The cougar in that viral video looked scary, but experts say the runner was safe


The female mountain lion in a chilling faceoff with a solo trail runner in Utah wasn’t trying to kill him. Really.

The cougar chased Kyle Burgess, 26, sometimes getting as close as four feet, as Burgess backed down a wide dirt trail during an Oct. 10 trail run. Burgess yelled — “Go away I’m big and scary!” — swore, bent over to pick up rocks to hurl and didn’t take his eyes off the big cat. In fact, he used his phone to film the six-minute encounter, which went viral on social and mainstream media. (See the video with bleeped out language on YouTube here.)

Reactions were swift, first from viewers who were aghast at the mountain lion’s aggressive behavior. Then park rangers and wildlife organizations weighed in, saying people misunderstood what they were seeing. Experts say the mountain lion’s behavior showed she was trying to chase Burgess away from her young, not kill him.


The Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation posted a note that said in part that “... individuals and the media are getting a lot of things wrong, especially with social media posts and news headlines that claim the lion stalked the man. This was not predatory or stalking behavior.”

Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist who studies and tags mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, commented after watching the video several times: “I certainly don’t think he was ... in danger of being attacked and certainly not being attacked to kill him.”

Mountain lions live in local forests, mountains and canyons where Southern Californians regularly hike, bike, trail run, climb and recreate. There have been 18 lion-human attacks in California, of which three were fatal, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. There were three nonfatal attacks this year, one involving a 3-year-old in Orange County.

It’s rare that you would have an encounter with a mountain lion, much less like the one that happened to Burgess. Still, I asked experts to weigh in on what the video can teach us and what lessons we can learn.

Don’t mess with babies


The full video (some news outlets edited the footage down to shots of the lion acting aggressively) starts when Burgess sees what he thinks are bobcat kittens at a distance and begins filming. They were mountain lion babies and, almost immediately, mom sprints from around the corner and moves toward him.

Burgess didn’t get close to the young, but his presence probably set mom off. “Mothers of any animal species become aggressive when protecting their young,” San Bernardino National Forest wildlife biologist Angelica Mendoza wrote in an email. “The lioness in the video was just trying to get the hiker (whom she considered a threat) as far away from her cubs as possible.”

The mountain lion immediately put herself between her young and Burgess and, early in the encounter, more than once looked back in the direction of the kittens because she was concerned about their safety, Riley said.

Beth Schaefer, director of animal programs at the L.A. Zoo, called the mountain lion’s actions typical “escorting behavior” aimed at scaring Burgess. The pounces and jumps the lion made when Burgess bent over to grab a rock, called mock or bluff charges, are something big cats don’t do when they’re going in for a kill.

They are ambush hunters, meaning their prey wouldn’t know it was being tracked until it was too late. For Schaefer, the most heart-stopping part of the video was when the lion veered off the trail and into the brush. “I thought, man, she’s going into hunting mode now,” she said. But then the lion quickly reappeared and continued the chase. Bottom line: If you see young animals in the forest, stay away — and assume that mom is close by.

Always fight back


Experts agreed that being aggressive is the best defense when it comes to mountain lions. Some comments on social media asked: Why didn’t Burgess just throw a rock? If you watch carefully, Schaefer said, the lion mock charged him when he bent over. Lowering yourself to the ground could make you seem less threatening, from the cat’s perspective. It’s always best to stay upright. If you have a small child with you, pick them up without bending over. “What you want to do is project that you are bigger and badder than they are,” Schaeffer said.

Burgess had the right idea by keeping his eye on the lion, standing tall and yelling a lot. The worst thing to do is turn and run. Lions and other animals are imprinted to chase prey and attack if you take off. Don’t think about playing dead either.

Be very aggressive

What else could Burgess have done? He could have been even more scary. Riley said if he were in the situation, he might have stopped, stamped his feet, yelled more, thrown rocks and just generally taken a very aggressive stance. Of course, if the lion kept coming, he would have backed away and thrown rocks.

Authorities arrested a suspect on Sunday in the shooting death of a 58-year-old man.

Oct. 13, 2020

Don’t hike or run alone

Burgess came upon the kittens by accident. During his solo run, he probably made little noise. For this reason, Mendoza and others advise people against going alone. “You are more likely to make noise (because you are talking), and it gives any animals along the trail a warning that you are coming, and they will move out of the way before you even see them,” she said.


Some recommend carrying bear spray, but you must make sure you know how to use it properly (the danger is that you’ll spray yourself instead of whatever is chasing you). The Mountain Lion Foundation and others tell hikers to carry personal alarms or air horns to scare animals. Some experts, however, say it’s not really known how animals react to such devices.

In the end, Burgess prevailed. The mountain lion ran back up the trail toward her young.

“People can relate to the fear Burgess felt in that moment,” Denise Peterson, a region coordinator with the Mountain Lion Foundation who lives in Utah, wrote on the organization’s website. “But it’s important to remember that two creatures felt very threatened here: the human and the mountain lion.”