COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - What is our fascination with the mountain lions that are common in Colorado?
It’s a valid question given that Monday’s mountain lion attack near Fort Collins continues to be one of the most popular stories on KRDO NewsChannel 13’s social media.
Perhaps the interest is because the victim survived the attack by strangling the predator, or that the big cats are rarely seen while attacks on humans are rarer still -- especially in Colorado where deer and other natural prey are plentiful.
The incident likely has many people who frequent trails wondering if they can defend themselves from an attack by a mountain lion or other animal that may consider humans to be easy prey.
Cody Wigner, an assistant area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said traveling in groups of two or more people will discourage such attacks.
"Some people would like to carry a handgun but don't want the added weight if they're doing an outdoor activity," he said. "Carrying a knife or a walking stick would be helpful. Even a rock can be used as a weapon. But it's important to remember that mountain lion attacks on humans are very rare. You're more likely to get bitten by a dog or struck by lightning."
Luz Munoz, who regularly hikes on local trails, said she plays music loudly to scare off potential predators.
"What happened to that guy (in Fort Collins) definitely caught my attention," she said. "Pretty scary."
Another hiker, Jim Hamilton, carries bear spray for protection.
"It's supposed to work on mountain lions, too," he said. "But I'd be very cautious around any wildlife."
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs has two mountain lions on display. Rebecca Zwicker, a zookeeper, fed it goat's milk from a squirt bottle Thursday.
"I often hear people walk past this exhibit and say a mountain lion is the last thing they'd want to see in the wild," she said. "People tend to think of them as cute and cuddly. But in the wild, you should avoid them -- even if you're lucky enough to actually see one, because they're so reclusive. There are more of them than you might think, and they're closer to us than you realize."
Wigner said there are as many as 5,500 mountain lions, also called cougars or pumas, in Colorado.
According to statistics, mountain lions have killed three people and injured 16 in Colorado since 1900. During essentially the same period, the big cats killed 20 people in North America.
"Don't let a fear of them keep you from enjoying the outdoors," Wigner said. "Just be aware of your surroundings and know what to do if you encounter a mountain lion."
Experts advise that if a mountain lion attacks you, especially by surprising you from behind (as was the case in Fort Collins), do your best to fight it off.
"Use your bare hands if you have to," Wigner said.
The victim in Fort Collins strangled that mountain lion, which was less than a year old and likely was not yet a skilled hunter. He suffered several bites but was treated and released from a hospital.
"If the cat had been a mature adult, the outcome might have been different," Wigner said.
Experts also advise you to stay calm when encountering a mountain lion before a potential attack; hold your ground and back away slowly; don't run and keep your eyes on it; make loud noises and wave your arms aggressively to make yourself look bigger and throw rocks or branches at it.
Authorities are conducting tests on the carcass of the Fort Collins mountain lion to determine whether illness or starvation were factors in the attack.