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Cougars, Coyotes and Reporters, Oh My!

June 3, 2008: Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches the local news would have been hard pressed to miss the media frenzy that surrounded the sighting of a cougar on Portland’s Powell Butte in late January. Given the sheer number of media stories focusing on predator species in the urban environment, we decided to do some background research on just how big of a risk these species actually pose to humans.

Cougars, Coyotes and Reporters, Oh My!

Coyote - Jim Cruce

June 3, 2008: Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches the local news would have been hard pressed to miss the media frenzy that surrounded the sighting of a cougar on Portland’s Powell Butte in late January.  The Tribune put the story on its front page. All five local television stations sent crews to the Butte to chase down joggers and birdwatchers to find out how they felt about the cougar. One station ran the cougar sighting as the its lead story and another had its reporter stand out in the rainy darkness for two consecutive evenings so that she could report “live” from the scene. At the time that these stories ran the cougar sightings were both unconfirmed and already more than a week old.  There is no denying that the sighting of a cougar, coyote and other predator species on the urban landscape remains big news.

Given the sheer number of media stories focusing on predator species in the urban environment, we decided to do some background research on just how big of a risk these species actually pose to humans. The following is a summary of what we found:

In July of 1998, Oregon Health Division published a summary of animal related deaths in Oregon between the years 1980 and 1996. According to their statistics, during those 16 years a total of 76 Oregonians died as a result of direct or indirect interaction with animals.  Horses were the most common cause of animal related mortality accounting for a total of 41. Bees, wasps and spiders accounted for 13. Cows and bulls accounted for 9 and domestic dogs accounted for 5. One person died as a result of being kicked by a sheep and another died after being kicked by a mule. One man was gored to death by his pet buffalo, another was consumed by his pet lion, and an infant was killed by a pet ferret. The only deaths that can be described as “wildlife related” during this time period were caused by a car collision with a black-tailed deer and a fatal bite from a rattlesnake. Significantly, there has never been a single death over the entire history of Oregon attributed to either of the two species that get the most press coverage, cougars and coyotes.[1]

It is often suggested that increased hunting could reduce the risk from cougar and coyote. However it is also worth noting that in Oregon alone between the years 1990 and 1994, 67 people were injured and 14 people were killed in hunting related accidents.[2]

Nationally the numbers are not much different. Over the entire history of the United States there has only been one documented death attributed to a coyote. This occurred in Glendale, California in 1981. A family punctually put out food for a wild coyote each day between 4 and 4:30 p.m. Unfortunately one day their toddler-aged daughter wandered out “to greet the coyote” before her parents had a chance to put the food outside. The coyote consumed her instead.[3] Cougar account for a slightly higher death toll. Between 1970 and 2000 cougar accounted for 73 attacks and 13 deaths across the North American continent. [4] 

The most common wildlife related cause of human mortality in the United States is not associated with a predator species, but rather with white-tailed deer. A report recently published on the CNN website cited US Department of Transportation Statistics that car collisions with white-tailed deer account for an average of 130 human deaths per year. [5] Domestic animals take an even higher toll. According to the US Department of Health an average of 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. 800,000 of these bites require medical attention, 10,000 require hospitalization and an average of 18 people die each year from their dog-related injuries.

The cougar that wandered onto Powell Butte was most likely a youngster only a year or two old, out on its own for the first time and pushed into marginal territory by territorial adults. It is very likely that cougar pass through our midst far more often than we realize; the secretive cats come and go in the night and, save for an occasional track, we never even realize that they are there. 

The key to preventing urban wildlife problems is to promote human awareness and there is nothing inherently wrong with publicizing the fact that predator species can and do occasionally wander through our urban greenspaces.  Portland Parks and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should be commended for posting signs around Powell Butte informing the public that a cougar had been sighted and delineating how to behave should another encounter with a cougar occur. Likewise the media also has an important role to play in providing information as to how we best live with our wild neighbors. It is perhaps the nature of the beast that predator stories will grab headlines disproportionate to the relative risk that they pose. We hope that these statistics will provide some valuable context the next time that one of these creatures finds its way into our city, our newspapers and our television sets.



[1] Hopkins, David.  “All Creatures Great and Small,” Oregon Health Trends. Series # 50, July 1998

[2] Fahey, Brooks, “Living with Cougars” 1996.

[3] Clifton, Merritt, Editor. Animal People (personal communication).

[4] Clifton, Merritt, Editor. Animal People (personal communication).

[5] Dykstra, Peter.  “Bugs, Bears Among Beasts that Attack People.” CNN Website. February, 12, 2002.

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