Given the opportunity, Paula Wild would love to try a meal of cougar.
It’s a point the Vancouver Island author explores in her new book The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous – an exploration of the relationship between humans and cougars. It has special resonance to British Columbia. An estimated 6,000 cougars live in the province and 89 of 252 documented cougar attacks on humans in the last 200 years have happened in B.C. – 50 of those on Vancouver Island. What’s striking is Vancouver Island represents less than one per cent of North America’s cougar habitat.
“Most people say [cougar] tastes good – a little bit like veal, very dry,” Ms. Wild says. “I would taste it if I had the opportunity.” While the chance has not arisen, the Courtenay author found many other opportunities to get to know cougars during three years of research and writing.
You call cougars an “exquisitely built killing machine.” What does that mean to people who are attacked?
It means that they’re in a lot of trouble. Cougars can take down prey seven times their weight. In B.C. on the mainland, we have some of the biggest cougars in the world – over 90 kilograms.
What is the most interesting thing you learned about cougars?
They can jump up five metres from a standstill. They have been seen jumping down 18 metres from a tree. They can jump 14 metres horizontally onto the back of their prey. That is just astonishing.
Is there any reason for people to be afraid of cougars?
I don’t want people to be afraid. What I want is for people to be safe. If people know what to do if they see a cougar or are attacked by one, studies show they can prevent an encounter from becoming an attack or an attack becoming a fatality. It’s rare to see a cougar in the wild and even more rare to be attacked. In 200 years, 55 people in North America have been killed by cougars. Last year, alone, more than 34,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States. We need cougars. They keep deer and other ungulate populations in check.
What’s the most important advice if you encounter a cougar or are attacked by one?
Never run or turn your back. Make direct eye contact. If a person runs, that can trigger a cougar’s chase-and-kill instinct. If you are attacked, you have to fight back as hard and as long as you can with everything you have. You have to convince the cougar this is not worth it. If you have bear spray, use that. If you don’t have bear spray or the cougar attacks you, ideally you would have a fixed-blade knife. Aim your blows at the face, particularly the eyes and muzzle. You try to stick your finger in its eye, punch it.
Does Vancouver Island have a cougar problem?
What is evident is Vancouver Island cougars have a reputation about being more aggressive towards humans. Why is that? One theory was island cougars are more genetically predisposed to aggression. Another that made sense to me is Vancouver Island has the highest density of cougars. Since they’re very territorial this means they’re a little bit crowded; they’re competing more for territory and prey.
What explains Vancouver Island’s dense cougar population?
It’s an excellent cougar habitat – lots of forested areas, lots of broken ground which makes it easy for them to sneak up on their prey. In most areas, there’s a good population of deer.
How likely is it for cougars to expand beyond their routine habitats into new areas of B.C. and perhaps surprise us?
It’s very likely. Cougars are full of lots of surprises.
Is it possible we might ever have cougars in the Lower Mainland?
I wouldn’t be surprised. I wouldn’t expect to find one in downtown Vancouver, but I don’t think anyone expected to find one in the underground parking garage of the Empress Hotel in Victoria either (as happened in 1992). There are instances of cougars ending up in urban, commercial, residential areas – usually young adults looking for their own territory. They wander around. They’re curious.
This interview has been edited and condensed.