I split my time between living outside of Yosemite National Park and in Los Angeles. The fact that I have the chance to see mountain lions in both places provides me with unending awe, and with hope: If a mountain lion can live in the middle of Los Angeles, wildness and wild things just might have a future on this planet after all.
I recently received a message about a famous cougar named P-22 that calls Los Angeles home, along with a well-known photo of the animal and the headline, “Man Says He Killed Mountain Lion After It Attacked Him on Colorado Trail.” At first, I took issue with the case of mistaken identity. In fact, P-22 is a model of co-existence, a predator that has lived in the second-largest city in the country since 2012 without threatening any of the 10 million people a year who recreate in Griffith Park—the lion’s own backyard.
As I learned more about the incident, though, I quickly became less concerned about P-22 being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and more about the pervasive and inaccurate frame of the story, which vilified the mountain lion—celebrating a bloodthirsty predator receiving justice in an against-all-odds heroic contest of man vs. beast. As I dug deeper, I discovered that most of the stories ignored the fact that the cougar in question was not even an adult, though the photos from almost every media outlet I saw showed fully grown lions—sometimes snarling and threatening-looking for dramatic effect. In fact, the animal was likely a starving youngster that weighed about 40 pounds and perhaps was not yet mature enough to even be independent from its mother. For perspective, I posted on Facebook a photo of myself with a kitten of the same size—Sam, Project Survival’s Cat Haven resident mountain lion.
I don’t question the right of the runner to defend himself against attack. But let’s be clear: This was not an adult animal targeting human prey; it was a hungry kitten resorting to desperate tactics. I am very glad the runner survived, and that fact should be celebrated. Yet I am also saddened that so many needed to celebrate the resulting death of the cat. As one of the commenters on the Facebook post I shared so aptly observed: Can we look at this incident as unfortunate rather than remarkable?
As someone who works in wildlife conservation and deals with mountain lions, I want to disrupt the prevailing narrative of this story. I think it does a disservice to everyone involved, and indeed can even threaten public safety. Vilifying mountain lions (or runners) serves no one. It’s important to educate the public about the real risks of wildlife encounters, and the most effective measures people can take to minimize the chance of an attack. Portraying cougars as man-eating animals that will attack at any moment only causes unneeded hysteria.
Most encounters between wildlife and people end without incident. In fact, most Americans’ encounters with mountain lions occur without us even being aware of our brushes with these majestic creatures.
Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. If public safety is a concern, wild animals should be far down on the list of what we should fear. For example, automobiles cause on average more than 3,000 deaths each year in California. Meanwhile, mountain lions have killed just three people since 1986, in a state with a population of 40 million. These statistics don’t diminish the tragedy when a person is killed or injured by a lion, but it puts the risk in perspective: Living in lion country is much safer than living in car country.
Why do we keep perpetuating this feud between wildlife and people, encouraging unwarranted fear? I am not asking us to judge or condemn either party. Instead, let’s rewrite the headline: “Man kills immature mountain lion in self-defense, after starving animal attacked him.”
For wildlife to have a future in our increasingly human-occupied spaces, we need to start regarding wild animals (even predators) not as foes, but as Henry Beston calls them: “Other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
Beth Pratt, author of When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California, serves as the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.