Five days a week, I mine gold on the North Fork of the Feather River, in Northern California, and I’d seen the bear and her yearling there a few times before. So in March, I was surprised when I went down to the riverbank and saw her standing on a gravel bar 45 feet away with the yearling and a new three-week-old cub.1
I turned back up the trail, and three steps later a 120-pound cougar pounced on my back. I never saw it coming, didn’t even suspect it was in the area—I was focused on the bears. Come to think of it, I probably got in the way of that mountain lion’s dinner.2
It came up from behind and pounced on my backpack3, knocking me to my knees. As soon as it was on me, it didn’t let up for a good few seconds. It shook me violently, just like a house cat toying with a mouse.
I swung my rock hammer, which I always carry with me, at its head and heard it howl. When I tried to hit it again, I couldn’t believe what happened. My 400-pound mama-bear friend charged4 and grabbed the cat by its throat, pulling her off me. I crawled into a thicket and watched in awe for nearly a minute. The bear had its teeth around the cougar’s throat, and they were rolling across the ground, hissing and growling.5 Then the cougar twisted free and bolted into the forest.
The mama bear watched the cat retreat and ambled back down to its cubs, which had witnessed the whole affair from the riverbank. As for me, my arm had been scratched bad, so I wrapped it in a rag and hiked back to the car. When I got home, my wife screamed at the sight of me. She tried to make me go to the ER, but I refused. Many people don’t believe this happened to me, but I just ignore them.
—AS TOLD TO MADISON KAHN
FIVE ALIVE: PUTTING THE SCREWS TO A DUBIOUS TALE
An expert opinion from cougar biologist Robert Quigley
1. Mama bears rarely have more than one cub in a span of two years. That’s just bear behavior 101.
2. I can’t recall an incident where a cougar ate a bear cub. I suppose it could happen if the cougar came upon a cub without its mama, but that wasn’t the case here.
3. Cougars aim to kill by going for the head or neck. And the California Department of Fish and Game forensic specialist found no saliva, hair, or bite marks on the pack—all inconsistent with an attack.
4. This is hard to imagine. The only time a female bear might attack is if it felt threatened, and a cougar mauling a miner doesn’t represent a threat to it or its cubs.
5. If a bear and a cat fought, it’d be the cougar doing the biting. Bears use their forepaws to swat things.