It was pure luck, pure accident that we didn’t become tasty breakfast for a Puma in the mountain forests of Chilean Patagonia.

After the incident, we talked about what our Dateline Special would have been like:

Married couple on “Trip of a Lifetime” mauled, digested by REALLY big cat.

The irony (Alanis Morrisette style) is that we are cat lovers. We share a house with two rambunctious house cats named Abe and Lincoln. We’ve often joked about how we’re lucky they are only twelve and ten pounds each—much bigger and we’d be in real trouble. As it is, they can still do quite a bit of damage when they’re riled up. Cute as they are.

It truly was the trip of a lifetime and day two of our five-day excursion started at a Refugio just a few miles away from the famed Torres del Paine. We were instructed by the staff at the Refugio that we should wake up early (very, very early) to be able to see the sunrise hit the Torres in that spellbinding way that is the dream of everybody who ventures to that part of the world.

The Torres del Paine at sunrise—what we were waking up so early to try to see.
This was the view that we woke up at 3am to see…

Waking up early meant at 3am and on the trail by about 3:20am. We’d hiked in the dark before, so that part of our journey wasn’t new to us. Both of us wore headlamps to light the trail in front of us. It had been lightly snowing the day before, but the brisk wind and the tiny flakes had meant that the trail was mostly clear in front of us. It was cold—very cold—so despite our brisk pace, we were bundled up and quite chilly.

Our focus was on the trail immediately in front of us—since it was still so dark, we didn’t bother to look around at the vistas since they were still clothed in the darkness of the night. Briskly, we traveled up the trail. We quickly crossed one small stream and kept trudging forward through the dark forest.

We came to a longer bridge, crossing the Rio Ascencio, and stopped for our first major breather. I turned my head to check on Julia and as the light from my headlamp quickly and dimly lit the bridge we had just crossed, I saw something unusual: two green dots.

A domestic cat’s eyeshine on full display

Immediately, I knew where I’d seen green dots like that before.

In our house, any time we venture around in the dark, we see two sets of green dots peering back at us.

Cats evolved extraordinary night vision—making them adept hunters. This distinctive green glow, called eyeshine, is caused by a layer of cells on their eyes called the tapetum lucidum. Located between the optic nerve and the retina, these cells serve as a mirror that reflects dim light back at the cones and rods of the cat’s eyes: providing a sort of amplification to the light. The proportionally larger eyes of the cat also make their glowing eyes particularly prominent in the darkness.

In the wilderness of Patagonia, however, I knew these eyes didn’t belong to a house cat.

“Uh, Julia…” I said, tentatively, “There’s a cat on the bridge.”

“What?!”

A cougar in North America demonstrating night stalking. Cougars, Mountain Lions, and Pumas are all the same family of cat common to both South and North America.

I knew we were too far from civilization for it to be a house cat. And this puma, measuring 4-5 feet long and weighing in at around 150 pounds was definitely not a house cat.

“A BIG cat.”

“Where?”

I shone my light back on the bridge—which was itself split into two sections arranged at a 30-degree angle.

“See her, there?”

“Uh. Whoa.”

She had come a third of the way across the bridge—stalking us—now not more than 35-feet distant. She was stock-still—staring at us with her bright green eyes lit up and staring at us reflecting her eyeshine.

The fateful bridge in daylight… Just a few hours earlier we’d almost been a puma’s breakfast…

Both of us paused a moment to admire her—and frankly just because we were scared out of our minds. Both of us thought of times when our little lions had scratched up our hands, arms, and legs—without even really trying. Here was an animal who’s claws could truly rip our flesh apart in an instant. With teeth equally terrifying.

Genetically, different species of cats are very similar. A puma has more genetically in common with our house cats than different breeds of dogs have with one another. House cats, despite their diminutive size, show very few signs of domestication that are common with other domesticated animals.

In fact, house cats share a lot of traits, with their bigger cousins:

  • They both smell with their mouths open, because each possesses an extra sensory organ known as “Jacobson’s Organ”.
  • They both sleep a lot—up to twenty-hours of sleep a day isn’t unusual because they tend to conserve energy for high-intensity hunting activities.
  • They both scratch things to keep their claws sharp and mark their territory.
  • They both rub their faces against things to stimulate the scent glands along their mouth and nose—also to mark their territory.
  • House cats and big cats hunt prey in much the same way: stalking from a distant, hidden location until a weakness is determined and then a speedy dash in for the kill.

Lucky for us, our Puma friend was still in the stalking mode.

“What do we do?” Julia asked.

I remembered what the guidebooks said and my own experience with our own little terrors—if you make yourself seem formidable, dangerous and just too much effort, they will break off the hunt and look for something easier.

I started waving my arms, banging my hiking poles together, and growling—no joke—and in an instant, the big cat turned, leapt up the hill behind and disappeared from view.

There was no sign that there’d been a cat there at all—that we’d encountered one of the most elusive big cats in the world and come close to being a meal.

A puma striking a pose in the wild

If you are interested in your own big cat experience, we’d recommend a tour of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia or an excursion to the Serengeti to see lions, leopards and cheetahs in their natural habitat.

After a close encounter of the big cat kind you won’t ever look at your little house cat in quite the same way. You will likely realize just how much our furry feline friends truly are lions in our living rooms.