This photo from 2018 shows two young mountain lions in a tree in the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. File photo by Kathy West

As a local wildlife expert, I get many questions about mountain lions. These elusive cats are rarely seen but can conjure up quite the scary image in our imaginations. 

Not so long ago mountain lions were not the only big predators in the Sky Islands. The mountain ranges around us were also home to wolves, grizzly bears, and a healthy population of jaguars. These other large predators have all been exterminated from our landscape, leaving only the mountain lion to challenge our status as top predator. Being on the top is great but also can be a lonely existence and one I am happy to share with our last surviving big predator in this region, the mountain lion. 

One thing we can all do to live safely with mountain lions is to know what to do to avoid an encounter. Keep a close eye on children at home, especially from dusk to dawn when lions are most active. Do not feed wildlife. Attracting small critters eventually attracts large ones. Landscape with native vegetation and keep trees and shrubs trimmed up, so there are no low-lying hiding places for large or small predators or for their prey like rabbits and deer. Light areas that are frequently used in the evenings. Always keep your pets indoors at night and their food indoors at all times. 

Small livestock like goats and chickens should be housed in lion-proof enclosures with a secure top, especially at night. There are great and cheap examples of such enclosures on the Mountain Lion Foundation’s website (!protecting-livestock). Another excellent resource for learning more about keeping livestock safe is the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Call your local office or the following number for information on living with lions, 602-942-3000. 

When hiking or cycling, always do so in a group. Avoid being in remote areas from dusk to dawn and make plenty of noise if you are out and about during these times. Wear contrasting bright colors and carry a hiking stick. Always keep children close to you and within sight. Keep dogs leashed or at home. On the extremely rare occasion that you encounter a mountain lion, remain calm and do not run. Pick children up without bending over and look as large as possible. Make the lion aware that you are another predator and not to be messed with. Speak in a loud, firm voice and throw stones or branches at the lion if it approaches. If you are attacked, fight back aggressively, lions have been successfully fought off with bare hands or small objects like car keys. 

Remember that lion attacks on humans are exceedingly rare. Attacks on small livestock are infrequent but usually happen at night and on animals that do not have an enclosed pen with a secure top. Lions have been known to kill more than one animal in these situations because they did not evolve to hunt animals who cannot run away. Similarly, many humans struggle to control our weight because we did not evolve to have constant and easy access to fatty and sugary foods. If lions are given easy access to livestock, they can do some severe damage. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. 

It can be scary to share our world with a powerful animal like the mountain lion, but an entirely safe world comes at a high price. Coming out of two years of covid-related isolation, I think we all understand what loneliness can do to our wellbeing. Let us not forget that the few large predators we have left provide us with diversity and a connection to ourselves, a mirror of what it means to be a predator. We ultimately are by far the top predator on this earth, so let’s do our best to keep a few others around as a reminder of who we are.