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You’re more likely to win the lottery than see a mountain lion—but in case you cross paths with one, use this handy advice from Look Big, the guide to animal encounters

Rachel Levin  – May 23, 2019 | Updated February 28, 2020

Also known as pumas, cougars, and the sensible term, big cat, mountain lions are found all over the West, most famously in Los Angeles and, increasingly, the Great Plains and Florida. A lone lion recently roamed Tennessee, which is as far east as they’ve been seen since the nineteenth century. Well, apart from one cat who made its way to Connecticut, only to be killed by a car.

A little smaller than Arnold Schwarzenegger, this large feline hisses, growls, chirps (chirps?), but doesn’t produce any roars, as fierce and real-­lion-­like as they look. Too bad, as it’d be nice to know when one is coming.

Here’s a decent rule of thumb: Wherever there are deer, there are mountain lions (the Northeast excluded, for now). Counting big cats is tricky, says Veronica Yovovich of the Mountain Lion Foundation. “They’re elusive and all look alike.” No one knows how many there are in the United States these days, but they estimate 30,000. That sounds like a lot of mountain lions, until you remember there are 324 million people.

Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jeff Östberg

One of which, by the way—­a woman, in Pescadero, California—recently woke at 3 a.m. to a mountain lion crawling in her bedroom, where it snatched her fifteen-pound dog off the foot of her bed and slunk off, neither dog nor cat to be seen again. That is a total anomaly, experts say. She was just really unlucky. That, and she left her door open at night, just a crack.

True, mountain lion populations are on the rise in some places, along with the number of attacks, but your odds of ever seeing a mountain lion, let alone being stalked or killed by one, remain ridiculously minimal. As Michelle LaRue, executive director of the Cougar Network, puts it: “You’re more likely to win the lottery.”

What to Do

If, one day, you do meet a mountain lion on the trail or, uh, in the city (one was spotted roaming San Francisco not long ago), try your best to look big . . . and very much alive. Stand tall. Stare the lion in the eye. Open your coat. Grab your kids, without bending over. Don’t run (mountain lions are faster). But don’t just stand there, looking scared out of your mind, either; that suggests you are easy prey. (Which, let’s be honest, you are.) Instead, intimidate. Wave your arms. Yell. Scream. Throw water bottles, rocks, whatever you’ve got. If attacked, “Give ’em hell,” says Yovovich. What­ever you do, don’t lie down or play dead—­or they’ll eat you for dinner.

Reprinted from LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Levin. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jeff Östberg. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.