Cat Attacks, by Jo Deurbrouch and Dean Miller

Review by Abby Quillen

Wildlife – October 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

Cat attacks: True stories and hard lessons from cougar country
by Jo Deurbrouck and Dean Miller
Published in 2001 by Sasquatch Books
ISBN 1-57061-289-7

CHANCES ARE, you’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild, but if you hike, bike, or camp in the Colorado high country, it’s quite possible that a mountain lion has seen you. According to Jo Deurbrouck and Dean Miller, the authors of Cat Attacks, “cougars live in almost every western forest, desert, or canyonland that supports deer and offers cover from which to hunt,” but “few humans ever have reason to know it.” Cougars make most of their movements at night when humans tend to be indoors. And during the day, they can be so still, and make such slow, silent movements that if they don’t want to be observed, they probably won’t be.

Not too long ago, it was believed that these big predators — called pumas, panthers, mountain lions, cougars, painters, or catamounts depending on where you are in the country — were harmless to people. But in the last two decades, it’s become clear that, although still extremely rare, cougar attacks on humans are a reality in the West, and they are happening more and more often.

Deurbrouck and Miller chronicle a number of attacks in their book, including some in Colorado. Although these are gruesome accounts that may disturb you, they also offer lessons about what to do if you come into contact with a mountain lion. The authors also make readers face a hard question about life in the West: How can we successfully live side by side with wild predators, knowing that at some point our children, our pets, our livestock, or even we, ourselves, could become prey?

BECAUSE COUGARS are such elusive and secretive animals, it’s impossible to say exactly how many live in Colorado. The authors warn against believing the numbers “bandied by those who argue the over- or underpopulation of cougars.” The only way biologists can count mountain lions is by evaluating tracks, tallying the number of hunter-killed and road-killed cougars, and making an estimate. The truth is no one really knows.

But, it seems that cougars are thriving, and that’s amazing, because they don’t have easy lives. In more populated areas, very few cougars make it to adulthood. In California’s Santa Ana mountains, for instance, researchers estimate that four out of five cougar kittens die in their first year of life. Even in remote areas of the country with few cars and little hunting, mountain lions are fortunate to live thirteen years, and old cougars have notched ears, worn teeth, and scarred flesh to verify their tribulations.

Lion mothers abandon their kittens at 18 months to two years of age, leaving them to become solitary hunters. Only the smartest and most cautious survive that rite of passage and find a home range of their own. Cougars are continually exposed to disease and injuries from prey – deer, mountain goats, big horn sheep, and elk – that is often bigger than they are. Even more frequently, mountain lions are killed by other cougars competing for resources in their territory. To survive, cougars have to become extremely efficient at killing. Under normal circumstances it takes one large ungulate every seven to fourteen days to sustain an adult cougar. That’s a lot of meat.

NOW HUMANS are moving further and further into cougar territory. We’re building houses, roads, parks and trails, and extending our cities, suburbs, and towns into what used to be wilderness. Deurbrouck and Miller include a famous Colorado cougar attack in their book, which took place in 1991 in Idaho Springs. But many other cat attacks in the last twenty years have been in places like Idaho Springs: they’re fairly close to major cities and attract throngs of urbanites. These localities are increasingly less isolated than they once were, and humans are not the only animals moving in. Deer herds, the favorite food source of cougars, are becoming more and more commonplace in western towns, too, and they are luring cougars right into our urban centers.

A study in Boulder in the mid-1980s found that dozens of cougars were hunting inside of the city at least part-time. Residents reported seeing: a cougar giving birth on a front porch; a cougar lounging on a deck; a cougar feeding on a deer carcass in town; and a cougar swaggering down the middle of a downtown street. Deurbrouck and Miller claim that this increase in human-cougar interaction explains the increase in attacks in the U.S. and Canada from 20 in the 1980s to 53 in the 1990s.

Cougar attacks are violent and bloody, but they are still rare events. The woods probably won’t feel quite as safe after you read this book, though. Deurbrouck and Miller are masterful at writing suspense. At times, prowling, stalking cougars seem almost like human predators, and the accounts read like true crime. The authors paint the scenes so vividly that you won’t soon forget the victims who perished in the jaws of cats, including 40-year- old Barbara Shoener, a lone California jogger, or Cindy Parrolin, a Canadian mother who died fighting to save her 6-year-old son from a cougar. You also won’t forget the innocent child victims of mountain lions, who were one moment running, playing, walking to school, or sitting in a motor home, and the next were fighting for their lives.

BUT CAT ATTACKS is not only about tragedy. It’s also about awesome heroism and bravery. A cougar can strike so silently that its human victim doesn’t know what happened until he’s on the ground with teeth sunk in his neck, but hiking companions have frequently turned into life saving assets. Many parents, friends, and family members have risked their lives to fight off mountain lions and save loved ones, and, amazingly, according to Cat Attacks, “Rescuers are almost never badly hurt. They usually aren’t even scratched.” The primary victims of attacks, on the other hand, are often mangled. People live through attacks, though, and they display so much perseverance and tenacity in the face of catastrophe that Cat Attacks is as much a story of triumph as it is of disaster.

Cat Attacks is also about our relationship with the wilderness. The authors ask again and again: can humans and cougars coexist successfully? The authors don’t seem wholly optimistic, but they aren’t pessimistic, either. And, perhaps that’s the best part of the book: Deurbrouck and Miller are willing to admit that there are no easy answers. Although they would like to see cougars thrive, they admit that cougars are not the harmless creatures that some environmentalists once wanted to believe they were. Cougars often kill more prey than they need, and they don’t just kill the old or weak of a species. Cougars can have a dramatic impact on populations of critically endangered animals, like big horn sheep in California. And as more people move into cougar territory, cats become a greater threat.

But, the authors also warn that human efforts to limit cougar populations through hunting are imperfect. Hunting can have unforseen consequences; killing a territorial male, for instance, may make room for several subadults, who would have otherwise died, to divide the dead cat’s territory. In other words, in some cases hunting may increase cougar populations. And hunting is not the only human intervention that may be backfiring. According to Deurbrouck and Miller, “there’s nothing humane about relocation” of cougars. Relocating a cougar from one area to another usually leads to slow, painful death.

Despite our failures, however, Deurbrouck and Miller do have hopes for the future of mountain lion – human relations, but they feel that improvement can’t come until we embrace a realistic discussion about the unsettling issues involved .

Cougars attacked seven people in Colorado in the 1990s, up from one in the 1980s. But, that’s a minuscule number compared to the 632 people who died in traffic accidents in Colorado last year. Seven fatalities in the entire decade of the 1990s shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the outdoors. As Deurbrouck and Miller write, “the dawning realization that this big carnivore will kill people sometimes masks a more basic fact of cougar-human coexistence: cougars kill to eat, and humans are not their favorite meal.”

But as our suburbs spread into their countryside, human-cougar encounters keep increasing. So the lessons Jo Deurbrouck and Dean Miller offer about cougars are relevant even if you are fortunate enough to never come face to face with a wild cat. As a Westerner, you will probably be interested in many of the larger issues the book raises, like the growth of rural and suburban development, the role of wildlife officers, and the relocation of wildlife.

Besides, as the authors demonstrate, “there’s no such thing as a boring cougar story.”

-Abby Quillen