North Texas has come down with big cat fever once more, and this time, mercifully, Joe Exotic isn’t involved.
Last week, media outlets reported that a mountain lion had been caught on video surveillance in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett. Days later and 100 miles away, a missing man was found dead in Lipan; preliminary findings by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office said he had possibly been killed by a mountain lion, according to AP News.
The announcement struck a nerve with machismo North Texans, who emerged on social media in moblike formation to scapegoat the state’s big cat population.
“If an animal kills human then human should kill that cat. If you don’t kill this cat then this cat can kill more humans,” one person wrote on Facebook in response to a Dallas Morning News article on the man’s death.
“Oh boy let’s kill them all,” wrote another.
Yet over the weekend, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department disputed the claim that cougars, or any other wild animal, killed 28-year-old Christopher Allen Whiteley. Spokeswoman Megan Radke said game wardens, wildlife biologists and other experts conducted an investigation at the scene, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services biologist came to the same conclusion.
Reports of mountain lion killings are “extremely rare,” Radke said; there have been fewer than 30 confirmed deaths nationwide over the past 100 years. There has never been a confirmed fatal mountain lion attack on a person in Texas, and there is no record of a mountain lion from Hood County, where the man died.
Although the case is still under investigation, the preliminary autopsy showed puncture injuries on Whiteley's neck consistent with that of a large cat, said Judge Kathryn Gwinn, justice of the peace for Hood County Precinct 3. Further studies will be done to discern his actual cause of death.
A report from Texas' wildlife department states that from 1890 to 2001, there were only 17 cougar-related fatalities across the United States and Canada. Cougar attacks have increased over the past few decades but are still much rarer than other animal assaults. By contrast, dogs kill 18 to 20 people in the U.S. each year and inflict 200,000 “suture-requiring injuries.”
It would be highly improbable for two mountain lion sightings in North Texas to occur within the timespan in this instance, said Angela Culver, media director for Wylie big cat sanctuary In-Sync Exotics. It’s also unlikely for the same big cat to have traveled more than 100 miles from Rowlett to Lipan to kill Whiteley or any other human.
In fact, mountain lions should be more scared of us than we are of them, Culver said.
“The likelihood of them turning to humans as a possible food source is pretty unlikely,” she said. “But as for the question about whether these accusations can basically cause vengeance killings? Absolutely.”
When reports of such killings make the news, Culver said people sometimes retaliate. It’s happened before with coyotes, wolves and bobcats, which people think of as vicious predators dead-set on devouring their livestock even though that’s “simply not the case.”
That line of thought isn’t unique to the U.S., either; Culver said it happens worldwide with snow leopards, lions, tigers and other animals. Those who aren’t armed with the proper information may seek to kill these faunae because they believe they are protecting their families.
Even though they aren't murderous beasts, Culver said that doesn’t mean big cats make good pets.
“They seem cute and cuddly and just a little bit bigger than your average town cat, but pound for pound, they are just so strong,” she said. “Even if they’re trying to play with you, they can do serious damage and kill you.”
If faced with a mountain lion, Texas’ wildlife department recommends you do the following.
- Pick up small children
- Stay calm and slowly back away while maintaining eye contact with the mountain lion
- Do not run away or turn your back
- Try to appear larger by waving a stick or raising your arms
- Fight back if the cat tries to attack you
- Throw sticks or rocks if it is aggressive, and speak firmly and loudly
- Do not play dead
- Report aggressive mountain lion behavior
And no matter what, don’t call Joe Exotic for help.