From western Canada and the western United States to southern South America. There is also a small population in Florida.


Forests, prairies, deserts, and swamps

What’s in a name?

Mountain lion, puma, cougar, panther—this cat is known by more names than just about any other mammal! But no matter what you call it, it’s still the same cat, Puma concolor, the largest of the small cat species. So how did it get so many names? Mostly because it has such a large range, and people from different countries have called it different things.

Early Spanish explorers of North and South America called it leon (lion) and gato monte (cat of the mountain), from which we get the name "mountain lion." “Puma” is the name the Incas gave this cat in their language. “Cougar” seems to have come from an old South American Indian word, cuguacuarana, which was shortened to cuguar and then spelled differently. And “panther” is a general term for cats that have solid-colored coats, so it was used for pumas as well as black jaguars. All of these names are considered correct, but scientists usually use the name puma. Here in southern California they are commonly called mountain lions.

Florida panther?

You may have heard of the Florida panther. This is a subspecies of mountain lion that used to be found from Texas throughout the southeast but is now found only in southern Florida’s swamps. It is endangered, with only about 50 cats left, and conservation efforts are underway to try to save it.

Mountain lions can jump 18 feet (5.5 meters) from the ground into a tree, and they have been known to jump 20 feet (6.1 meters) up or down a hillside. That’s the height of many two-story buildings.
Mountain lions are good swimmers, but they’d rather not get in the water because they don’t seem to like being wet.
Even though we hear it a lot in movies and on TV, mountain lions don’t make that "wild cat scream" very often. More common vocalizations are whistles, squeaks, growls, purrs, hisses, and yowls.
Some mountain lions eat porcupines, quills and all, apparently without any harm.
Mountain lions are the stealthiest of cats, hunting prey two to three times their own size.
With the exception of humans, the mountain lion has the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, from northern British Columbia to Argentina.

Our cats
The San Diego Zoo’s first mountain lions arrived in 1925, and we continued to exhibit this beautiful cat species through 1992. During this time, 37 cubs were born.

Our current mountain lion exhibit is home to two animals: a female, Koyama, or “Koya,” and a male, Yakima, or “Kima.” They came to the Zoo in 2006 and 2007, respectively, after they were found orphaned in the wild at an age where they were much too young to care for themselves. Now they give our guests a chance to experience mountain lions, which frequently roam the hills just east and north of San Diego.

Mountain lion exhibit
Exhibiting cats can be challenging. By nature, cats must be elusive in order to be successful predators, and once they eat, they rest for long periods to conserve energy for the next hunt. Although our cats get their meals hand-delivered regularly, they still abide by these natural instincts. Therefore, when designing an exhibit, we work to have the mountain lions comfortable and acting natural while still being interesting and educating to our guests.

Our mountain lions moved into their new exhibit in June 2014. It replicates a mountainous California habitat with rock outcroppings and wood structures for them to climb on and highlights the cats’ amazing abilities with better climbing and leaping opportunities. The habitat also features a state-of-the-art scent distribution system that allows keepers to pump various scents into the exhibit to keep Koya and Kima active and intrigued.

Other toys
We also like to give items that the mountain lions can bat around and chase, simulating the act of hunting. Dried gourds are something the cats really enjoy play hunting with. The irregular shape of the gourds makes them roll unpredictably, and the dried seeds inside rattle, which also entices the cats.

Be sure to come by the mountain lion exhibit on your next visit to the Zoo. Our hope is that you will get an appreciation of this magnificent cat that lives in San Diego’s own backyard.

As more people have moved into the mountain lion's territory, the number of encounters with these cats has increased. This is often "big news" and frightens people. But overall, meeting a mountain lion is an unlikely event. The cats don’t want to confront humans, and they do their best to avoid us. You can avoid them, too, by not hiking alone, or at dusk and dawn when mountain lions are hunting. Make noise as you hike, and don’t leave food out around a cabin or campsite, especially at night. If you do happen across a mountain lion, never approach it—always give it a way to escape.

When Europeans first settled North America, mountain lions lived from coast to coast. But the cats soon came to be viewed as varmints—killers of livestock. By the 1940s, many states, including California, placed a bounty on mountain lions, paying $25 for a male pelt and $35 for a female pelt. Due in major part to the bounty system, the cats are now confined to the West, except for a small population in Florida. Some people continue to shoot them on sight, or trap or poison them.

It’s important to remember that mountain lions have an essential role to play in their ecosystems. They are one of the top predators, and without them populations of deer and other animals would become unhealthy and too large for the habitat. It’s true that mountain lions can be dangerous, and problem cats should be reported to local animal control agencies. But people like to live and play in or near wild places, so we need to understand and respect the wildlife that also lives there. If we take responsibility for our own actions, pets, livestock, and property, we can learn to live with mountain lions and appreciate their power and grace.