On Saturday night, a couple vacationing in central Colorado were soaking in a hot spring-fed pool when they noticed a dark shape descending a staircase at their rental property. Under the faint starlight, they thought the animal was a dog. But the events that unfolded proved them wrong: The intruder was a mountain lion — and a curious one at that.
Sean Shepherd, an area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, met with the couple after the incident in Chaffee County and confirmed that a big cat had approached them and pawed the man’s head. When the visitor pulled away, Shepherd said the lion instinctively flexed its claws, much like a house cat does when it tires of its owner’s attention.
The travelers, who are outdoorsy and familiar with wildlife-deterrent practices, screamed to let the predator know they were humans and not prey. They shined a flashlight at it and splashed water. The ruckus worked: The mountain lion moved away to a hillside perch, where it observed the pair before they returned to the house.
“Their actions deflected the mountain lion," Shepherd said.
The man suffered several “superficial” scratches on his head and did not seek medical attention. “I don’t want to minimize his injuries,” Shepherd said. “He was certainly scraped up.” (The visitors preferred to keep the matter private and, through Shepherd, declined interviews.)
Mountain lion attacks are rare. In Colorado, the last dangerous interaction occurred on Feb. 27, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The agency has documented about two-dozen attacks since 1990. The Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation said there have been less than a dozen fatalities in North America in more than a century. The organization estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 mountain lions reside in Colorado and that the U.S. population does not exceed 30,000.
“People love to live in and visit Colorado for the chance of seeing wildlife — from a distance," said R. Brent Lyles, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation. “This encounter was obviously not the kind you hope for. While it is a rare occurrence, mountain lions are not infallible and can make mistakes.”
To avoid a confrontation, Shepherd advises people to stay alert during the lions’ most active times: dusk, when they hunt, and dawn; the encounter took place at around 8:15 p.m.
The predators follow the movements of their food source. In Colorado, the deer are still grazing in their winter range but will descend to lower ground once the area sprouts green. Shepherd said on the night of the incident, they found two deer tucked under a residential deck. The next day, they noticed about 10 to 15 deer in the area. The rental house was also near a creek, which he said is “how wild animals move.”
When choosing a rental in mountain lion habitat, the Mountain Lion Foundation recommends that vacationers look for properties with fencing and motion-activated lights, plus hot tubs and patios with minimal vegetation. In addition, guests should not feed deer or small mammals or allow their pets to roam off-leash.
“Essentially anywhere in the West that we are hanging out outside, we are in lion territory and often also in bear and coyote territory,” said Gowan Batist, the foundation’s coexistence coordinator. "Planning for coexistence is an important part of home and landscape design.”
If you come into close contact with a mountain lion, slowly walk away but never run. The swift movement can activate their prey instincts. Also make a scene. “If a case of mistaken identity does happen, make yourself look as large as possible. Using your voice, lights, water or physically fighting back can be highly effective,” Batist said. “Lions really don’t want to tangle with humans.”
In Colorado, report a mountain lion encounter to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife during business hours (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or contact the Colorado State Patrol or local sheriff’s department day or night.
Because Saturday’s encounter was more serious than a sighting, the CPW staff set a trap. They also searched for a cached deer. To deter the predator from returning, they will typically remove the dead animal that the lion has dragged to a tree and camouflaged with woodsy debris. Shepherd said they check the trap twice a day, in the morning and between 9 and 10 p.m. The agency will remove the equipment soon to avoid ensnaring other critters.
If they do capture the lion that manhandled the visitor, the agency will transplant or euthanize it. “For safety, we err on the side of humans,” he conceded.
Since the incident, the agency has received no new complaints of a trespassing mountain lion.