Just like a house cat, it's not that they can't swim, they just don't like it.
I guess cougars can mate whenever they want, but for the most part, courtship takes place in the early spring. Gestation time for a litter is about three months, and a typical litter will consist of two to three kittens. The big males will travel for miles to locate and mate with an available female. You can always tell when a male is in the mood for love, due to the fact that he will drag his tail in the deep snow, which is typical of the high country in early spring. It is the only time that you will see a cat purposely drag its tail. There are scent glands in the end of the tail used for attracting and locating a female.
Cougars operate in their relationships by a system of dominance. From the time a male reaches maturity, he is focused upon establishing a geographic area where he is king. As with other species, this often creates serious conflict if there are already older, more aggressive males in the area. Big males will kill or severely maim younger males threatening their territory, which forces those battle scarred losers, if they are lucky enough to survive, outside of the controlled area. This is one of the most prevalent reasons why young males suddenly show up in urban areas on the edges of civilization, where there have been no cougars in the recent past. They are simply looking for some geography where they can operate without being tracked down by the big male that just kicked their butt. The old timers always said that if you treed a young male that had recent open wounds, it was a sure sign of a much bigger male in the area.
Dominant males will also locate the den of a female with young and whenever possible, kill all of the kittens, thus eliminating the possibility of future competition. This is apparently a population control mechanism designed by nature. One way to ensure a cougar population explosion is to kill all of the old dominant males out in a region, so that all the kittens survive.
Again, just like house cats, male cougars will travel a circuit checking their territory and marking it with urine. You've seen that nasty old tom cat that slinks down the back alley. He stops to spray urine on the bush by your garage, and then proceeds to scratch up the dirt towards his mark. Male cougars do it the exact same way.
I learned fairly early as a fledgling cougar hunter, that males will generally travel the exact same routes as they patrol their territory. If you have seen a track cross the road and go underneath a nearby tree, come back to that same spot in about four to six days, and it will show up again, crossing under the exact same tree. Just like how they place their feet, they are very scientific about the routes they use for travel.
Healthy active cougars kill deer primarily for their diet, if they are readily available. Most savvy cat hunters moving into a new area will first locate the highest concentration of mule deer, and there they will also find the cats. Cougars will kill elk and moose if the opportunity arises, and will go after smaller stuff like beavers and rabbits for the same reasons. They are extremely effective and proficient killers generally, leaping onto the shoulders of their larger prey from a position of cover. Just like the African Lion or any other big cat, they are masters of the sneak attack. They are very patient and will stalk their prey for hours, if necessary, in order to get within good striking distance.
First contact with the victim is usually made with the powerful forearms and claws of the front paws in clenching the neck of the prey. Next, they bite down hard with powerful jaws on the spine or windpipe of the neck area, and simply hold that grip until there is no more life left in the victim. Once the kill has been affected, the very next move is to conceal the meal from other predators before the feast begins. They will drag it to a location under a tree, or anything that is handy, and quickly cover it with leaves, grass, or snow. Here is another category where the big males differ from the other smaller competition. A dominant male sometimes really doesn't seem to care about concealing his kill. After all, there are very few other predators who will challenge him, so he might just fill his belly right on the spot with no concern for other threats.
The bigger and healthier the cat, the more finicky and selective they are with the quality and freshness of their meat. I have tracked big males for days and in the process, discovered kill after kill in their wake. Most of these were only half or one third eaten and uncovered. Other times big males will cover their kill and come back to feed on it until it is gone. They are funny that way. Females, on the other hand, almost always cover their kill and come back to feed until it is gone, leaving only a scattering of bones before they move on for the next hunt. This is particularly true of females with kittens. For someone to say that cougars only prey upon small animals or the sick or weak of a herd, simply stated, is hogwash. It doesn't happen very often. A big cat has to be fairly desperate before they will stoop to feeding on a sick or dying animal.
I always scratched my head in wonderment seeing one small, noisy dog put a big ol' cougar up a tree. A lack of aggressiveness, when it comes to their own defense, seems to be their only weakness. Knowing what I know, if I were a healthy cougar, and I heard the howling of a pack of hounds coming my way. I would simply lay in wait and kill the hounds one by one as they arrived on scene, and then go about my business. Such is not the case. One good hound will almost always track and tree a cougar, if the scent is hot on a short chase. Once the cat is jumped, it is generally only several hundred yards to the tree.
Cougars have a tremendous burst of speed for a short distance, of up to about three hundred yards. After that, due to a limited lung capacity, their only chance for escape is in getting to steep rock cliffs, or rugged terrain where their sheer agility in leaping from boulder to boulder or ledge to ledge will slow, or confuse the dogs enough to allow the escape. That happens often with inexperienced hounds and is another reason why cougars, that have been exposed to hounds and hunters will rarely travel too far outside of rugged terrain.
These big cats are fascinating to watch. They are an amazing specimen with physical power and agility, and it is an unforgettable experience to witness them in the wild. I have gained a great appreciation and respect for them over the years. I greatly look forward to the next opportunity to look into those haunting deep yellow eyes.