American cougars return from the brink

Cougars like this one are beautiful animals – but deadly predators too © Getty Images

After years on the endangered list, cougars have made a comeback in the USA. It is great news for the big cats – but can humans live with these deadly predators?

Solitary, muscular and majestic, the cougar is America’s big cat. During the 16th Century, the sand-coloured animal roamed freely on the continent’s mountains and plains. But in the last 100 years, its numbers have plummeted. Hunted mercilessly and driven from its natural habitat by growing cities, the eastern cougar was officially declared extinct last year.

Today, however, cougars are making a comeback. Thanks to their endangered status, they have been protected from hunters and given special habitats, where they have flourished. An estimated 30,000 now stalk the vast forests and hills of North America. As their numbers grow, they are extending their territories – and moving closer to the homes of humans.

Conservationists are thrilled at the resurgence of this endangered big cat. But for many Americans, its return is a frightening prospect. Hungry ‘mountain lions’ attack sheep and other livestock, seriously damaging the livelihood of farmers. And sometimes, they turn against humans, too.

Since 1990, at least 40 people have been attacked by cougars – and a quarter of the victims died from their injuries. One ten-year-old boy was dragged off and eaten by a hungry female when he hiked ahead of his family; parts of one man’s mutilated body were discovered just sixty metres from his mobile home.

Even when they don’t kill, cougars seem to be getting bolder. One animal prowled a suburban neighborhood for a whole week, hiding under blackberry bushes and picking off pets; another was spotted lounging on a household porch.

These cheeky big cats join other wild and unwelcome guests. In North America, bears frequently stray into residential neighborhoods to scavenge through rubbish for food – and in the past two years, seven people have been killed by the burly mammals.

And hidden predators can strike at any time. Avid runner Yovy Suarez Jimenez was halfway through her usual jogging route when she disappeared, after stopping for a short breather by a local canal. It was days before her severed arms were found – in the belly of a nine foot alligator.

Animal planet?

In the face of this frightening threat, many believe America would be better off without cougars. They are vicious predators, and are likely to kill many more people as their numbers increase. To encourage the spread of these creatures is madness: human life must come first.

Others argue that there is more to the world than human safety. Beautiful creatures like cougars are precious, and part of a vast natural world that should be preserved and respected. This wonderful species is more important than a few unfortunate deaths.

You Decide

  1. Is one human life more important than the lives of 100 cougars?
  2. Why should people care if cougars become extinct?

Activities

  1. Create a poster warning people about the danger posed by mountain lions, and how to avoid being attacked by one.
  2. Write a poem in praise of the mountain lion.

Some People Say...

“It would be better if mountain lions were extinct.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What should I do if I run into a cougar?
You should back away slowly, without turning your back to the lion or making direct eye contact. Don’t run, and make yourself look scarier by holding out your coat, shouting or banging pots and pans. If you are attacked, fight back and don’t play dead.
Is there much chance of me seeing one, though?
Not really. Mountain lions are only found in the Americas, and most of the time they tend to avoid humans.
Are there any scary wild animals living in the UK?
Not any more, although some groups have proposed re-introducing the wolf to Scotland. The animals are native to the country, but throughout history were hunted intensively. It is likely that they finally died out in the late 17th Century.

Word Watch

Declared extinct
When every member of a species dies out, that species is declared extinct. Last year, the US government declared that fate for the eastern cougar – a slightly different animal to the western cougar, which makes up the bulk of the growing cougar population. However, some experts think the eastern cougar may not have been so extinct after all, and sightings of it are still reported.
Suburban
Confrontations between people and wild animals often happen in suburban neighbourhoods, where towns lie close to the countryside. Sometimes, housing developments encroach into animals’ natural habitat, or wild creatures are tempted by easy-to-find food from bins.
Scavenge
Scavengers are animals that live off waste and leftovers rather than hunting or foraging; most eat dead and decaying matter. Some animals, like vultures and hyenas, get most of the food they eat from scavenging; others only eat waste food when it is especially easy to find, or when there is little else available. The word scavenger originally referred to someone hired to clear rubbish from the streets.

Subjects

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