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December 11, 2017

On a Quest to film the Neighborhood Mountain Lions

Patience is only one part of the equation to successfully film mountain lions in their natural environment. I’m the first to admit that patience isn’t one of my strongest characteristics. It can take weeks, sometimes months before a big cat cruises in front of a trail camera. The other crucial detail is finding a good location for the camera, an area that’s attractive to pumas. Mountain lions don’t normally saunter over to cameras and take selfies. There has to be a reason for them to be in the area. Food, sex and territorial patrols are high on the list.

A couple of months ago we placed one of the cameras on a game trail facing a popular watering hole. The local wild life and feral cats frequently visited the pool to quench their thirst. Unfortunately, last week, the hot days took their toll—the creek dried up. No longer is it an oasis for the deer, a favorite meal for mountain lions. Although the lens didn’t catch mountain lions or bobcats, it did film the antics of skunks, foxes, possums, deer, raccoons and house cats.

There is lots of talk about local mountain lions

Yesterday we relocated the camera up the road on a friend’s property. Recently, he and his neighbors have seen a number of mountain lions. They’ve observed the big cats crossing roads and hanging out in the woods near their homes. Sadly, many of their pets have disappeared. Most likely, one of the reasons the lions are hanging out in the ‘hood is because the human residents aren’t keeping their dogs and cats safe inside. From the puma’s perspective, it’s easier and safer to catch a cat or dog than a large deer with dangerous hoofs. (Please neighbors, keep your pets inside where they are safe!)

Jinniyha, one of the author’s cats checking out the footage--looking for mountain lions

Jinniyha, one of the author’s cats checking out the footage. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Mountain lions are hunters and scavengers

Although mountain lions favor deer, they are opportunistic hunters. Being practical opportunists, they don’t limit themselves to venison. Smaller prey including rabbits, raccoons and house pets are sometimes included on the menu. In addition to hunting, the large cats will also scavenge. Fresh road kill is not off limits. It makes sense—hunting takes lots of energy and can be dangerous. Prey, fighting for their lives can severely injure pumas with their hoofs and teeth. Hunting isn’t always easy.

Puma’s don’t eat a whole deer in one sitting. Instead they cache it for future meals, visiting the carcass periodically for a gnosh. Usually the mountain lions cover them with dirt and leaves to make them less obvious to other predators.

It would be ideal if we found a cached carcass to focus the camera on. We didn’t.

Mountain lion enjoying a meal. Photo by Freestock

Mountain lion enjoying a meal. Photo by Freestock

Looking for other evidence of mountain lions

Besides the remains of meals, there are other subtler signs to look for. Lions mark and leave scent for other conspecifics by scraping, urine and feces marking and they score trees and logs. Their paw prints are recognizable by their shape, especially the palm paw pad. The 3 lobes on the bottom part of the pad forms an “m”. And of course, let’s not forget the poop, technically and more politely referred to as “scat“.

Planting the trail camera

After scouting around, we set up the trail camera next to a creek in a deep ravine that is deep in brush. We focused it up a game trail that deer habitually use. Nearby are deeply scored trees and logs that may be announcements that a big cat is periodically patrolling the area.

The trail camera is now located in an area with deep brush. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

The trail camera is now located in an area with deep brush. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

The only thing left to do is wait and practice patience. In 30 days we will visit the camera and see what it has caught.

For lively discussions about cats and behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook.

Do Mountain Lions and Domestic Cats Scratch Objects for the Same Reasons?

Everything about mountain lions fascinates me, and I hope that by using a trail camera I can capture videos of at least one of them engaging in natural behavior. Because I’m a cat behaviorist, I’m especially drawn to the behavioral similarities and differences between mountain lions and domestic cats. With a little luck and patience, our trail camera may catch a mountain lion scratching.

My boy friend George and I are fortunate to live on the San Francisco Peninsula near an area rich with a diversity of wild life. About 3 minutes from home, we found a good spot for the trail camera—on the bank of a creek near a couple of trees that appear to have long claw marks high up on them. We focused the camera down a game trail that leads to a pooled area in the creek. This seemed to be a good location for capturing images of four-footed locals quenching their thirst. I think we chose a good spot—check out the video of this lovely doe and her spotted fawn.

One big difference between mountain lions and domestic cats is that cougars are apex predators and cats aren’t. Although in other areas they have bears and packs of wolves to contend with, in the San Francisco Bay Area, mountain lions are at the top of the food chain—nothing eats them. Here, their primary enemies are people. Domestic cats are predator as well as prey. Although they’re skilled hunters, larger predators view them as potential meals.

Mountain lions are apex predators. Photo by Stock Free Images

Cougars are apex predators. Photo by Stock Free Images

Cats use their paws for scent-marking

Except in specific circumstances, both mountain lions and domestic cats are solitary hunters—they hunt alone, and, with the exception of family groups, they eat alone. Pumas who are mating and siblings newly on their own, also will eat and hunt together. Both species are also territorial, with intact males being much more so than females. Animals who are territorial and generally avoid each other need ways to advertise for mates, indicate status and define their territories without having potentially fatal encounters with each other. In addition to vocalizing, they achieve this is by scent-marking.

Two mountain lion cubs. Photo by Stock Free Images

Two mountain lion cubs. Photo by Stock Free Images

There isn’t a lot of information available about mountain lion behavior. We do know that like domestic cats, they have scent glands on different areas of their bodies, including the bottoms of their paws. Both claw objects with their front paws, leaving marks. Cougars will also rake the ground with their back paws and occasionally with one front paw.

Mountain lions stretch and reach up high to scratch trees, and they also scratch logs—leaving deep claw marks. Small, domestic cats do an abridged version, scratching on posts, horizontal surfaces, furniture, trees and other objects. When domestic felines and their feral cousins scratch, scent is left behind—signposts rich with information about the scratchers.

Cats have scent glands at the bottom of their paws. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

Cats have scent glands at the bottom of their paws. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

The scent deposited by domestics along with the physical scores communicates vital information about them. Among other things, it can advertise that a female is looking for boyfriends, be an indicator of social status, and serve as a “no trespassing” sign. Additionally, cats claw objects when they feel stressed and conflicted, and it helps maintain claws—feline pedicures at their best. Although we know why domestic felines scratch, we don’t know why mountain lions scratch trees and logs. We do know why they rake the ground, though.

Mountain lions mark through scraping

One of the ways mountain lions scent-mark is by scraping dirt into small mounds with their back paws. This behavior is exhibited mostly by males in cleared areas, on trails and next to partially consumed meals. Often they deposit feces inside the raked area or on top of the small pile of earth. One study found that the frequency and locations for scraping depend on how many other mountain lions are in the area.

After two weeks, our trail camera finally caught a video of a cat clawing a tree—not quite who we were expecting. At least we know there are felines in the area.

I have so much to learn about mountain lion behavior. I’ve only started scraping the surface—thank you Felidae Conservation Fund and the Bay Area Puma Project for guidance and fact-checking.

For lively discussions about cats and behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook.

 

The Best Way to Capture Wild Cats is with a Trail Camera

One of the many gifts of technology is the trail camera. They make it possible for us to comfortably admire animals without disrupting their lives and impacting the environment. It’s especially sweet when wild cats of all sizes are caught in the lenses, living their lives and engaging in instinctual behaviors.

I love trail cameras—the possibility of capturing the local cougars and bob cats on video has always intrigued me. A few weeks ago an opportunity only a few minutes from my home, presented itself. I couldn’t resist.

After we spotted the gray fox and found what looked like evidence of a mountain lion it was obvious that we had to set up a trail camera.

At first glance, the fox looked stunned, lying motionless in the creek below us. Only his ears moved, tracking every sound and movement. We gave him space until he finally stood up and followed the creek to safety. A short distance from where we initially spotted the fox, the creek pooled—a perfect water source for him and other local fauna during these hot summer days. There are also redwood trees nearby. On inspection, we found that three of them have deep scratches in the bark, starting about 5-6 feet from the ground.  Could these be made by local mountain lions patrolling and marking their territory? We wanted to find out.

Grey fox below us in the creek. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

Grey fox below us in the creek. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

I did my homework. You can’t just buy a camera, set it up and expect the locals to wander by and perform. It doesn’t work like that—there’s a lot that can go wrong and it can take months until an animal triggers the camera. I contacted the Bay Area Puma Project for guidance and searched the web for tips. Sadly, some of the best sources are pages published by hunters.

Based on my research and tips from BAPP, we decided that the Bushnell Aggressor camera was the best bet. Additionally, I bought a security box, batteries, found a cable and a secure lock—necessities because of the humans who periodically traipse the property.

Learning all about the new camera and taking videos of wild cats. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

Learning all about the new trail camera. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

The best locations for trail cameras are spots that aim up game trails. Animals are fast—cameras are slow in comparison. Because it takes a fraction of a second to trigger the camera, when positioned wrong, videos often capture tails and rear ends instead of whole animals.  After a lot of discussion and test pictures we secured the camera to a post, focused up the game trail. It also took in the marked trees and the creek.

Now’s the hard part—waiting.  Ideally, we should wait at least 2-3 weeks before checking trail cameras. I’m impatient, I don’t think I can wait that long…

For lively discussions about cats and cat behavior, please follow The Cat Coach on Facebook!

Find out how to keep cats happy! Check out Marilyn’s book Naughty No More!

Do Not Punish Cats

03.22.2015 Do not punish cats when they do unwanted behaviors. When cats act out they’re not being bad. They’re responding to an event or circumstances in their environment. Because punishing cats can make them more stressed and feel insecure, it can escalate problems and cause others. Punishment also ruins relationships. Kitties associate the punishment with the punisher—it breaks the bonds between them and their people.

Instead of punishment, identify and then address the causes of the behaviors. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum. Once the reasons are pinpointed they can be addressed—cats taken to vets, litter box situations improved, neighborhood cats managed, etc.
For lively discussions about cat behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook.

Don’t punish cats. Instead, identify and address the causes of the behavior.

Don’t punish cats. Instead, identify and address the causes of the behavior. by Shutterstock.

Jacobson Organ

01.11.15 Cats have a couple of organs that allow them to smell odors. One is the nose. The other is the Jacobson organ, also referred to as the vomeronasal organ, located in the hard palates of mouths. It is used for primarily smelling pheromones as well as other odors. Your cat isn’t just making a funny face when she is grimacing, wrinkling her muzzle and opening her mouth—she is flehmening, opening the passage that leads to the organ in order to sample specific odors.

Cat flehmening

Cat Flehmening by Shutterstock.

For lively discussions about cats and behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook.

Some Cats Eat and Drink with Their Paws

01.04.15  Some cats eat and drink with their paws; scooping food and water from their bowls before eating. The bowls may be too narrow and deep or in poor locations. Whiskers, with their own nerves and blood supply, are sensitive. Some cats are bothered by the sensation of their whiskers touching the sides. It is also difficult for cats to see possible threats when they are eating out of deep bowls. Bowls should be shallow and wide so that whiskers don’t touch the sides and views aren’t obstructed. Locations matter too. Cats need to feel safe while eating. Place bowls in quiet areas, away from other resident animals and threats; in places kitties can see and escape possible threats.

For lively discussions about cat behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook.

Cats Show People Affection through Their Tails

11.09.14 Cats have many ways of displaying affection towards their favorite people. One of the sweet ways cats show people affection is through their tails. Sometimes cats will slightly raise the fur around the base while quivering the tail tips. Another way they use them to show affection is by wrapping them around the hands, arms and ankles of their favorite people.

 

Cats Sweat through their Paw Pads

10.26.14 Cats sweat through sweat glands that are located on their paw pads. They do not have sweat glands all over their bodies like people do. Hot temperatures, stress and excitement can cause cats to sweat. Sometimes cats who are frightened, stressed or hot leave damp little paw prints where they walk.

Cats sweat through their paws

Cats sweat through their paw pads

 

Why Cats Back Down Trees

10.19.14 Have you wondered why  cats back down trees? Because they have no flexibility in their ankles, their claws always point in one direction. Margays and Snow Leopards have flexible ankles, allowing them to climb down head first.

Cats have to back down trees.

Cats have to back down trees. Photo by by Fotolia.

Rescue Alert Stickers for Pets

08.31.14 Emergencies can occur at any time. Let people know you have pets. Stick a rescue alert sticker where rescue workers can see it–on a window or door. List the number of pets in your home, along with the veterinarians name and contact information on it. Also include your pets hiding places. Free rescue alert stickers for pets are available from the ASPCA or purchase them from Petco.

Make a note on the stickers of the cats hiding places

Emergency Preparedness Tips: Make a note on the stickers of the cats hiding places