Jennifer Hanson has taken a stroll on the Crown Zellerbach Trail just about every morning since moving into her Scappoose home in 2000. She's immensely familiar with the trail's landmarks and the volume of foot traffic the trail routinely attracts.
But this past Tuesday she saw something during her morning walk she had never seen before: a cougar.
Hanson's dog, Sara — a 47-pound pharaoh hound-black labrador mix — first picked up on the mountain lion's presence. Initially Hanson thought Sara was freaking out about off-leash dogs spotted earlier in the walk.
"She knew the cougar was there, or something was there," Hanson said. She had been sitting on a bench on the side of the trail with Sara. As Sara become more agitated, Hanson got up to leave. She walked a few yards and passed an apple tree before she heard blackberry bushes rustling behind her along the trail's edge. She turned and looked back toward the bench.
"I really thought it was a horse. I thought I was going to see a horse," she said. "Out pops this cougar, and I just kind of froze. I was not expecting to see it."
"I was very close," she continued. "The first thing I thought was, wow, this thing is dark. It didn't register when I saw it. It was dark all over. It wasn't like it was lighter in spots."
Hanson said she kept her eyes on the cougar — which was seen where the trail parallels Dike Road, near the East Columbia Avenue intersection east of Highway 30, at about 7 a.m. — and walked backward while attempting to control Sara.
"Then it turned and looked at me a couple times. That's when I took my shot," Hanson said of her photograph. "I didn't feel like he was that interested in me at all."
After snapping the photo with her phone — her hands trembling — and the cougar crossed into the bushes, she called 911 to alert local authorities, warned other trail users of the sighting, and then called her husband for a pick-up. Once home, she spread word about her sighting on social media.
Haley Stewart, a wildlife protection manager specializing in mountain lions and conservation at the Humane Society of the United States, has little doubt it was a cougar, one that was likely wet or covered in mud from swimming or hunting fish in any of the nearby waterways.
As for the sighting itself, Stewart said it's not a cause for alarm.
"The cougar is just being a normal cougar, not causing any alarm, living in natural cougar habitat," she said "There's plenty of resources, space, and it's not too busy with humans. It's just a cougar doing a normal cougar thing."
Stewart works with mountain lions in all of their habitats in the U.S. and said she regularly fields calls about sightings in suburbs such as Scappoose. In fact, the call she received about Hanson's sighting was the second of the morning.
Still, mountain lion encounters are rare, she said, adding that people should know how to respond when one occurs. First, don't run, which could prompt a cougar to give chase.
"That's the number one thing. I think people have this instinct when they see a wild animal to run away, and that's the worst possible thing to do," she said.
She also advises to make yourself big by raising your arms and speaking forcefully and aggressively at the cougar. And third, never take your eyes off the cougar and back away slowly.
Generally, however, she reiterated that sighting a cougar is no cause for panic, and that killing or removing the cougar is not an appropriate response. In fact, she points out that she knows people who live in mountain lion habitat who have never sighted one in the wild but would relish the experience.
"I think what we need to do is cherish these animals and honor the fact they live here and appreciate that," she said.
Hanson, however, is not so sure.
"Me and my underwear say no thank you. Someone else can have that experience," she said, laughing.
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