- Scott F. Parker
An Open Letter to Runner's World
I know competition for clicks is fierce these days and that inducing fear in readers is among the most reliable ways of generating them, but it is still possible to put journalistic integrity before ad dollars.
Your recent headline "How the Runner From the Viral Mountain Lion Video Survived His Scary 6-Minute Encounter" (October 16, 2020) is misleading to the point of irresponsibility. To claim that the runner, Kyle Burgess, "survived" is to suggest that he was attacked. He was not. As Mark Elbroch, director of the Puma Program for Panthera.org, has explained: “The entire six minutes is aggressive defensive behavior. There is no stalking, there is no hunting. This is not a cat that is in any way interested in eating Kyle. That cat was clearly intervening between a potential threat and her very young kittens.”
By suggesting otherwise, your headline and much of the article that follows, gives two false impressions. First, that Burgess was a victim here. He wasn't. Prior to the encounter with the adult female cougar, Burgess approached her kittens, mistakenly thinking they were bobcats. I'm deeply sympathetic to the curiosity Burgess felt and the mistake he made, but innocent as he may have been there is no reasonable interpretation that he was a victim.
The second and more dangerous false impression is that we should fear cougar attacks. That kind of fear is at the root of our historic attitude toward these animals, an attitude which has led us to kill them by the thousands and extirpate them from a majority of their native territory. It turns out, we're not much different from cougars. We too lash out when we are afraid. The difference is we often do not settle for scaring off threats. It can be hard to when you're stocked with guns and misinformation.
Given how much more sober the article itself is, I trust that the author, Andrew Dawson, was not responsible for the headline. Perhaps if he knew what the headline would be he would have seen fit to mention that no person in the history of Utah has been killed by a cougar. Or he might have put cougar attacks in perspective by pointing out that Americans are 800 times more likely to be killed by a deer than by a cougar. But as it is, he didn't do those things, and now your readers are unlikely to know he could have.