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A One-Colored Big “Small” Cat

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Where have all the coatis gone?

By Jack Ewing

Gatun Lake was created when the Panama Canal was built. Before the area was flooded there was nothing but primary rainforest. Once the lake was full only the top of a mountain remained above water. Today that 15.6 square kilometers of forest covered mountain top is known as Barro Colorado Island, and it is one of the most intensively studied rainforests in the world. At some point scientists noticed that bird populations on the island were diminishing, and they endeavored to find out why. As it turned out, the root of the problem had to do with big cats. When the lake was flooded a few pumas and jaguars ended up on Barro Colorado. Since the island was too small to support even one large cat for any length of time they all eventually swam to shore. That’s when the birds started diminishing. Without pumas and jaguars to prey on the coatis and raccoons their populations increased rapidly. Both of these mammal species are omnivorous, both are semi arboreal, both are opportunistic predators, and they wreaked havoc on the nesting birds. As often happens when Mother Nature is allowed a free rein, the problem eventually solved itself. From time to time a large cat will swim to the island, stay and hunt until the prey base is thinned considerably, and swim back to the mainland. This keeps populations coatis and raccoons more or less under control.

Hacienda Baru

Those of you readers who live in the area around Dominical will remember when there were so many coatis and raccoons that they used to station themselves along the roadside and beg for food from passing cars. At Hacienda Barú Lodge coatis would come into the gardens to eat fruit from the papaya, guava and cashew trees. We had to fortify the restaurant against nocturnal invasions of raccoons. I was eating dinner in the restaurant one night and a raccoon slipped in from outside, scampered across the bar, grabbed a package of cup cakes from the rack and ran off into the darkness. Almost everybody who walked on the trails saw coatis and raccoons. Their populations had gotten so completely out of control that these mammals were becoming pests. There were so many coatis that even the white-faced capuchin monkeys, who raid their treetop nests and eat the new born coatis, couldn’t keep them down. Then in late 2010 everything started changing. Today, six months later, people ask “Where have all the coatis gone?”

Pierre and Michele consider themselves to be serious ecotourists. They visited Hacienda Barú because of its reputation as a top destination for ecotourism in Costa Rica. They spent Saturday, April 23, 2011 walking on the nature trails of Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge and enjoying the flora and fauna. About 3:30 in the afternoon, less than 500 meters (447 yards) from the lodge, they came to an abrupt halt, finding themselves face to face with two large, tan-colored cats. One of the cats was standing, and the other was crouching with its black-tipped tail straight out the back and raised. The crouching cat hissed at the two hikers. Pierre wanted to get the camera out of the back pack and take a photo, but Michele was nervous and wanted to leave. The couple stayed close together and slowly backed away. Once they were out of sight, they turned and hurried back to the lodge where Hacienda Barú guide Ronald Alpízar opened the gate for them. Breathlessly they told him their story. Ronald returned to the spot with the couple, but the cats were gone. They did, however, come across a large group of collared peccary close to where the encounter took place. When questioned further Pierre and Michele described the cats’ behavior as aggressive, especially the one that was crouching. They estimated that the standing one was 60 centimeters (23.6 inches) at the shoulder.

What Pierre and Michele had seen were pumas, more than likely a couple of litter mates recently separated from their mother and still traveling together. Three days later two large cats, probably the same ones, were sighted near the Hatillo Viejo River. That person described them as large puma cubs.

What we call pumas in Latin America are called mountain lions or cougars in North America. All are the same species Puma concolor, which means one-colored cat. Even though they are the same species, our pumas tend to be a little smaller than the North America variety. Males and females come together briefly to mate, and cubs recently separated from their mothers will travel together for a short time. But other than that pumas are solitary animals. They are very adaptable and will eat anything from small rodents to deer and elk. They have been known to prey on farm animals and domestic pets. In the area around Hacienda Barú their preferred prey is the collared peccary, a small wild pig. Raccoons and coatis are also among its favorites.

In feline biology cats are classified as either “large” or “small” depending on whether they roar or purr. Even though the puma is only slightly smaller than the jaguar, whose roar will strike terror into the heart of anything within hearing distance, it is classified as a small cat because it only purrs. On the other hand the snow leopard, which is less than half the size of a puma, roars and is therefore classified as a large cat. In spite of this classification, the puma hunts like a big cat, acts like a big cat, and, like other large cats, has been known to attack people.

I know of two puma attacks in Costa Rica, both in or near Corcovado National Park. In one of them a school girl walking down a path lagging behind her parents and older siblings was attacked from behind. The puma ended up biting into her back pack which she rapidly shed and hurriedly caught up to the rest of the group. The cat was reluctant to attack the family group. This puma was later found to be an old female who could no longer compete for the normal prey of her species.

The second was when a biologist friend of mine, Charlie Foerster, was attacked by a puma while walking down a jungle trail at night. Charlie was tracking tapirs with his radio telemetry equipment when he encountered a puma. He stood his ground and faced the puma, shined his flashlight in its eyes and yelled and screamed for all he was worth. When the puma moved toward him Charlie threw the radio telemetry equipment at it. When it got right up to him he hit it in the nose and face repeatedly with his flashlight. Eventually the puma took off. I guess it figured that Charlie didn’t act like any prey it had ever attacked.

In the dry season of 1989, there was a papaya tree with mature fruit in the middle of a cleared area around our jungle campsite at Hacienda Barú. Every day, in the late morning, a large group of coatis appeared in the clearing and fought over the nearly ripe papaya, tearing them to pieces and gobbling up the sweet, orange fruit. Then, from one day to the next, all of the coatis disappeared from the area, and the fruit ripened until it either fell off the tree or was eaten by birds. At the same time we found large claw marks on a tree near the camp, and an extremely large paw print at the edge of a nearby stream. A few days later, the neighbors on the next farm, today known as “Quintas La Guapil,” observed a large, tan-colored cat at the edge of a pasture. Their horses were terrified of the cat and attempted to rid themselves of the riders and run off. Since that time there have been sporadic reports of puma sightings and puma tracks. For many years, it appeared that there was only one puma that roamed the area extending from Matapalo to Hacienda Barú, preying mainly on deer in the Matapalo area and peccary around Hacienda Barú. Today all indications are that there are more, and that they are reproducing.

We have already seen that puma’s favorite prey, collared peccary, raccoons and coatis have been very abundant in the area. An adult puma will hunt in a large territory which it will defend against other pumas. There is a good chance that the territory comprised of Hacienda Barú, the Firestone Center, Quintas La Guapil and other neighboring properties is the territory of a single adult puma which wanders through the area seeking out its prey. It is also probable that other adult pumas posses territories adjacent to this territory. I feel strongly that from now on there will be more and more sighting of pumas in our region, and their increased presence may very well bring some problems for the people who live here. There is not much livestock that a large cat could prey on, but there are plenty of dogs many of which love to go tearing off into the woods barking like crazy at real or imagined enemies. These are easy prey for a big cat. Another possibility is that of a puma attack on a person. This is not a strong possibility, but it has happened a number of times in many parts of North America, and there is no reason why it can’t happen here. It is worth mentioning that even in the US and Canada in areas where puma attacks have occurred, it has been calculated that you are much more likely to be struck by lightening than attacked by a puma.

I asked two people who work at Hacienda Barú what a person should do if they encounter a puma. The first said, “make yourself as small as possible, look at the ground, and keep quiet.” The second said, “run like crazy.” In reality these are the two worst things you can do. Being informed is a big step toward preventing an unpleasant or tragic experience. If you live in a wooded area where peccary, coatis and raccoons are often seen, there are several things about puma behavior that you should be aware of:

  1. If you encounter a puma, do not run. If you do, the cat will see you as fleeing prey and will probably attack.
  2. Face the predator and look it in the eye. Stand tall and hold your hands high over your head. Make yourself look as big as possible. Several attacks have been reported on people bent over tying a shoe. When you are bent over, you look smaller. An adult human is larger than the puma’s normal prey, and it will be hesitant. Anything you can do to make yourself look bigger will feed its doubt.
  3. Keep your kids close to you. Don’t let them run off into the forest by themselves. They are closer to the size of a puma’s normal prey. A high percentage of the attacks in North America have been against children.
  4. Walk with other people. Pumas attack people who are alone and tend to steer clear of groups of two or more people.
  5. If you are attacked, fight back. Yell as loud as you can. Go for the nose and eyes; they are the most sensitive parts of the puma’s face and the only places where you can inflict pain. A large prey that fights back is so unusual and unexpected, that the big cat may release you and run away. This is what happened with Charlie Foerster.

My purpose in writing this is not to scare people, but rather to make people aware that nature often changes in ways that can create problems for humans. People all over North America live in areas frequented by bears and pumas. In fact, people moving deeper into mountain lion territory has been cited as the primary reason for an increase in attacks in recent years. In our area, the opposite is true. We aren’t invading the puma’s territory. Rather we have been restoring wildlife habitat in the areas where we live, and have created an ecosystem where large cats can thrive. Large carnivores are only found in healthy ecosystems. People can and do coexist with these predators, and that is what we must learn to do if we want to live in a healthy ecosystem.

In late March of 2011, Cheryl Margoluis PhD, a professor at the Firestone Center, was orienting a group of new students. They were learning about the Firestone Center where they would be studying the restoration of degraded ecosystems for the next few months. Cheryl was in the lead as they walked through the secondary forest that covers most of the center’s 80 hectares. A commotion on the right side of the trail drew Cheryl’s attention, and suddenly a collared peccary burst from the low lying vegetation in an obvious state of panic and sprinted across the trail not two meters (6.5 feet) in front of her. A split second later a full grown puma leaped onto the trail close on the heels of the peccary. What happened next could best be described as chaos. Frenzied peccary came running from every direction squealing, snorting, charging around and between the students. One ran right into one of the student’s legs nearly tumbling her to the ground. Then as fast as it began they all disappeared, and it was over. What an experience for new arrivals in Costa Rica. What a great experience for anyone. Some people have all of the luck.

One Response to “A One-Colored Big “Small” Cat”

  1. Kristy J said:

    Thank you for the wonderful article.
    My husband and I are travelling to Costa Rica in March and hope to have some ‘luck’ as well in sighting wild felines! Recommendations for a puma (or any large predator) encounter are factual, descriptive and greatly appreciated :).
    Long life and good health to you, Jack, and to all our wild friends worldwide!

    Kristy J, Port Hope, ON, Canada