Puma-The elusive wild cat

Head shot of a puma.

The sky over South America’s rain forest was turning that hard-to-describe color it gets right before the tropical night erases the color.

Then, suddenly and silently, there the puma was!

It had warily stepped into a forest clearing and stopped in its tracks.

For a moment the big cat stood motionless, except for the tip of its tail, which kept moving like a low-speed windshield wiper.

Then, when it noticed that it was being watched, the puma leapt across the clearing and dashed into the forest.

You can see why racy sports shoes, fast automobiles, and even fighter jets have borne its name.

Clearly, the puma, or cougar, America’s second-largest cat, is designed for speed.

Bundle of muscles

A majestic puma.

Because of its plain, tawny color, the puma may remind you of a lioness.

The facial part of its head, though, is not as rectangular as that of its African cousin.

Rather, the puma’s head is round and small and is topped by equally round and small ears.

From the side, its head looks like a bullet—streamlined and long.

It gazes at you with large green eyes.

A patch of white fur around its mouth gives the impression that it submerged its snout in a bowl of milk and forgot to wipe its mouth.

Its body, lithe and lean, may measure five feet [1.5 m] or more, not counting the thick, dark-tipped tail.

Long and sturdy hind legs cause its rump to be higher than its shoulders.

Those powerful legs give this 130-pound [60 kg] bundle of muscles the booster power to blast off the ground like a rocket.

Pumas have been seen to leap vertically to a height of 18 feet [5 m] in one big jump.

That’s like pole-vaulting without bothering to use a pole!

When jumping down, the puma is equally impressive.

It has been known to make flying jumps to the ground from a height of 60 feet [18 m].

This is nearly twice the height of platforms used by Olympic platform divers, but the puma doesn’t have the benefit of a filled swimming pool below.

Even so, the cat hits the ground ready to bound away as if it had landed on a trampoline.

“This is a powerful, formidable animal,” says wildlife biologist Kenneth Logan.

 “Once you learn how these cats make their living, they command a lot of respect.”

Remarkably, they seem to be practically everywhere—but nowhere.

Almost Everywhere, yet Invisible

When the first colonists settled in the New World, the puma’s range spanned the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

It made a living in mountains, swamps, prairies, and jungles alike.

 Though hunters and farmers have now eliminated the puma from many parts of North America, it remains the all-American cat, still wandering from Canada to the tip of South America.

If you measure the success of an animal by the extent of its geographic distribution and the diversity of its habitat, then the puma must be the most successful native American mammal today.

The secret of its success?

The puma is well equipped for survival.

It has a sturdy stomach and uses varied hunting methods.

It can adjust to almost any kind of local food.

“It is able to kill and drag an animal five times its size, but it also eats grasshoppers if nothing else is around,” says a veterinarian who has examined the stomach contents of several pumas killed in Brazil.

“When it comes to food, the puma is more versatile than any other species of cats.”

Diverse food also calls for diverse hunting skills.

Grabbing, let’s say, a bird requires a different tactic from pouncing on a deer.

How does the puma do it?

In Brazil’s Atlantic forest, it attracts the tinamou by imitating the bird’s call.

“A perfect imitation,” says one observer.

“The tinamou calls only a few times, but the puma whistles on—10 or 20 times.” Nevertheless, it works.

The tinamou thinks a noisy male bird has invaded his territory and decides to step forward and confront his rival—a fatal move.

Whether you search for the puma in North, Central, or South America, it manages, for the most part, to stay out of sight—like the air, omnipresent but invisible.

The adjectives most often used by researchers studying the puma are “secretive, elusive and wary.”

After killing about 70 pumas, one hunter admitted that “he had never seen one of his victims before the dogs had driven it up a tree.”

No wonder frustrated researchers have called the cat “maddeningly elusive”!

A cat of many names

Picture of a puma.

The all-American cat, though, is not only hard to spot but hard to define as well.

The puma, states The Guinness Book of Animal Records, “has more names than any other mammal in the world.”

Besides the 40-odd names known in English, “it also has at least 18 native South American names and a further 25 native North American names.”

Puma, the name most used by zoologists, comes from the Quechua language of Peru.

Mountain lion, catamount, panther, painter, red tiger, and deer tiger are a few of the other names given to this cat.

Dr. Faiçal Simon, curator of the São Paulo Zoo and an expert on pumas, observed:

“The puma’s behavior and physical capabilities have little in common with the other big cats.” 

This is truly a different kind of cat and one that varies in size and color.

Up to 30 subspecies of the puma are recognized throughout the Americas, 6 of them in Brazil.

Why is a puma endangered?

Picture of a cautious puma.

To many cattle ranchers in Brazil and elsewhere, the puma is vermin and ought to be shot at first sight.

But does the puma really deserve the reputation of a serial cattle killer?

“If wild animals are available, the puma rarely kills cattle,” Dr. Simon explains.

“The few times it happens surely don’t justify a systematic destruction of this animal. Actually, by shooting pumas, ranchers are hurting themselves.”

In what way?

For example, in Brazil’s Pantanal, a swampland larger than South Korea, where countless cattle roam freely, ranchers kill pumas.

As a result, relates Dr. Simon, the armadillo population—the puma’s preferred food in that region—is growing rapidly.

Armadillos are armor-encased mammals that are the size of rabbits and that burrow holes.

With no pumas around, the armadillos are turning Pantanal’s pastures into killing fields.

How so?

Well, cattle step in the holes, break their legs, and die.

“Those ranchers are now losing more cattle than before because they’ve killed the pumas,” says Dr. Simon.

“It’s just one more example of what happens when man interferes with nature.”

A growing number of people in the Americas want to preserve the puma.

Thus, authorities in some parts of North America have passed puma-friendly laws that regulate hunting and maintain the cat’s habitat.

As a result, in the western United States, the puma is making a comeback, repopulating former habitats.

Granted, not everyone welcomes this, but many do. Smithsonian magazine notes that the puma “has made a beautiful . . . transition in a relatively short period, from vermin to a very desired animal.”

The puma is desired by nature lovers and by hunters.

For the former, the cat is a majestic symbol of the wilderness, but for the latter, he remains a trophy.

The question is, For how long can the puma be both?