It’s Not Covid-19 Keeping Me Inside Anymore. It’s Cougars.
Last week, two cougars attacked and killed our neighbor’s horse. We carry bear spray everywhere we go. It’s spring and just as our government restrictions have started to relax, the animals have woken up.
Every day, it seems, there is a new report of a terrifying or deadly encounter. We are new to the area, having fled the city for a new job and a change of pace. It’s our first spring as country dwellers and the wildlife’s propensity for violence is unnerving.
I am not a city kid. I’m used to making noise to scare off bears and occasionally encountering them on a trail. We even had a cougar waltz through our backyard when I was a tween. I’ve never been scared of wildlife before. This feels different. Cougar sightings are supposed to be rare, and the bears I’m used to are generally impervious to your presence, or quick to flee.
We have joined all the local Facebook groups. Almost as prevalent as the posts complaining about barking dogs, loud music and fast drivers, and mixed in with the dozens of requests for gardening advice, are a slew of posts detailing scary animal sightings and issuing safety warnings.
This week, we went mountain biking. The next day there was a post about a cougar sighting in the park where we’d been biking. The same day at the same time, on the same trail; we must have just missed her.
There was a grizzly sighting in the local cemetery, a popular running and biking spot. Another post detailed the harrowing experience of a lone jogger who was treed (chased into a tree) by an angry black bear that ignored him at first, then charged him instead.
He narrowly escaped by scrambling into the tree, kicking the bear in the face when it tried to follow. He was stuck up there for three hours before anyone heard his calls for help.
This happened on a popular, low altitude trail frequented by casual strollers and toddlers scooting along on those weird new bikes with no pedals, so I wasn’t expecting the shaming that peppered the comment section. Why was he alone? And wearing headphones? And just generally so stupid? It reminds me of the reactions that women have come to expect should they be caught unawares by a creep while exercising outdoors.
Except it’s totally different, and bears don’t know better, and I will never compare the two.
The arsenal of personal safety devices I have amassed over 10 years of living in the city — all gifts from my mom — are finally coming in handy, though. Intended for sexual predators, they are well suited to defend against these predators, too. I’ve got three different whistles, and two “Safety First” pocket alarms that let out an awful, shrieking siren when you pull their trigger (I know this because I once accidentally set it off at the climbing gym).
I bought a bell, and bear spray with a hip holster. At the store when I was buying it, the woman behind me in line said she woke up to find a bear had murdered all of her chickens, leaving behind only their feet as evidence. When I first moved to the city at 17, my loved ones made me carry bear spray everywhere, so that bit of inconvenience is oddly nostalgic.
I am venturing out into the woods on my own less than I expected. The bears I can handle, but the whole cougar thing is a little much. The stores and beaches and busy parks that felt like germy cesspools two months ago are increasingly appealing. My fear of contracting coronavirus and my pandemic induced germophobia have started to recede. I got used to the underlying sense of unease that characterized strolling through the grocery store in late March. That’s what it feels like to walk through secluded forests now.
I still carry hand sanitizer, practice all social distancing, and follow all the rules, but some brain space has been freed for other fears. My chances of contracting the virus where I live are statistically insignificant. (I’ve mostly experienced the pandemic through the media, as empathy, and a collective sense of grief for those who have been directly impacted.)
My chances of a cougar encounter? A bear scare? A run-in with a grizzly?
I’m trying not to think about it.