Will a Taser Work on a Cougar?

Get close, and aim well.     Photo: Illustration by Daniel D. Snyder

In short, yes. And, maybe, no. Tasers can be an effective method of non-lethal defense against cougars, ignoring other vital factors. But we’ll get to that. Before you head into the backcountry packing high voltage, you’ll want to know a few things about America’s misunderstood lion. 

Cougars once roamed vast swaths of North and South America before they were hunted nearly to extinction. Then, around the 1960s, conservation efforts and burgeoning populations of key prey, such as deer, rebounded their numbers, to a point. Aside from the occasional far-wandering individual, in North America the elusive Felis concolor—known also as the mountain lion, panther, puma, or catamountranges strictly in British Columbia, Alberta, the twelve western states, and Florida.

Cougars are survivors and opportunistic hunters. They’re also shy, and humans aren’t on the menu. If you’re a regular hiker in cougar country, especially around dawn or dusk, you’ve likely been watched or followed. Chances of escalating beyond that, however, are slim.

But attacks happen, if rarely. A 1991 study by Paul Beier, a wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University, recorded only 53 attacks and ten human deaths since 1890. A handful more have occurred since. In a grisly encounter last September on Vancouver Islandwhere roughly 40 percent of attacks transpireda man killed a cougar with a boar spear after it crushed his wife’s skull. The culprits are generally rabid or starving juveniles. And they’re certainly dangerous. 

So will a Taser stop a cougar? Yes, if you can get close enough and, more importantly, if your aim is true. Tasers fire two probes on 15- to 35-foot lines, and to be effective, both probes must hit. When they do, 5,000 volts jam the nervous system, causing temporary paralysis and a jolt of pain. As a last resort, the drive stun on the gun itself can inflict pain without incapacitating. Cougars, which can reach 200 pounds, are susceptible to both. 

Many cougar experts, though, find the question laughable. Beier points out that these cats are ambush hunters. “The first clue is claws or teeth on your body,” he says.

Zara McDonald, executive director of the Felidae Conservation Fund, a wild cat conservation guild, thinks cougars are likely to be a tough target even if you do see them coming. "Their sensory perception, power, and reflexes blow away those of humans," she explains. In other words, you'll be hard-pressed to get that shot off.

Think of it as a last resort. According to Dan Thompson, the supervisor at Wyoming Fish and Game’s large carnivore section, standard protocol for a cougar encounter is simple: maintain eye contact, raise your arms or backpack over your head to look big, and back away slowly. If the cougar approaches, throw rocks or sticks. Should it attack, always fight back and never run. In nearly all cases, the cat will retreat.

Bottom line: pack a Taser if you’re concerned and know how to use it. Better yet, pay attention to your surroundings to avoid confrontation. “We’re animals, too,” Thompson says. “We need to trust our instincts.”

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