Mountain Lion on the Roof

by Mark Hahn


As I turned out the lights in my bedroom last night, I felt the sound of something large on the rooftop of my house. I heard the heavy sounds of a determined movement and shifting weight above my head. I looked out my large glass window into the darkness. There was no moon.

In my neighborhood this could only be a mountain lion. I have heard that one of these beasts often passes through the wash behind my house during the night or in the early morning. I have never seen him. Last night he was just a few feet above my bed.

With a mixture of fright and curiosity, I thought of going out and looking to see what he was doing. The thought of standing beneath him, in a position for the animal to spring down on me, held me back. A mountain lion could rip me to shreds in a matter of seconds.

Ailurophobia is the extreme irrational phobic fear of cats that can paralyze some people in the presence of any cat. No one knows why some have this phobia, but you can easily imagine that it was bred into us, as a species, through our evolution. Prior to the domestication of cats 10,000 years ago, large predatory cats brought uncertain danger into our lives. A fear of them would aid in our survival (as does the fear of rodents and snakes).

An Indian friend of mine once told me how fear spread through his entire villages when a tiger had been spotted – it was a silent unpredictable killer passing through their lives — a wind of death, causing all to pause until it had passed. My friend had a resignation and respect for that fear. There are tens of thousands of documented human deaths in India attributed to man eating tigers.

While human deaths from mountain lions in the US number only in the scores, they do occur. Fear of a mountain lion is not irrational, it is a simple primitive fear of the unknown — even while looking for comfort in statistics. If I went outside, I wondered how the beast would spring on me, if that is what it chose to do. Would its pounce be as silent as a predatory owl? Would I hear it at all?

At this point in my life, I don’t like fear. I turned my back to the window and pretended that the pane of glass would somehow protect me. Though I knew a mountain lion was certainly clever enough to know that it could break through a glass window if it had to. A mountain lion would also know that it could take me down with a strong bite to my throat. Without a weapon, I presented no threat to the mountain lion at all.

The first time I encountered a mountain lion was outside of Bakersfield, CA. I was maybe 5 years old. We were driving home after a family picnic at a local reservoir. The sun went down on the lonely two-lane highway. My father saw movement on an outcropping of rocks and stopped to see what it was.

What he saw was a wild mountain lion. He didn’t want us to miss it. Very few people ever see a wild cat. After stopping the car, he told us all to get out as quietly as possible. We walked across the highway toward the rocks. When we reached the base of the outcropping, my dad whispered for us to look up near the top. He pointed. It took a while before the cat took form. It was observing us. Within the darkness, I could suddenly make out the silent solid movement of the mountain lion. I wanted to get closer. I had no feeling of fear. I was driven by fascination. The giant cat effortlessly leaped more than 12 ft. into the air to stand on the highest rock and look down on us defiantly. I strained forward to get a closer look. My mother tried to hold me back. I ran right up to the rocks and looked up at the cat above me. If my father hadn’t grabbed me, I would have started climbing.

Suddenly, my little sister burst into tears of panic. The darkness, the unknown, the power of the cat all touched a primitive fear in her. I never saw her so afraid of anything before. My parents tried to calm her down after we got back in the car.

I was mad that we had to leave. I thought her fear was ridiculous. I had been transfixed by the sight of the giant cat and my proximity to it. The combined feelings of danger, awe and curiosity felt like nothing else I had experienced. It filled me with pure energy and excitement.

Later in the week, my sister and I were in her room playing with our giant red and white teddy bears. Our grandmother had given them to us. We hadn’t noticed night fall. The neighbor’s roof across the way was dark and shadowy. We lived in a one of the original California cul-de-sac developments so the house was probably less than ten feet away from our window. I thought I saw movement on the roof.

“Isn’t that a mountain lion?” I asked my sister in alarm.

“I think he just went over the roof, you can’t see him now.”

“He’s probably hiding behind the chimney.”

My sister lost it. She was terrified.

I was having fun imagining a mountain lion on the roof across the way – but somehow, there was no reality to the fear. It was just excitement. I have to admit that I was also having fun scaring my little sister at first too. I didn’t mean to traumatize her, but at five, I often lacked the sense to know when I was going too far.

The fear I had of the mountain lion on my roof last night was not fun though. The thought of its close proximity only filled me with a feeling of vulnerability – of uncertainty. The excitement of the danger and beauty was tempered by the desire to feel safe. I curled up in my bed and fell asleep alone. I had wished that my daughter’s little Japanese Bobtail would have come into my room and slept with me.