D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     April 2005

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What If a Cougar Attacks?

As large predators and civilization increasingly collide, it's best to prepare for the worst. Here's how.

This month's column started with a phone call from my brother Jeff, who happens to live in southern California; Jeff had just talked with the local park ranger where he likes to run.

When I was out there last Thanksgiving my bro had taken me on an evening hike to the park. About two miles in we were hiking up a remote and deep, brushy canyon on a very well-used trail; I found abundant fresh sign of coyotes, bobcat, foxes and a lion!

Jeff was skeptical when I tried to convince him that there were indeed cougar tracks on his favorite running route, but there they were—large tracks and equally large. fresh piles of hairy scat. He countered with the argument that in all of the years that he'd been running here, there was never a reported sighting of a lion nor any rumors of such nonsense. He assured this old hunter that they were dog tracks!

Now, three months later, the ranger had just confirmed that cougars do indeed pass through the park on occasion and that in January there were two confirmed sightings of the same cat by expert witnesses. And yes, this cat "seemed" to have taken up permanent residence.

Guess what? The cat was seen in the same place that I had found its sign just two months prior. Hah! I told Jeff that I felt vindicated about my knowledge of outdoor lore.

But that is not the issue; the issue is what my brother should do now. He didn't plan to give up running in the park!

Coincidentally, just the day before Jeff's call, "Good Morning America" had interviewed a young California woman who had been attacked by a mountain lion while she hiked a trail; another mountain biker had been killed by the same lion in the same week. This woman had been attacked and mauled in the face and thigh by the cat.

This type of altercation is happening more and more frequently there because California instituted a ban on lion killing. Without the healthy fear that hunting and trapping put on the cougar population, they are gradually becoming acclimated to humans.

I explained to my brother that the "localization" of this cougar presented the potential for a real problem. It seemed to live in a side ravine choked with brush; attendant tall trees overhung the main trail, making a perfect and accessible attack site on humans.

Most large predators, including not only lions but coyotes, wolves, bears and even stray dog packs, don't usually attack people because of hunger. They attack because an instinct is triggered when they assume the hiker/jogger/biker is fleeing from them.

There are also other, much rarer reasons for attacks such as rabies, starvation, sickness, injury and mental illness (the animal develops a blood-lust to kill).

This same scenario that faces my brother also faces us in New Mexico— cougars may be encountered anywhere. Just last month a buddy and I found fresh sign of two cats way out on the desert flats far from the forested mountains; we even found a fresh kill half-buried in dirt.

This cat-encounter problem is exacerbated when big cats move near town or even within town limits to hunt deer. Then they, too, like their Califomia cousins, lose their fear of humans because they cannot safely be hunted or trapped in such places, as is the current case in Indian Hills and other suburbs of Silver City. This sets up a scenario for a human/cougar conflict. But, as I said before, we may encounter a cougar almost anywhere in the outdoors.

Now, you may be thinking that I'm an alarmist, but consider this fact: I have known or talked to at least six different folks who have had cat attacks or near cat attacks here in Grant County in the last nine years. Add to that fact that I have personally been followed and stalked at close range (within 50 yards for almost a mile) and I don't think I'm being an alarmist!

So what I advised my brother to do applies to all of us, and that advice is to carry some sort of deterrent while pursuing your outdoor activity.

The first and best weapon is your brain. Don't panic if you see a cat or other predatory animal, but remain calm and stand your ground and don't run! Instead, talk in a calm voice while slowly backing away and still facing the antagonist.

Second, carry some sort of physical deterrent—the first line of defense would be a handgun. If it is legal to do so and you don't have an aversion to a gun, then carry one openly on your hip. If you have a concealed weapons-permit, then carry one in a fanny pack on the front of your body.

A friend was attacked on two separate occasions by cougars. In both cases he fired in front of the critters and they turned away even though they were in a stalk. You don't necessarily have to kill or wound a critter to dissuade it; actually shooting the animal is the last resort.

I prefer to carry somewhat small revolvers or derringers that don't weigh me down much in my activities, in calibers such as .22 magnum, .38 special, .357 magnum or .44 special. I don't usually carry a semiautomatic because of the chance of a jammed cartridge.

Now, for practicality's sake I must get a little graphic in the next paragraphs, so please excuse me. If the cat is actually upon you it will be necessary to kill the animal before it kills you. Everything I have read or seen about predator attacks seems to indicate that the person retains his or her mental faculties during the attack. Time even seems to slow down and incidences become acute in the mind.

So, if you have that handgun, retrieve it from wherever you're carrying it and put the muzzle against the attacker's ear hole and pull the trigger. Between the eyes will work but that could mean that you have to twist your arm in an unnatural manner.

My brother can't legally carry a gun in the park, so I told him to buy a fixed-blade knife and carry it in a sheath on his hip. You don't want a folding knife because it may take two hands to open it. Get a knife with a four-to-six-inch blade.

Now, the hard part: If the animal is upon you, try to draw the blade across the throat and slice its jugular. After that, continually stab it in the side, behind the front leg, so that the blade penetrates the lung or heart. Keep stabbing until the animal quits its attack!

I also advised Jeff to carry a small can of pepper spray and either mount it on his forearm or on his hip, whichever is more convenient. Make sure you point it right and don't spray your own eyes! Give it a healthy blast into the critter's own eyes and don't stop until the attack ends.

Back to the woman hiker in California—rescuers heard her screaming and came to her defense and beat the cat off her face with rocks. They started to drag her up to the trail and the cat attacked again, this time clamping its teeth onto her thigh. The men once again took up rocks and beat the cat off, this time for good. But what if the men hadn't heard her scream? She'd probably be dead right now instead of telling a hair-raising tale.

What if the attacker is a bear? I'd probably lie in a still fetal position and hope the bear goes away—if not then I'd try all of the above!

I'm sorry for being so graphic, but it could be you out there, although I hope and pray that it never happens to anyone. As the Boy Scouts say, "Be Prepared!"

As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may the Forever God bless you and keep you safe.

Larry Lightner writes Ramblin' Outdoors monthly for Desert Exposure.

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