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What to do if you see a cougar in the wild

If you see a cougar and it appears aggressive, make yourself look as big as possible, shout, and fight back if it attacks.

If you saw a cougar in the wild, would you know how to react?

A cougar was killed Sunday after attacking a child at a Leavenworth park. The boy had minor injuries, according to Washington State Patrol.

Despite two attacks in Washington in the last year, one fatal, and a fatal attack in Oregon, officials say the likelihood of encountering a cougar is still relatively low.

"It's incredibly rare something like that would happen because humans are not on the prey list, not on the menu," said Capt. Alan Myers with the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. "Cougars want to eat small animals like rodents, rabbits, those kind of things, and deer. They don't have humans on the menu."

Male cougars have a large range – between 50 and 150 square miles – and are most active from dusk to dawn, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. They like areas with good cover and suitable prey, including canyons, rock outcroppings, and dense brush or forests where they can hide while hunting.

Myers noted that the animals may encounter people more often as development encroaches on their habitat.

"That being said, this is not a trend of more aggressive cougars, or more frequent attacks," Myers said. "I think we're just having an incident here where there's a short succession of some scary instances with these animals in a short period of time, but that statistics don't prove this happens very often."

They may make their way into densely populated areas, but WDFW says their appearances are typically brief. Even rarer are attacks on humans. There have only been two fatal cougar attacks in Washington state since 1924, the most recent of which was last year, according to WDFW.

Here’s a few tips from WDFW about minimizing contact with cougars if they may live nearby and what to do if you encounter one in the wild.

Tips for living near cougars

  • Light all walkways around your home after dark.
  • Prune shrubs up several feet to keep cougars from hiding behind them, and avoid landscaping with plants that deer prefer to eat. Remember predators follow prey.
  • Keep cougars out of an enclosed area by installing a heavy-woven wire fence that’s 10 feet high with three-foot extensions. String barbed or electric wire between the extensions.
  • Don’t feed wildlife and feral cats.
  • Close off open spaces under structures that can offer shelter to prey.
  • Feed dogs and cats indoors. If you must feed outside, do so in the morning or midday, and pick up food and water bowls, as well as leftovers and spilled food, well before dark.
  • Keep dogs and cats indoors, especially from dusk to dawn.
  • Use garbage cans with tight-fitting lids.
  • Keep livestock in secure pens and away from forest boundaries.
  • Consider a guard animal, such as specific dog breeds, donkeys, or llamas.

Tips when encountering a cougar

  • Stop, pick up small children immediately, and don’t run. Running and rapid movements may trigger an attack. Remember, at close range, a cougar’s instinct is to chase.
  • Face the cougar. Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away. Always leave the animal an escape route.
  • Try to appear larger than the cougar. Get above it on a rock or stump. If wearing a jacket, hold it open to further increase your apparent size. If you are in a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder to appear intimidating.
  • Do not take your eyes off the cougar or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
  • Never approach the cougar, especially if it is near a kill or with kittens, and never offer it food.
  • If the cougar does not flee, be more assertive. If it shows signs of aggression (crouches with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching, and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump), shout, wave your arms and throw anything you have available (water bottle, book, or backpack). The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey, but a potential danger.
  • If the cougar attacks, fight back. Be aggressive and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back using anything within reach, including sticks, rocks, shovels, backpacks, and clothing—even bare hands. If you are aggressive enough, a cougar will flee, realizing it has made a mistake. Pepper spray in the cougar’s face is also effective in the extreme unlikelihood of a close encounter with a cougar.