'We live in a jewel of a place that comes with wild risks'
Two Seattle residents were biking near the Cascade foothills this weekend when a cougar attacked them.
S.J. Brooks was an ardent biker who founded Friends on Bikes, a community that promotes diversity in cycling. Brooks was biking with Isaac Sederbaum, who was badly injured by the cougar and is recovering at Harborview.
Cougar attacks are so rare in Washington state that this was the first fatal attack in our state in almost a century.
So what can we learn about the relationship we have with the wilderness around us? Conservation ecologist Chris Morgan told KUOW's Bill Radke that nature is part of the draw to living in the Northwest — but that comes with risks. Below are excerpts from their conversation.
What general advice do you have about encountering a cougar?
"First of all remember that it's impossible to eliminate all threats — and it's not necessarily what we want as Washingtonians, going into a sort of sterile environment. We want the sense of the wild. But really making sure you know what to look for in cougar country, looking for tracks and scat and scrapes and scratches ...
"You can carry bear spray. It works on cougars as well as it does on bears or deer or elk or any other animal that might be acting aggressively. Carry something to make noise. If you're on a bike, make it a bicycle bell or even a whistle — give a whistle every five minutes or so. It helps all animals realize you're in the environment, gives them a heads up. It's the respectful thing to do. It gives them a chance to get out of your way."
So, you're saying don't flee — is that right?
"Ultimately, escaping from a cougar that's in pursuit-mode by running is not going to work. So fighting back — and, I mean, these gentlemen did that. It sounds like they really sort of tried to fight this cougar off and were very aggressive. They were doing all the right things by the sound of things. But yes, you should never run. It triggers a different response in a cougar. It's just their natural instinct to chase something down. Anyone who owns a house cat sees that behavior daily."
Why are cougar attacks so rare?
"These cats are very predisposed to secrecy and being elusive. It's their hunting technique; they rely upon that elusive ability to hunt and to kill deer and elk and other small mammals ... All of it involves stealth. They're very secretive, very illusive and highly paranoid about humans ... They know humans are not good news for them."
As humans move into cougar habitats, will attacks become more common?
"That's hard to say. If you're thinking logically about it, that would make sense. There are 7.5 million people in the state right now, and outdoor recreation is exploding ... Sometimes it's almost more surprising to me that things don't happen more often like this, with the number of carnivores in the landscape of Washington state.
Do you have advice for someone who's new to area and wondering about the risks?
"I would encourage people to get out and enjoy the outdoors and understand that we live in this jewel of a place that comes with wild risks. If you're willing to take some sense of risk as part of the experience in the outdoors, then that's part of the beauty and the majesty of this place that we call home. It doesn't make the incident on Saturday any easier though — one death is too many. And we all need to do what we can to minimize the risk. You can do it with certain things like the knowledge that you're armed with and carrying the right things — like bear pepper spray. Take a whistle with you, or a bell. And don't travel alone. Hike or mountain bike in pairs or more. Just make sure you travel respectfully for the wild place that you're in."