In the Company of Cougars

Navigating fear and awe in the outdoors

An illustration of a woman and three dogs walking through a clearing in the forest. In front of them, at the edge of the trees, are pink Cascade lilies. On the border of the illustration are several cougars, camouflaged by the rocks and trees.

Illustration by Colin Laurel

Everyone has a cougar story, or so it seemed to me when I moved to the West Coast twelve years ago. I grew up outside Buffalo, New York, where cougars sounded as exotic as Florida panthers or Patagonian pumas. I gave them little thought until I began exploring mountain trails in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Once I started hiking on my own, cougars became specters that haunted my imagination. Often, they took center stage. Other times, they lurked in the periphery, just out of sight.

When I relocated to Central Oregon in 2018, I forgot I was settling in cougar country. I knew big cats were out there, but I was too busy adjusting to town life to fixate on my feline neighbors. I’d been hired to the faculty of Central Oregon Community College and asked to teach at the Prineville campus, an hour away from my home in Bend. My schedule included a three-hour break between morning and afternoon sessions, so I brought my dogs, Hank and Alice, to work with me. They napped in the car while I taught, and during lunch, we’d head out for a hike near campus.

Twice a week, the dogs and I ascended six hundred feet of basalt canyon. At the top, the view of Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, and Broken Top stretched across the horizon like a wide embrace. Below, the Crooked River wound silently through the valley. With every step, I inhaled the scent of the sagebrush and junipers that populated the arid landscape of my new home.

One day, a half mile into the hike, we turned a corner and stumbled upon what looked like a murder scene. Blood stained the trail, and there were fistfuls of fur scattered everywhere. Alice, who has a predilection for snacks in various stages of decay, snagged a bloody bit before I could block her. Hank, always the angel to Alice’s devil, merely sniffed around to find out what his nose could tell him.

Clearly, an animal had been killed. But what species? And who or what had killed it? After scanning the landscape and observing no indicators of immediate danger, my horror transformed into uneasy curiosity.

I noted that the blood had not yet faded to brown, so the violence had been recent. Tubes of intestine stretched across the site like chalk lines marking the scene. Nearby, something resembling a sack sat upright. After scrutinizing its grassy contents, I realized it was the stomach of the creature that had been attacked, most likely a deer.

I didn’t know whether to turn around or keep going. Alice pranced about, delighted by our discovery. Hank awaited my cue. I reached for my phone to take photos, to document the gruesome scene in the hope of finding answers.


A cougar kill. That's what the Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist confirmed over the phone the next morning when he returned my call. Up until that moment, cougars still seemed more myth than reality to me. As I digested the facts of what I’d discovered, I asked the biologist if they would post a warning at the trailhead to alert other hikers. He said no. “We want people to remember cougars are always around,” he explained. “Not just when there’s a sign.”

I knew that cougars were ambush predators, typically attacking from behind to break the neck of their prey. But I was eager to learn more about them, so I continued to ask the biologist questions. He explained that after a cougar kills a deer or elk, it rips open the abdomen and eats the essential organs like the heart and the liver. Then it guts and discards parts that have little nutritional value, like the intestines and stomach, which explained the scraps I had found on the trail.

After the initial feast, a cougar will hide the body in what is called a cache. The cats sometimes drag a carcass a mile away from a kill site to hide it. They are so skilled at this that locating the body can be difficult, even if it was a deer wearing a radio collar. “You can be standing right on top of it and not even see the deer,” the biologist said. If left undisturbed, a cougar may feed off a carcass for a week or longer. It made sense, I thought, remembering the neatly wrapped packages of venison that filled our family freezer back when my father hunted deer.

With this new information, the carnage on the trail became a lesson on the behavior of obligate carnivores. Death for the prey meant life for the cougar. That’s the natural order of the ecosystem—an elegant cycle, in theory. But what of the terror? The suffering?

To ask these questions, though, was to ignore my own complicity. I knew I was part of the expanding human population in Central Oregon that is responsible for dwindling deer populations and other ecological damage. Perhaps, for all these years, I’d imagined cougars skulking in the bushes because it was far easier to worry about invisible predators than to reckon with the fact that my own actions caused harm.

In all likelihood, the biologist told me, the cougar had monitored us from afar, its body perfectly camouflaged by rocks. I’d detected no sign of the cougar, but its concealment was by design, the result of thousands of years of evolution. The animal’s survival depended on invisibility and stealth.

Later, when I told my friend Elliott the story, he told me not to worry, that cougars hate dogs. I understood that the odds of an attack were infinitesimal, and yet I knew I’d never stop wondering whether the animal had been watching us.


A year and a half passed before the dogs and I came across the remains of another deer. This time, we were closer to home, hiking just outside of Sisters on my favorite trail. It was early March, a few months ahead of tourist season, which meant I could enjoy some solitude and let the dogs roam off leash without worry. Piles of snow still lurked in shaded places, a reminder that spring hadn’t yet arrived.

By then, I’d adopted a third dog after spotting his surly face on the website of a rescue organization that brings dogs from Mexico to Oregon. After clicking on his profile, I learned the brindled puppy had been so infested with fleas that he would have died of anemia had someone not intervened. When his foster parent brought him to my house for our meet and greet, I peeked out 39 the window at him and thought, What’s that little dog doing in my driveway? Hank and Alice each weighed around seventy pounds, and he was only half their size. Oh well, I thought, more room in the bed. And just like that, Nico became part of the family.

All was normal on our hike until the dogs gathered for an extended sniff behind a clump of manzanita. When I peered into the brush to see what had captured their attention, I recognized the features of a cougar’s fine-dining experience. The entrails were still unsettling, but I was eager to assess the details.

The blood had already faded to brown, and the stomach resembled a forgotten backpack. There was less fur scattered about, and I wondered if coyotes or other dogs had helped themselves to the leftovers.

At three o’clock, daylight was waning. It was time to turn back. Hank followed at my heels. Alice and Nico zigzagged along the trail. As I walked, I contemplated the dead deer, the cougar that had hunted it, and the lessons the biologist had taught me. Could the cougar be watching us from a hiding place among the trees? I shook off the thought. Delusions of grandeur, I told myself.

My body felt the shriek before I heard it. The sound sliced through me, and it screamed pain. There was no question the cougar had attacked one of my dogs. I turned around. Hank was still behind me, but Alice and Nico were nowhere to be found. I looked at Hank, and Hank looked at me. “C’mon buddy,” I told him. “We’re going in.” We turned in the direction the other dogs had headed and darted into the thicket.

As I tried to gauge Alice and Nico’s whereabouts, I heard the low growl of an angry cat, one far larger than the pets of my childhood. Carefully, eyes searching ahead, I bent down and grabbed a couple of rocks the size of baseballs. Small enough to throw but large enough to make a statement. Or so I hoped.

I saw a flash of gray fur through the trees. Alice’s tail, wagging wildly, flagged her position in the undergrowth. Her appearance confirmed it was Nico’s cry I’d heard. I surveyed the woods, but there was no sign of him. In my mind’s eye, I saw the cat holding Nico’s limp body in its mouth.

Still searching the area, I looked in the direction Alice faced. That’s when I saw the cougar, thirty feet away, slowly scaling a rock. It was, in a word, giant. A male cougar typically weighs around 160 pounds, but I would have pegged this one at 250, since it appeared to be twice my size.

Was it then that I started to shout? I ran closer, furiously swinging my raincoat over my head like a lasso. I knew I needed to make myself large, and I used every tool I had, my voice and my coat and every inch of my being. I began hurling rocks in the cat’s direction.

“Get away from my dogs!” I screeched. “Get out of here! Leave us alone! Go!”

Despite the bedlam, my inner voice repeated: Cougars hate dogs, cougars hate dogs, cougars hate dogs. The refrain morphed into a mantra, regulating my nerves.

The cougar continued to retreat, and my eyes locked on his tail. It was so long, so sleek. Despite the danger he represented, I recognized the grace and ease with which the cougar climbed the outcropping. He could have tackled me in a second, but he didn’t. It’s safe to say our company was uninviting.

Suddenly, a bark sounded from a body I could not yet see. Nico was alive? Nico was alive! I took a few steps closer.

I spotted my little guy, whose body had been hidden by a dip in the topography. He, too, was facing in the direction of the cougar. Again, he barked, this time more confidently.

But then, as if agitated by Nico’s comeback, the cougar froze. Instead of continuing up the boulder, he turned. For the first time, I saw his face, and his amber eyes were zeroed in on Nico. The cat took a few steps in Nico’s direction.

I cursed like never before. My throat began to burn, and I could feel my vocal cords shredding. Carefully, with my eyes on the cougar, whose eyes were on Nico, I bent down to pick up more rocks and aimed them in the direction of the hulking feline, taking care to avoid Nico, who boldly stood in place.

I screamed. Hank stood by at the ready. I swung. Alice barked, her tail swishing in a frenzy. I threw. The cougar paused and looked at Nico for a moment that felt longer than it was. Finally, the cougar turned and retreated up the boulder. This time, his tail disappeared over the rocks and into the understory.

My steeled nerves began to fray now that the cat was out of sight. Knowing he could return any minute, I continued to yell as I pulled leashes out of my backpack. I clipped one on Hank’s collar and rubbed his neck to settle myself, wishing the gesture could whisk us all back to the safety of my car.

I’d felt safer in the moments when I knew the cat’s whereabouts. Now he could pounce from any direction and I wouldn’t see him coming. I began to feel desperate. Cougars hate dogs, my inner voice soothed. So far, the logic of my mantra held.

After enticing Alice and Nico to return to my side by offering biscuits, I leashed them and noted the smear of blood on Nico’s orange collar. With the cougar so close, I didn’t dare examine him yet. As the dogs nibbled treats from my hand, I scanned the trees and began to lead the dogs back to the trail. Every ten feet, I paused, looked back, and shouted more profanities in the cougar’s direction.

Ten minutes later, but still two miles from the trailhead, I stopped to inspect Nico. He seemed dazed now that the commotion had subsided. There was a cut on his face, and puncture wounds pierced his neck on both sides of his collar. I wondered if the thick buckle had saved him; maybe the taste of metal had repelled the cat. His throat was injured, and a claw had scratched his ribs. Fortunately, his wounds appeared to be superficial, and it looked like the blood was coagulating.

Another mile down the trail, with more distance between us and the cougar, I checked Nico again. He was trotting along just fine, but I worried about how much pain he was in. I noticed more blood coming from his armpit; there was a deep laceration I hadn’t found in my first scan. There wasn’t much I could do.

“You’re a champ, Nico,” I told him. “What a good boy,” I cooed. His face softened with the accolades. As I loaded the dogs into my car, I knew we had been lucky and unlucky all at once.


Since our encounter, I've devoured information about cougar behavior from books, documentaries, podcasts, and studies. Every detail enhances my admiration of them. Time and time again, I’ve found more to appreciate about cougars than to fear.

Historically, cougars were believed to be solitary animals, but trail cameras are proving this to be untrue. They chirp like birds when communicating with each other and sometimes share meat with other cougars who are not relatives. Overall, they eat only about a third of their prey because rivals like bears and wolves often steal it. Cougars are far tidier than other predators, even folding up carcasses into neat piles. They are gardeners, too. Nutrients from their leftovers supplement the soil, which leads to healthy forage, feeding future generations of deer, elk, and other animals. And although cougars are often held responsible for decreased deer populations, climate change, human activity, and lack of food sources are more likely to blame. Most importantly, aside from extreme exceptions, healthy cougars, like the one the dogs and I met, prefer coexistence over conflict.

And yet the shriek lives in me still, even though I can no longer remember the sound. My mind, it seems, is as protective of me as I am of Nico. What remains is the memory of its intensity, primal and panicked. I’d always assumed the shriek was Nico’s, but now I sometimes wonder if it was the cougar’s.


Once, when I was camping on my own a decade ago, a woman asked me if I was scared to hike alone. She told me she had observed me in the campground and thought I was brave. Back then, the idea of my own safety—or lack of it—was never at the forefront of my mind. I laughed and asked, “What am I going to do? Stay home?” Looking back, I’m proud of my younger self for venturing out, for being aware of the risks and refusing to let them restrict her behavior. Mostly, I am still that person.

My attitude is no longer as cavalier as it used to be, though. Life has chipped away at my fearlessness. My cousin was killed in a car accident when we were twenty-one. I’ve lost beloved pets in tragic circumstances, and my heart has been broken by friends and lovers more times than I’d care to recall. Soon after I turned forty, my parents died in a plane crash. A year later, I found my mother’s ninety-five-year-old aunt dying on the floor after a fall. More recently, I cared for a friend at the end of her life as cancer stole her away. She was only forty-six. This is to say that I don’t need to stumble upon a disemboweled deer during a hike to be reminded of the cruelties of life. This is to say maybe I have become brave. It is far easier to talk yourself into fear than out of it.

After his tussle with the cat, Nico earned six staples on his face and fifteen stitches in his armpit. Within days, not weeks, he returned to his usual spunky self, and we started hiking again as soon as his stitches healed. Part of me wished he had become less bold, but his moxie remained intact. I suspect that, in his mind, Nico had wrestled with the cougar and won. As a preventative measure, I purchased pepper spray and an air horn, but half the time, I left them in the car.

I avoided our favorite trail, worried it might traumatize Nico to return. But I couldn’t let one incident ruin all future enjoyment of a place that had otherwise brought us so much delight. I remembered an outing two years earlier when I was greeted by the bright pink blooms of a Cascade lily from a section of the trail otherwise covered in manzanita. The lily’s petals ranged from magenta to rose quartz. I waded into the brush for a closer look. I counted eighteen freckled blossoms and inhaled their perfume. For no particular reason, the flowers made me miss my mother. Not far from the first lily, I spotted another and then another. As I watched the three lilies sway in the breeze, I vowed that I would visit them every summer to mark another year I’d called Oregon home.

Several months after Nico’s attack, it was June, and I knew the lilies were in bloom. It was time to keep my standing appointment, tourist season or not. I loaded up the dogs, and when we arrived, they frolicked on the path with their usual gusto. For the first mile and then the next, I studied Nico for signs of discomfort, but he showed none. Following his lead, I dropped my guard and let my body relax as my feet fell into their usual rhythm. Alongside the trail, larkspur, buckwheat, and Oregon sunshine cheered us on. Up ahead, I knew the lilies were waiting.

On every list of cougar safety tips is the recommendation to leash dogs in wild places. We might all be safer if I tether them, and yet, outside the bounds of civilization, I let my dogs run free every time. To leash them in the wilderness would be to deny them joy, and that’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make—for my dogs or for myself. I have to believe that opportunities to enjoy this short life are worth the risks—and the costs. What will I find on the trail ahead? Beauty or blood? The only way to know is to forge onward.


Environment, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place, People, Nature, Fear


15 comments have been posted.

What a beautiful story. It helps demonstrate that cougars are not the heartless carnivores that they have been traditionally portrayed as. Thank you for sharing this.

Jes Temple | May 2024 | Eugene, OR

Such an exceptionally well written and thoughtful story. It was transported to the trail and riveted the whole way through. Bravo!

Deb Landau | May 2024 | Portland, OR

What an amazing story as told from the heart! Beautifully written as it draws you into the story as you feel the emotions that emerge. Kudos to you Carrie! I hope to read more of your heartfelt stories in the near future! Keep up the great work. Thanks for sharing!

Chris Bartholomew | April 2024 | Wyoming

This was beautifully written. The choice of words, even phrases rolled off my tongue, where I found myself repeating them. The content was full. I felt as if I just ended a perfect chapter in a book, excited to get to the next. Thank you for sharing your triumphant experience with the cougar and Nico. And for introducing us to tragedy’s that you have had to overcome. I look forward to diving in to your future chapters,. Your writing is thoughtful, entertaining, honest and heartfelt.

Vida Snyder | April 2024 | Central Oregon

Terrific and terrifying tale! Because of your hospitality this spring, I could readily imagine the landscape and was familiar with the wonderful cast of canine characters. 🙂

Coralynn | April 2024 |

I loved reading this story! Thanks for sharing, Carrie. I often hike in cougar country, with my dog off leash, and now expect to often think of brave Nico.

Michael Miner | April 2024 |

Beautiful account of a harrowing cougar encounter. Thanks for sharing your story, Carrie!

Anne Zmyslinski-Seelig | April 2024 |

Meeting a cougar is a real fear in all of us hikers. Carrie and Nico inspire me to be more brave and follow the adventure, because that’s what makes life so sweet.

Cat Clark | April 2024 |

It was so inspiring how you didn't give up on what you wanted to do and hiking your own path.

Elizebeth | April 2024 |

What a thrilling tale of adventure, coexistence, and conflict. Despite our stated intentions to do the opposite, age tends to make us all a little less intrepid. I'm glad you and Nico continue to explore Central Oregon's beautiful backcountry.

Brad Unruh | April 2024 | Oregon

Absolutely beautiful What a walk I have had alongside you and your amazingly sensitive friends! Your similes are so carefully crafted to create that comfortable balance between fear and beauty ,the familiar and the unfamiliar.Love it !

Paulette Ramsay | April 2024 |

Powerful account of an intimate encounter with nature! The author’s descriptions have given me such insight into all that goes on in the wilderness that I never take the time to ponder. I can’t stop wondering….

Patricia Ryan | April 2024 |

What a wonderful analogy for life. We can't let fear of the unknown/unseen keep us from experiencing the beauty and joy in the world. Even when we know there is danger/heartbreak/loss in the shadows. sa

Shelby Radcliffe | April 2024 | Salem, OR

I loved the graceful ways you brought us along on your hikes, the mingling of fear and wonder, and the thoughtful decision to keep exploring alone and alive. Beautiful!

Jennica Peterson | April 2024 |

Beautiful, terrifying, brave, curious, and joyful!

Juli Pearson | April 2024 |

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