The recent viral video of a Utah runner’s encounter with a mountain lion on a trail has set off a new round of debate about the challenges of human-wildlife coexistence. Unfortunately, as this story broke, some media outlets were quick to sensationalize the incident, falsely claiming that the animal was “stalking” the man. In reality, the video showed a mother lion defending her kittens from a perceived threat.
Of course, we acknowledge the interests of people to protect themselves from real danger in situations involving wildlife, in those rare instances when the threat is real. That said, the words that we use when describing human-wildlife interactions matter and there is a heavy cost to misrepresentations of animal behavior in our mass media. This is all the more serious because of the increasing prevalence of human-wildlife encounters brought on by development, loss of habitat, land use decisions and the widening gap in our understanding of how these animals live in and around our communities. Sensationalized news stories about native carnivores like mountain lions, bears and wolves have the effect of creating unnecessary fear and preventing people from learning how to coexist with wildlife.
John “Griff” Griffith, a guide for California State Parks, was especially vocal in chiding media organizations for headlines and stories concerning the Utah incident that made it sound like the mountain lion was on the attack. “I know a little something about mountain lions,” Griffith said in a lively and intelligent post on Facebook. “That was not a mountain lion stalking. That was a mama mountain lion trying to get someone away from her cubs. There is a difference,” he said.
Griffith is right. It is true that mountain lions are highly stealthy animals, but their stalking behavior includes moving silently so as not to be noticed by prey. A young mountain lion may also stalk out of curiosity, but without intent to directly engage or attack a human being.
The challenges of coexisting with wildlife can be directly affected by poor decision-making in wildlife policy at the local, state and federal level, especially when they are arrived at through processes that scapegoat wild animals and mischaracterize their behavior. These kinds of processes not only hamper efforts to coexist, but can lead to retaliatory killing, support and implementation of eradication policies and or the sabotage of ongoing species conservation efforts. There is frequently a terrible confluence between the anxiety and fear that surrounds some human-wildlife encounters and the action of policy makers in authorizing lethal destruction or trophy hunting.
For example, in 2016, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources concocted a story about three endangered gray wolves posing a threat to humans, simply to justify killing them for the convenience of a cattle rancher. In 2011, a Michigan state Senator spread false stories about three wolves showing up at a day care center in Michigan and being killed by federal agents. And in New Mexico, sensationalized media and rumors about the danger of lobos, also known as Mexican wolves, became so pervasive that a school district decided to build wolf-proof cages for children at school bus stops.
Such stories are often used to justify management strategies that promote trophy hunting and lethal predator control of native carnivores. Earlier this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife finalized a mountain lion management plan to allow the rampant killing of lions around the Glenwood Springs and Aspen areas in response to public fears. This came on the heels of an incident in which a man was attacked by a mountain lion while out for a jog. The story spread like wildfire, creating a frenzy of fear about the jogger’s harrowing encounter, which detailed how he strangled the mountain lion in self-defense. Eventually, it emerged that the jogger had killed a three-month-old mountain lion kitten. The kitten and his two siblings, who were later found by officials, were too young to be on their own and had obviously been orphaned. Moreover, mortality data shows that three adult females had recently been killed in the area by trophy hunters and ranchers.
Experts have warned CPW and Colorado residents that the indiscriminate killing of mountain lions through trophy hunting will likely only result in increased conflicts, for example by orphaning young kittens who have not yet learned how to hunt for natural prey.
Our view is that wildlife managers would be much better off relying on increased public education and outreach, as well as providing non-lethal deterrents to famers in order to protect their animals, than on the continued promotion of heavy trophy hunting of mountain lions and native carnivores.
We are also confident that the American public values native carnivores and would rather see them alive and protected than taken as trophies or killed as a consequence of public misunderstanding, scaremongering, or lack of creative and responsible effort on the part of agencies charged with their management.
For more information, take a look at our resources on human-wildlife coexistence and our campaigns to make the world safer for animals and people, as well as our resources on trophy hunting and what you can do to protect wildlife in the U.S. and around the world.