Why do media often inflame news about predators and what the real story is
There have been several recent human-puma conflicts in the Bay Area, some of which have made national news with often inaccurate and inflammatory headlines. Our conflict mitigation working group discusses these events in detail and comes up with facts-based, level-headed responses. This is especially important in scenarios involving apex predators because irrational fear can quickly turn into hysteria, causing misinformation to spread like wildfire in the immediate aftermath of events. In fact, researchers have recently found that local tolerance and perceptions can be an important factor affecting puma mortality (Benson 2023 et al), highlighting the need to prevent the spread of fear and misinformation amongst the public. In addition, the appetite for puma conservation efforts can be reduced in the midst of inaccurately shared information during conflict incidents involving the public.
The most recent and widely covered conflict in Half Moon Bay (South of San Francisco) occurred on a farm where Felidae has been monitoring a family group, mom and cubs (now considered sub-adult) from 8 weeks old, for about a year. In late January, a 5-year-old boy was walking with his family around sunset on the property. The boy ran ahead of his mom near a water trough, startling one of the sub-adults who was hiding behind it. The cub scratched the young boy on the face, fracturing a bone near his eye, and scurried away when the boy’s mom came yelling and running towards it.
Fortunately, the young boy was not seriously harmed, though this was surely a traumatizing experience for the boy and his family. The boy received some stitches for the lacerations on his face. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was called to the scene and soon after announced that they would try to capture the lion responsible.
The boy’s family is knowledgeable about mountain lions and proper safety precautions in lion country and his mom did an excellent job in this scenario, quickly jumping into action to scare the young lion off. So, what went wrong? There are two key factors that contributed to this event: First, the family was hiking around sunset, a particularly active time for mountain lions, in a place where they are known to frequent. Second, the boy ran ahead of his family. In 22 mountain lion attacks in California since 1986, half of the cases have involved a child 10 years old or younger running ahead of their family and then encountering a mountain lion (all of the attacks on children have been nonfatal). In this young boy’s case, the lion scratched him likely because it was startled, but in other cases, it is possible that the young mountain lions can confuse children with prey due to their small size. So, though attacks are extremely rare, the best way to avoid them is to avoid hiking around and between dusk and dawn, and to keep young children close.
The day after the incident, reporters had already picked up the story and false headlines began spreading. One of the most outrageous errors came from Fox news which declared “Cub leaves pack to bite boy.”
There are three glaring errors in this statement:
- Mountain lions do not live in packs; cubs do stay with their moms for about 2 years before dispersing, but other than that they are solitary animals except for brief periods of time during mating. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but the word “pack” can conjure up images of roaming bands of lions on the prowl and spread fear.
- This headline implies that the cub actually left its mom and sibling to attack the child; in other words, a premeditated decision by the lion to go after the boy. This is false. By the family’s own account of the story, the sub-adult was startled.
- This headline claims the lion bit the boy; this is also false. The young puma scratched the boy. This misinformation was even spread by some state agency officials.
The above falsehoods show how imperative it is to have media literacy in an age where headlines and stories are often sensationalized to get as many clicks as possible. When encountering articles after an incident involving a predator, it is best to maintain a healthy skepticism about the information presented and to think about the actual evidence provided, rather than accepting at face value what the article is telling you, as there may be an element of sensationalized language and fear-mongering in the article. In the immediate aftermath of this specific event, Felidae biologists put out several social media posts and provided expert information to several local news stations in order to counteract false narratives and spread factual information to the public.
In the end, CDFW ended their search for the mountain lion cub. The boy is healing and his family is looking forward to going on hikes and camping trips again soon. On a GoFundMe page set up for the boy his mom wrote: “We will be safe and smart and take proper precautions, but we will not be afraid. The natural world is where we feel most alive and restored, and a rare incident like this will not reshape the way we live our lives.”
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