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My Cougar Encounter

garden of the gods in august

In August of 2007 I was visiting Colorado Springs for the second time in my life. I decided to take a hike at 7:30 a.m. in Garden of the Gods, a very popular tourist spot with large red rock formations on the west edge of the city. I started on the Scottsman Trail with my camera around my neck, hoping to capture the picturesque rock formations that were glowing beneath the morning sun.

scottsman trail in garden of the gods

After I ascended a rough-hewn stairway of wooden planks embedded in the dirt, I saw the path split briefly, so I went up a tiny hill to get a view over some rocks. As I looked over the landscape covered with scrub brush and towering rocks, my eyes met with two pairs of eyes staring back at me from about nine yards away. For a split second my brain told me this scene couldn't be real: two beautiful cougars stood side by side staring at me.

pair of cougars in garden of the gods

Then I thought, "I've been told it's extremely rare to see cougars in the wild, so God must have given me this special opportunity as a gift and I should make the most of it by taking their picture." So I focused carefully and took a shot. I lowered my camera to see they were still frozen by a bush. I wished I had my 300mm zoom lens to get a closer shot, but all I had was my standard lens. I took one more photo just to be sure I got a good one. Then it seemed like the Lord said, "Now scare them away."
Fortunately, I had read two months prior that I should never turn my back or run from a cougar. I also knew I shouldn't crouch, but try to look as large as possible. With no jacket to lift over my head to look big, I merely lifted my arms straight above my head and spread my hands like claws. I didn't know what else to do, so I started making a low growling sound. The pair remained immobile like statues.

steffani re-enacting scaring cougars

It felt like they were eyeing me up, pondering if it would be worth their while to attack. I wondered if I was going to die, but I didn't think my time was up yet. I felt like I was looking into the eyes of cold killing machines who could tear me limb from limb and have no qualms about it. After all, shredding flesh was what they had to do to survive.

I didn't see or hear anyone in the area who could help me. I figured that if I wanted to live, I had to be as intimidating as possible. So I let out the most ferocious sound I could muster (my dad later said he was surprised I could manage more than a squeak considering my fear level). The cougar on the left immediately crouched down and looked from side to side with a mix of fear and embarrassment as if to say, "Pardon me. What am I doing here? I didn't mean to bother you." I expected the big cat to scamper off quickly, but instead it crept slowly toward the mountains, then was hidden from sight as he made his way through the bushes. The other one followed right behind.

I could hardly believe it. Only a month ago I had literally run from a feisty barking puppy. But that day I had scared away, not one, but two, potentially man-eating cougars. God had enabled me to keep my wits about me and I believe He had been protecting me, yet a sense of power and invincibility rose up in me for a moment. If I could intimidate a pair of cougars, there was a lot less in this world for me to be afraid of.

As soon as the cougars disappeared behind the bushes, a couple touring from New York came along the path. I ran to them with a huge smile, exclaiming, "I'm SO happy to see you! I just ran into a pair of cougars!" The man's head darted back and forth excitedly as he said, "Where? Where?" When I pointed in their direction, he made a move toward the bushes, but I urged him to stay out of there. When I tried to press the buttons on the back of my camera to show them the pictures, I was surprised to see that my fingers couldn't cooperate because they were shaking uncontrollably. A rush of adrenaline had been pumping through me.

It would have been a scary thing to walk alone to the main part of the park, not being able to see what might be lurking a few yards away in the scrub brush, but the couple was happy to walk me to the populated area. God had worked everything out very nicely. Had I not taken the little detour up the small hill, I might have run right into the cougars on the path and who knows what would have happened at such a close range? Then I had an escort to safety just when I needed it.

When I was on my way back to my car, from a distance I saw two large tan animals bounding around a bend in the path toward me. I was still spooked from my previous encounter and wondered with a bit of panic what they were. When I saw they were unleashed dogs and not cougars, I relaxed and said to myself, "Oh, just dogs." From that day on dogs haven't had the same power to intimidate me that they used to.

I showed my photo to workers at the visitor center. They were excited and noticed one cougar had faint spots from kittenhood. I was told the pair was probably a brother and sister because one was noticeably larger than the other. Cougars are normally solitary, but two-year-olds that have recently left their mother will hang out for a few months and hunt together. I was glad I didn't know at the time that either one could have jumped on me in one leap, otherwise I might not have had the courage to take the photos. Br>

I donated a copy of one picture to the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center to include with their slides for the cougar talks. When I zoomed on my second photo I noticed that the cougar on the left had widened its eyes and opened its mouth to show its teeth by that point. Apparently, the noise of the shutter had aggravated it. I shuddered at the thought.

agitated cougar on left

Even though my confidence in the wilderness has increased because of my cougar encounter, I have also become more wary, acknowledging that I was fortunate and may not have escaped unharmed had I met an older starving cougar. Now I will glance behind me occasionally while hiking, even when with another person. I will hike alone only in parks that border the city and even there I will carry pepper spray. I'd rather not hike the western edge of Garden of the Gods alone early on a weekday morning again - just to be safe. I figure the abundance of rabbits will keep a cougar or two frequenting the park. Despite my concerns, I yearn to see another cougar and I continue to scan the landscape for a glimpse of one of these beautiful and terrifying big cats in the wild.

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