SACRAMENTO, Calif. — He began his trip the way many hikers do: Leaving the city late in the day, a long drive to the country, then a simple camp under the stars to launch a multi-day backpacking trip.
The San Francisco Bay Area man, 63, arrived at his favorite hiking destination outside Nevada City near dusk on Saturday. He parked his car and hiked into the mountains a short distance before throwing down a sleeping bag for an informal camp the first night, with plans to hit the trail early in the morning.
Instead, he got a surprise visitor in the night and a rude awakening.
The man, whom officials would not identify, was attacked at 1 a.m. Sunday by a mountain lion while sleeping under the stars. The big cat — California’s top wildlife predator — approached him in the dark, perhaps out of simple curiosity, and the confrontation quickly brought the hiking trip to a bloody close.
The man survived, but with numerous bites and cuts, and the mountain lion now faces a death sentence. The California Department of Fish and Game confirmed the attack based on a forensic examination of the man, his belongings and the scene, said Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the department and a game warden.
It thus becomes only the 15th confirmed mountain lion attack on humans in California since the start of recordkeeping on the subject in 1890. Only six of these have been fatal.
The incident does not fit the typical profile of a mountain lion attack, in which a cougar mistakes a person for fleeing prey.
“The frequency of lion attacks on humans is extremely rare,” Foy said. “In this case, it’s hard to say what happened. He posed zero threat to this lion because he was asleep.”
In the latest incident, the man laid out his sleeping bag at around 10 p.m. Saturday, Foy said. The location was northwest of Nevada City along a tributary of the Yuba River. Foy would not reveal the exact location, saying the department does not want people drawn to the area because wardens are still tracking the mountain lion and are wary of disturbing the animal’s trail.
The man had driven to the Nevada City area that evening to start his hike. He knew the area, Foy said, having made similar trips before. He did not use a tent, and wore a stocking cap on his head to stay warm.
Around 1 a.m. Sunday, Foy said, the man awoke to the sensation of something pressing on his head, and moved an arm to protect himself.
“He felt very much what felt like a big heavy paw on his head,” Foy said. “When he reacted to that, instantly the animal just ferociously attacked him. He didn’t necessarily fight back, but he did say he did his best to protect his head.”
The attack lasted less than 2 minutes, Foy said, and then the lion backed off. From a distance of about 15 yards, the lion simply looked at the man for about 30 seconds and disappeared into the night.
“The animal just ceased the attack,” Foy said.
The man drove himself to a hospital in Grass Valley, where he was treated and released for cuts and bites on his head and left arm.
Game wardens interviewed him at the hospital and collected evidence, including the sleeping bag and the man’s knit cap, which had puncture marks in it.
They also visited the scene with tracking dogs, where they found mountain lion tracks. Not far away, they found a dead domestic cat, which later proved to have been killed and partially eaten by a mountain lion, Foy said.
It has been five years since the last verified mountain lion attack on humans in California.
In January 2007, 70-year-old Jim Hamm was jumped by a mountain lion while hiking at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County. He did what experts recommend in the event of a mountain lion attack: He fought back as hard as he could, with help from his wife, who was just a few paces ahead.
Hamm survived, although with gruesome scars to show for it.
Mountain lions don’t normally look at people as food, said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation. When they do attack people, they usually attack from behind after mistaking the person for their typical prey, such as deer.
One well-known example is the 1994 case of Barbara Schoener, a distance runner who was jumped from behind by a cougar and killed while running on a trail at Auburn State Recreation Area.
It is possible the cougar in Sunday’s attack was either sick or simply a curious young animal investigating a strange new object in its territory.
Dunbar leans toward the latter theory.
“To have a story where a lion is waking somebody up because it’s putting its paw on the person’s head — that just sounds strange,” Dunbar said. “It’s not an action of an animal — especially a lion — attacking a food source.”
Fish and Game wardens were still attempting to track the mountain lion Monday. If found, it would be killed, Foy said, following state policy to kill cougars that attack people.
Dunbar has mixed feelings about that. He noted the incident is similar to one that occurred several years ago in which a mountain lion attacked a camouflaged hunter in bushes who was making turkey calls. The lion evidently thought it was attacking a turkey, and the state did not record the incident as an attack on a human, nor did it pursue the lion.
“If the lion had continued to show aggressive behavior toward the human, they would have to remove that lion,” Dunbar said. “But in this case, it’s almost like that isn’t quite what occurred. It really sounds like something that bit off more than it could chew, and really got scared of the human and ran off.”
© 2012 The Sacramento Bee