Usually, when Travis Kauffman is trail running and hears something rustling in the brush, he doesn’t get alarmed. It’s likely just deer foraging or a squirrel.
Last week, while on a 15-mile run the afternoon of Feb. 4 in a remote area of Horsetooth Mountain Open Space just west of Fort Collins, something told Kauffman to look back when he heard a crunch. When he did, he saw a mountain lion about 10 feet away getting ready to pounce.
The gangly, 5-foot-10 Fort Collins resident had moved to Colorado from a town in the southern Ozark Mountains of Arkansas five years ago for the outdoors. He picked up mountain biking, trail running and downhill and cross country skiing. At 31, being active made him “feel younger,” he said.
He had biked the West Ridge Trail, which is steep, technical and remote.
Just minutes before spotting the big cat, he had completed the tough first ascent. Then, “one of his worst fears was confirmed.”
“My heart sank into my stomach,” he said Thursday during a news conference in Fort Collins, the first time he had spoken publicly about surviving the attack.
Kauffman had read about what to do if he encountered a mountain lion, so he halted, threw his hands up in the air and yelled to intimidate the animal.
It showed no signs of backing down. The juvenile mountain lion, also known as a puma or cougar, which Kauffman estimated to be about 3 to 4 feet wide and 2½ feet tall, leapt at him and locked its teeth around his right wrist.
“It started to (move up to) my face and neck, and that’s when my fear response turned more into a fight response.” Kauffman said calmly, his blue Patagonia fleece dotted with teeth marks. “I realized how close it was getting to my eyes, and it got a claw into my lip.”
The cougar’s canines pierced his gloves and sank into the nerves in the meaty part of his palm.
He said “waves of electricity” shot through the fingers. The cougar gnashed its teeth back and forth, and Kauffman could hear his ligaments and tendons snapping.
It was the only sound he can remember; no growling, raspy purring or shrieking.
“I was surprised at the silence,” Kauffman said. “But I was looking down and seeing its claws retracting and coming out. It was really visually intense.”
With only one free hand, Kauffman wrestled with the mountain lion, which weighed between 20 pounds and 80 pounds.
He and the animal tumbled down the south side of the path, and Kauffman was able to get on top of the cat and pin down its back legs. It was a maneuver he had noticed prevented his pet cat from clawing him when they played at home.
“I think I’ve only been a ‘cat dad’ for about six months now,” he said, glancing at his girlfriend, Annie Bierbower, for confirmation. “Anytime I play with him, he gets on his back and his back legs go crazy and start scratching.
“I usually have on a long sleeve sweater to deflect the blows, but it was definitely a good thing to know in that situation.”
With two of the mountain lion’s legs immobilized, Kauffman searched for a stick to stab it in the neck, but they were all sodden from the recent snow and were disintegrating. He then grabbed a rock and smashed it twice against the lion’s skull. It continued thrashing and clawing.
At that moment, he thought he might not make it.
“I just had that wave of fear roll over me and thought I could just end up (dead) there and stay there,” he said.
In a swift motion, he swung his leg up to the cougar’s neck and pressed down until its movements subsided.
Mountain lions, which are native to Colorado, are solitary animals. But mothers often travel with their kittens, so even when the puma had unclenched its teeth and fallen unconscious, Kauffman feared his battle might not be over.
The towering rocks on the west side of the trail were perfect predator habitat, and given the smaller size of his assailant, a much larger mom could have been lurking nearby.
With blood dripping from a deep gash on his left cheek, a splattering of scratches on his nose and puncture wounds on his neck and legs, he ran for his life.
“I was on a crazy fear high. I don’t know what you’d call it,” said Kauffman with a shrug.
About 2 miles later, he bumped into another trail runner who kept Kauffman calm while they jogged toward the parking lot. They reached a couple who were hiking, who offered to drive Kauffman and his car to Poudre Valley Hospital.
There, he received 17 stitches in his left check, six on the bridge of his nose, three on his wrist and two on his jaw. The gash on his cheek was “intense to look at” before it was sealed, said Bierbower.
“But I was happy to see that he had his eyes and fingers and all of his parts,” said Bierbower, who rushed to the hospital.
“(The hospital) did a great job. The stitches are top-notch,” he said smiling, holding up his braced wrist.
After Kauffman was treated, he told his harrowing account of the ambush to Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers, who got the call from the hospital about 3 p.m.
What they later found on the trail and the necropsy confirmed Kauffman’s story — from the blunt force trauma on the mountain lion’s skull to the marks on its neck from his knee.
Wildlife officials weren’t able to get an exact weight because the carcass had been partially eaten by other carnivores by the time it was located.
Larimer County closed the trail for the next eight days while Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers combed the area for other mountain lions. They set up baited traps, installed game cameras and, eventually on Feb. 9 and 10, caught two juvenile cats, said Ty Petersburg, the area wildlife manager.
The lions were brought to a health lab and “were indeed hungry,” Petersburg said. Wildlife officials hope to release them back into the wild, though they have no timeline on doing so.
While the trail was closed the mystery of who had killed a cougar with their bare hands swirled on the internet. Some dubbed him the ‘King of the North,’ and women sent him marriage proposals.
But he had little interest in revealing his identity.
“It’s weird to feel famous for an unearned reason. Its very much a situation of happenstance, like the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “The hardest part is that I’ll never be able to live up the reputation. … The story is bigger than my puny form.”
Mountain lion attacks are exceedingly rare. Since 1890, there have been 25 documented fatal mountain lion attacks in North America, according to wideopenspaces.com. Two have been in Colorado: 18-year-old Scott Lancaster was killed while jogging on a hill near Clear Creek High School in Idaho Springs, and, in 1997, 10-year-old Mark Miedema was killed while hiking out ahead of his family in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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