Pumas Bring People Together

By Mauricio Montt
Field Technician, Patagonia Puma-Livestock Coexistence Project

Puma in tree

For a puma scientist from Chile, a trip to the United States to collar pumas could be an overwhelming experience. Read Panthera Field Technician Mauricio Montt’s account of his trip to Washington State to work with our Olympic Cougar Project to discover why this trip was so memorable for him. 

Pumas have the power to bring people together. At least, that’s what I took away from my first trip to the United States’ Pacific Northwest this fall when I joined Panthera’s Olympic Cougar Project. Meeting the rest of Panthera’s Puma Program team and walking through the beautiful forests of the Olympic Peninsula while tracking pumas, I began to think more and more about the power wildlife has to open us to new experiences with other people. 

I have been studying pumas for seven years in my home country of Chile. In Chilean Patagonia, pumas are threatened by puma-livestock conflict; ranchers have killed pumas in retribution for pumas predating on their livestock. Thankfully, Panthera’s Puma Program, along with partners like the Fundación Cerro Guido Conservación and Leona Amarga, are helping quell this threat through innovative techniques such as using sheepdogs and Foxlights as carnivore deterrents, coupled with a burgeoning ecotourism industry.

Chilean puma
a puma from back home in chile.
©sebastian kennerknecht

Due to ecotourism and the relative ease of seeing pumas in the open landscape in Patagonia, I am used to viewing pumas from far away. But everything changed for me when I got to the Olympic Peninsula.  

The first thing I will remember is the warmth of the people. Everyone on the team was friendly, and I immediately felt like I was part of the team. I’ll always remember walking through the woods tracking pumas, finding deer carcasses and looking for footprints with Dr. Mark Elbroch, the Puma Program Director. As we walked, he would point out signs of different species and explain them carefully — it was an experience unlike I had ever had before.

elk, a puma prey species, on the olympic peninsula.
©sebastian kennerknecht

Then there were the celebrations. As part of the Olympic Cougar Project, Panthera works with six Indigenous tribes. Thankfully, had the opportunity to meet several members of these tribes during a barbecue. The Panthera Puma Program staff also had a Halloween party unlike any I’d been to before. In Chile, Halloween usually lasts very briefly; people take their children out to trick-or-treat, and that’s that. But this Halloween was a whole new experience. I saw Halloween decorations for the first time — someone was wearing a pumpkin head. It was, for lack of a better word, loco! But it speaks to the friendliness and kindness of everyone in the Puma Program that I was able to experience this. This memory of my time in Washington is one I will always cherish, only superseded by my first time fitting a puma with a GPS collar.

Puma team
the puma team.
©mark elbroch/panthera

In Chile, I watch pumas from a distance. But after tracking, stabilizing and readying the puma for the collar, it hit me — here I was, with a real, live puma only a few feet away. My life’s work and passion, the animal I have dedicated my career to, was right in front of me for the first time after seven long years. I barely held back tears of joy. It may sound strange that someone who had been studying pumas for so long was so moved by this moment, but as I helped fit the collar, I could not help but feel strong emotions. 

I have since returned to Chile, bringing back about 20 books, over a thousand photos of my favorite birds and sea otters and, of course, an ocean of wonderful memories. Back in Patagonia, I continue observing pumas from afar, and I still strive to protect them. But I keep that encounter with a Washington puma close to my heart. I’m sure that one day soon, I’ll see the smiling faces of my colleagues and the beautiful forests of the Olympic Peninsula again. Such is the power of pumas to bring people together.

Learn more about pumas.