UPDATED:Mountain lion attacks couple in state park in Humboldt County, N. California

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Jim Hamm, 70, and his wife Nell, 65, were on Brown Creek Trail [Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park] at about 3 p.m. when a lion ambushed Jim from behind. Nell Hamm used a branch and a pen to beat and stab the animal, which eventually released its grip on her husband and ran away.

From an animal behavior standpoint, the story notes that it is very unusual for a mountain lion to attack unless its victim is alone. What is unsaid is that predators can easily determine if its prey is “infirm,” old, very young, or crippled. You or I could distinguish the gait of a 70 year old man from that of an individual in the prime of life. The other issue: it seems that the man was somewhat behind his wife, or she had hiked ahead of him, thereby depriving him of the protection of a second presence. As it turns out, the man’s wife, once she realized what was going on, really did some heroic work to save him.

While I have seen a number of bears, I have only ever seen one mountain lion in the wild, and that was quite a thrill, as they are often nocturnal and of course very stealthy. I have only recently come around to the view that they are a threat (though humans kill thousands of times more cougars than the other way around). While bears are a hazard for all outdoorspeople, lions are more of a menace to hikers and particularly to joggers. Characteristically, they attack from above and/or behind, and have been known to stalk their prey for some distance, and rarely, to operate in pairs or threes; these are usually a lioness and her kittens.

Cougars come in all sizes, but they are exceedingly athletic:

The cougar is extremely agile and has great jumping power and may leap from the ground up to a height of 18 feet into a tree. It is a good swimmer but prefers not to enter the water. Sight is its most acute sense with a good sense of hearing, but is thought to have a poorly developed sense of smell.

Size and Appearance: The cougar is the largest cat in the genus “felis”, and is comparable in size as the leopard. They vary in length from 59 – 108 inches with a tail length of 21 – 36 inches, and height from 23 – 28 inches at the shoulder. Weight can vary greatly, between 75 and 250 pounds. They have a long body with a small head, short face, and a long neck and tail. They are powerfully built, and the hind legs are larger than the front. The ears are small, short and rounded.

There are two kinds of predator attacks: the first is the classic accidental black bear encounter: some poor soul gets between a sow and her cubs. Wearing a bell pretty much prevents that kind of interaction. But if you are attacked the best strategy may be to act as harmless as possible, and back out of the situation. Mountain lions never attack in this way.

The other kind of predator attack is a purposeful attempt to eat you. Grizzlies and polar bears do this, but black bears are much less likely to. This is the typical lion attack; they will size up their prey before attacking. They all prefer small, weak, young, old and isolated prey. The way to prevent these attacks is to spot the predator before they attack, and try to either escape or convince the predator that you are very strong. In the case of a polar bear and possibly grizzlies, this would require a firearm or loud noise, pepper spray, etc. With black bears and with lions, I personally would doubt that, if they are stalking a person, they would attack prey that makes an aggressive display. When attacked by a predator in hunting mode, the “play dead” defense is worse than useless; fighting back is the only chance for survival.

A few random comments: Hikers and joggers tend to be either goal-oriented or lost in thought; they look forward, never backwards; animals and hunters are not that careless.

Very few people survive lion attacks, because most attacks are on lone people, attacked from behind by a hundred pound killing machine, with no immediate defenses or assistance at hand. Cougars knock the victim down like a blind-side quarterback sack, and attack the head and neck. After killing its prey, the cougar will generally drag it to a secure spot.

Any defensive weapon would have to be carried in hand or on the belt to be useful in a lion attack. No jogger or hiker is gonna carry a handgun on his/her belt or in hand. That pretty much means pepper spray (and/or a fixed blade sheath knife).

Back to the recent attack:

Wildlife officers came to the scene and killed two lions within a quarter mile, one of whom had human blood on her claws.

I imagine this is quite disconcerting to local residents and park officials. State parks are generally thought of as rather sterile patches of trees, where young and old can frolic, with the only danger being other humans. This particular park is certainly wilder than most, and by design:

Park wildlife is both abundant and varied including such animals as black bear, Roosevelt elk, deer, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, skunk, fox, squirrel, chipmunk and many others.

Certainly the danger from mountain lions must be prominently posted on the website as well as at the park entrances and trail heads. Lone hikers or the aged are particularly at risk. It is notable that the park invites the handicapped:

75 miles of hiking trails, bicycle trails, self-guided nature trail, accessible trails for individuals with physical or visual limitations, backpacking

Patrons must be instructed to “watch their backs.” Those who find this distasteful and who feel unsafe can go elsewhere. It is beyond silly not to take precautions when recreating in bear/lion habitat. I hope this episode doesn’t result in some widespread lion extermination process. And, of course, the worst result would be that people start carrying guns in state parks.

UPDATE: It is clear that the lions are a very visible fixture in this park:

Mountain lions live throughout the West. But nowhere are they watched as closely as they are at Redwood National and State Parks.

The parks keep close track of lion sightings, corroborating accounts of encounters or glimpses of the big cats. About 30 sightings are reported, on average, each year in the park.

One park employee even saw the two young lions that ended up being killed after one of them attacked Fortuna resident Jim Hamm. It was two days before the Jan. 24 attack. …

It was the first attack on a human in the parks, as well as in Humboldt County. The lions tracked and killed were the only ones removed in the park’s history…
Only a handful of aggressive encounters have been recorded by the parks in the past 13 years.
Most lions in the park are sighted north of the Klamath River. But there have been many sightings along Redwood Creek Trail, a flat, easy trail frequented by families. In 1994, after a woman was killed by a lion in Auburn, park wildlife managers considered removing a big lion that frequently sprawled across that trail and watched people, unafraid and unconcerned.

But when armed rangers and California Department of Fish and Game wardens looked for the lion, they never came across it. The lion never posed a problem afterward, Hofstra said.

If people are wondering if the park is safe, Hofstra said it is probably safer than it was before the lions involved in the Hamm attack were killed. Those lions were exhibiting strange behavior, sticking around the site of the ambush even when it was crawling with rangers and park personnel afterward. They didn’t even leave the area when they were shot at.
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As for myself, I don’t go to the woods to think about other things. I absorb myself in the here and now, being aware of the forest, and that includes looking for animals. Lions are something to consider, though the odds are very strong that you will never see one, let alone be attacked by one. I carry a hiking stick, and a sheath knife (fixed blade, not a folder). When I bow hunt, I carry a sidearm. (I would carry tear gas/pepper spray, but I guess I think it looks kind of odd; some authorities feel it is not useful or even counterproductive, especially when sprayed into the wind, and it is not uncommon that an attack will come from upwind)(I emphasize that carrying a defense in a pack is probably useless; you won’t get a chance to get it out).

Those who are interested in an exhaustive treatment of cougar attacks can order or buy Cougar Attacks  by Kathy Etling (REI carries it).  Here you can learn, for example, that the first human ever killed by a cougar in Colorado was a high school student at Idaho Springs, who was killed in January of 1991 while jogging during his lunch hour.

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11 Comments

Filed under global warming/environment, Outdoors, San Francisco, travel

11 responses to “UPDATED:Mountain lion attacks couple in state park in Humboldt County, N. California

  1. Jason357

    What were those people doing in the lion’s territory? Where do wild animals get to live, or do they?

  2. shades of James Kim.
    The park takes pride in its mountain lion population. I hope to hell there are prominent warning signs displayed at the park entrance and at trail heads.

  3. Jason357

    Yep. Is government going to babysit the citizenry or is the citizenry going to look after themselves?

    LOL, you and your signs. It all comes down to whether we want wild areas or not, and whether the government will preserve wild areas and the life within or not. I don’t think people need to piss on every twig, touch every tree, and have access to every freaking wildlife habitat out there, just because they have enough money and time for it.

  4. Jason357

    I found that James Kim article that seemed to say they chose to drive down the log road to get away form the elevation and snow. The link was so long, I didn’t know if you wanted me to post it, or email it.

    There’s really no other reason to drive 21 miles down that road. Everyone understands how far 21 miles is when moving only about 10 mph or less? That’s a LONG way. Way more than the 2 miles Katie Kim said they drove. Since there was no road after the logging road, seems to me that HAS to be the road they intentionally turned on to get away from the snow. It amazes me how no “reporters” even comment on the multiple story versions out there. The Kims woke up and found themselves trapped. It sounds like they left the car and heater running all night, too… not the intermittent operation first claimed, to conserve gas.

    Now, Katie Kim seems to be changing the story and saying they turned down a road before the logging road to get away from the snow. But, the story before was that the Kims thought the wider road to the right WAS the main road and they missed the correct road due to a small sign and questionable(in their opinion) placement.

    Katie Kim is also now saying that they were afraid to try and drive back the way they came, which sounds like total horseshit. Her stories started to change after she had a chance to talk to her father-in-law.

  5. The story really has become so bizarre. The things they did seem so stupid. I want to believe that they were smart people, but it’s really hard to believe that. I hadn’t thought of the older Kim’s influence, but you may be right. The other thing that has come out is that they were fighting each other. That can lead to some pretty irrational behavior.

  6. Stupid city folk and pampered yuppies will never understand that the world isn’t just about humans and their desires and safety.

    Out in the woods there are animals who prey on other animals. That’s the way things work in the world. Humans prey on other animals too.

    Yet the yuppies and city folk want to think that everything should be paved, well-lit, security guarded and policed for their pampered plush fat arses to enjoy from the safety of artificiality.

    The mountain cat should’ve dealt with Granny more aggressively.

  7. Jason357

    Fighting, amongst themselves? I hadn’t seen any accounts of that. I can sympathize with the father not wanting his son to be remembered as a moron who couldn’t go on vacation without getting lost and dying, but it’s wrong to push new laws on society just some rich guy is trying to protect his family image.

  8. you make fun of my demand for better signs but that really allows people to make informed decisions, which is the best policy. If I want to go down to the Rogue in a snowstorm, that’s my business. I really don’t like locked gates. But if I am somebody from Tampa trying to get to the coast, they need to know whats up, so they can decide. If the guy in the gas station in Merlin isn’t gonna tell em, then they need signs.

  9. Jason357

    Nothing personal, I just remember the song about signs.
    “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
    Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
    Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

    There were about 4 signs that the Kims passed that said snow may close roads. Of course, the Kims didn’t take it seriously until that actually, literally could not push forward through the snow. I call that stupidity and arrogance, and no sign can fix that. They knew how to go back to the interstate, but kept driving in an unknown directions until they almost ran out of gas.

    The only thing that’ll come close to preventing that from happening is a manned gate(24/7) on each end where someone records who enters and leaves. Even then, what are they going to do, tell the Kims they can’t enter? Spencer Kim would want to fight with them over that too. My solution is to let them do what they want, bill the family for the search, and ignore them when they start bitching about nobody keeping them from being stupid.

  10. Pingback: Mountain lion sightings, summer/fall 2009, in Northern California: UPDATED with VIDEO « Over the line, Smokey!

  11. Paul M

    I appreciate this post, since I am [newly] training in SoCal foothills, alive with cougars and bears. I’ve seen signs of both (prints and scat), but not encountered one yet. I train (trail running and fastpacking) alone and am aware of the increased risk, so I am researching the best precautions I can take, including bear spray. The author of this post (did not find a way to contact directly) mentions a fixed blade knife. I’ve thought of this option but hadn’t read anywhere but here about using this in defense (admit, I’ve not yet purchased any of the books on cougar attacks, but plan to now). The bear spray is a given, and I will be ordering this.

    I keep my eyes and ears open all around me on these training hikes, but I understand the cats are stealthy and I my awareness might slip at the same time as one of them might be considering an attack. If I carry a blade and spray, both within easy reach, I would plan on putting up a decent fight, hopefully enough to deter the attack; that’s the best anyone can do, I think. Now, that’s assuming that an attack hasn’t broken the neck—they are powerful enough to do so.

    One question I have is whether in such a circumstance, having been knocked down but not “out,” a carefully aimed spray of pepper over my shoulder might disable/disorient the cat enough to deter the attack. I understand that the risk is that I disable myself as well with the spray—it’s all well and good to “plan” to hold my breath and close my eyes at that moment, but the best laid plans can go awry, I understand. But, if the cat is disabled enough to release its hold, then with an 8″ knife, I might be able to inflict enough hurt to change its mind on my being its next meal.

    In another situation, if I were aware of an impending attack from behind, I might be able to spray pepper behind me as I run forward, hoping that the cat might run through the pepper cloud and have a change of heart. All these things are part good planning, part wishful thinking, I understand. I’m just putting them out there in hopes that I might get some insightful feedback; perhaps this is the wrong venue, though. At any rate, I appreciate this article. Thanks, Paul

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