Stalked by a Mountain Lion on a Run

How I escaped unscathed from my mountain lion encounter

I think my immense interest in running on trails stems from having grown up on a working ranch in Argentina. Aided by an intricate network of well-traveled dirt roads and trails, we raised livestock and multiple crops.

When my family moved to Los Angeles, mountain trails became my refuge. I got my feet wet at good old local Griffith Park, host to the famous Hollywood sign, and the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. When I moved from Los Angeles to Los Alamos, about an hour northwest of Santa Barbara, finding a place to hit the trail was essential to me feeling “at home.”

Gaviota State Park was the closest wilderness area and the best candidate for my trail runs. My only reservation was the intimidating mountain lion warnings posted at many of its trailheads. My research revealed there had been at least one documented, non-fatal mountain lion attack in the park. I knew the probability of encountering a big cat was low given that encounters with humans are rare. However, I also realized that if I were to encounter a mountain lion during my run, running might stimulate the cat’s instinct to chase and attack. And worse yet, if I appeared distressed and tired—as I inevitably do in long runs—I might look even more like prey.

I ran Gaviota many times without incident. Until the day I almost became lion food during a particularly sublime long run.

Almost two hours in, I was descending down a very narrow trail when I noticed what appeared to be a bobcat resting smack in the middle of the trail about 50 yards away. The trail was lined by tall chaparral on both sides. The way I saw it, my choices were to turn around or keep going in the same direction. Though the animal’s body was partially hidden in the tall chaparral, including its tail, it appeared to be docile and modest-sized. I decided to continue with my route. It was a beautiful run, I was definitely high on life, and I wasn’t about to let a critter ruin my run or make me change my charted course.

As I ran down the hill, the animal lay motionless. When I got within 10 yards or so, it scurried into the tall chaparral and out of sight, too quickly for me to get a good look and make an accurate identification. For a good 50 yards, I kept checking behind me and saw nothing. The coast was clear. Or so I thought.

About 15 minutes later, I was grinding away toward the last hill. The trail was majestically quiet, and the Pacific Ocean was in sight. Out of nowhere, a couple of people on horseback yelled frantically, “The mountain lion is after you! The mountain lion is after you!”

When I heard their screams, I immediately turned around and was met by the eerily silent, crouched countenance of a mountain lion stalking me menacingly just a few yards away. This was no bobcat, as I first thought. It was a very long-tailed, muscular mountain lion. Bobcats have short, bobbed tails and are considerably smaller. Seeing it behind me made my heart race, and I instinctively picked up the pace.

A horrifying vision of it pouncing, biting the back of my neck and asphyxiating me flashed through my mind, as I realized I was running at near top speed while the lion at most fast-walking. So much for outrunning it. I was exhausted, my instincts directed me to pick up the pace but my body disobeyed. I knew the finish line was my car, about 150 yards away, so I continued to painstakingly make my way toward it while keeping my head turned back and eyes on the lion. I learned subsequently that a mountain lion can run approximately 35 miles per hour, leap as high as 18 feet and more than 20 feet in length or—perhaps even more frightening—drop more than 50 feet from a vantage point onto unsuspecting prey. I was severely outmatched.

Fortunately, making eye contact seemed to discourage it. The element of surprise, critical to an ambush predator, was gone. After a few, endless seconds of looking into its eyes with fright and bewilderment, the cat unexpectedly disappeared into the tall chaparral once again. I continued toward the trailhead, turning back often, knowing I was easy prey until I made it to the safety of my car. There was a huge sense of relief when I finally made it back without incident. In retrospect, looking back may have saved my life. I later learned in India, woodcutters in the Ganges Delta wear masks with faces on the back of their heads to confuse Bengal tigers, who apparently only attack from the back.

My subsequent email exchange with a biologist specializing in mountain lions revealed I probably encountered a young mountain lion (100-120 pounds). Once a young mountain lion reaches adulthood, between 12-18 months of age, it leaves its mother to establish its own home range. Such mountain lions, called “transients,” are the most likely to encounter humans and to behave unusually because they have not fully developed their hunting skills. The mountain lion I faced certainly did act goofy and behaved unusually. When I ran toward it the first time, it stayed on the trail until the very last minute. And when it followed me, it didn’t pounce immediately, luckily, but instead kept sizing me up without making its move.

In many parks in Southern California, signs similar to this one warn of imminent mountain lion sightings.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed hundreds of runs and hikes alone in mountain lion country without seeing another. I’ve seen bears, moose, coyotes, bobcats and rattlesnakes, but all without incident. I live in Los Angeles again and frequent Griffith Park. Interestingly, I’ve never seen mountain lion P-22, the protagonist of The Cat That Changed America, a documentary which premiered in New York in October 2017 and chronicles P-22’s longtime mysterious residence in Griffith Park.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars or panthers, are majestic, beautiful animals. I am grateful to have run away unscathed from this scary and rare encounter. Much like shark attacks, mountain lion attacks occur when we encroach on their territory. On my shortlist of books of recommended reading is David Baron’s The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator’s Deadly Return to Suburban America (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005). The book has received national attention, won the Colorado Book Award, and reportedly offers a compelling account of the history of the mountain lion and Boulder’s effort to coexist with its new neighbors.

Mountain lions live throughout the western United States, although there are occasionally sightings in the Midwest and there is an isolated subpopulation of panthers in the southern parts of Florida. Anyone venturing into lion country should heed the safety guidelines from the Mountain Lion Foundation or these from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW):

-Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.
-Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active—dawn, dusk, and at night.
-Keep a close watch on small children.
-Do not approach a mountain lion.
-If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects.
-Pick up small children.
-If attacked, fight back.
-If a mountain lion attacks a person, immediately call 911.

For a list of verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California from 1986 through 2014, including Gaviota State Park where I had my encounter, visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

For a generic list of confirmed mountain lion attacks in the United States and Canada from 1890 to the present, visit the Arizona Game & Fish Department.

Ruben Vassolo
Ruben Vassolo is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a practicing business and real estate attorney in Los Angeles. He enjoys running and hiking, whether in LA’s Griffith Park, the Khumbu region of the Nepal Himalaya or anywhere else dirt. You can learn more about Ruben at www.linkedin.com/in/rubenvassolo.