The Swan Hills region of Alberta is nestled in a stunning landscape of boreal forest, absolutely teeming with wildlife. Cougars tend to be among the more elusive inhabitants of the area, preferring to stay away from humans as much as possible. They are the largest species of wild cat in North America, up to 10 ft in length and weighing up to 160 lbs. Cougars are quiet and stealthy, often using heavy vegetation and other types of cover to remain hidden while stalking their prey. Catching sight of one of these large cats is a rare treat.
Cougar attacks are rare; they usually avoid human activity as much as possible. Unlike bears, cougars generally aren’t attracted to people’s food or garbage. While they are less likely to approach full-sized adults, they can become interested in small children and pets.
According to Fauve Blanchard, an area wildlife biologist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife, people are very unlikely to encounter a cougar engaging in defensive behaviour. If humans have a close encounter, it will most likely be predatory in nature, with the cougar attracted to small dogs and children.
Effective strategies for avoiding bear encounters also work to reduce the chances of encountering cougars. Make noise as you go; cougars really don’t like to be around people and will actively avoid them in most circumstances. Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to signs of activity, such as fresh tracks and scrapes. Carry bear spray; it works just as well on cougars.
While they can be active throughout the day, cougars are often most active at dusk, night, and dawn. Keep children close by, preferably between the adults in a group and keep dogs on a leash.
If you do end up in close proximity to a cougar, gather everyone in your group close together, especially any children. Back away slowly while keeping it in sight, and do not run.
If the cougar approaches you, show it that you are not prey and will fight back. Stand tall, spread and wave your arms to make yourself look larger. Shout at it, throw rocks and sticks, and stomp your feet. Use your bear spray if the cougar comes within range, aiming for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Do not play dead with a cougar.
If the cougar attacks, fight back with anything you can use as a weapon. Use your bear spray. If you get knocked down, get back up and do not stop fighting. After it has left the area, stay vigilant and keep watching for it until you can get to safety.
By Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 31, 2023