- On February 4, Travis Kauffman was jogging in Horsetooth Mountain Park in Colorado when he was attacked by a mountain lion.
- Kauffman managed to kill the animal by jamming his foot into the lion’s neck, suffocating it, then hiked out to a nearby hospital.
- A final necropsy revealed that the mountain lion was only 3 or 4 months old and weighed 24 pounds.
- Human-mountain lion interactions are rare, but tend to occur when a lion is orphaned or gets pushed into the margins of its habitat by other adult males.
When 31-year-old Travis Kauffman went to Horseshoe Mountain Park for a run on February 4, he didn’t expect to fight for his life with a cougar.
Kauffman, who’s 5-foot-10 and weighs 150 pounds, said at a press conference with Colorado Parks and Wildlife that he heard pine needles rustling on the trail behind him.
“I stopped and turned,” he told KUNC radio, then realised that the sound had come from a mountain lion. The cat lunged, clamped its jaws on Kauffman’s wrist, and clawed at his face and neck, Kauffman said.
After struggling with the animal, Kauffman told KUNC, he was able to pin the mountain lion’s legs and get purchase on the cat’s throat.
“I got my right foot onto its neck,” he said. “And then I was able to get some weight onto its windpipe and that’s what eventually suffocated it.”
Wildlife officials recovered the animal’s corpse after the incident, though the body had been cannibalised by other mountain lions, according to the Denver Post.
Officials initially guessed that the mountain lion weighed about 35 to 40 pounds and was a year old. But now, a final necropsy has revealed that the cat was even younger and smaller than those early estimates.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife veterinarians identified the dead lion as a “kitten” that weighed 24 pounds and was about 3 to 4 months old, according to the Coloradoan.
That information gives credence to a possible explanation for why this encounter happened: The young mountain lion may have been orphaned or starving, or both.
Why a mountain lion might attack a human
Mountain lions are ambush hunters; they wait in rocky crevices or vegetation for prey to skitter by, then pounce. They’re known to hunt coyotes, raccoons, rodents, elk, feral hogs, and even porcupines. But human-mountain lion interactions are very rare. You are more likely to drown in your bathtub, be killed by a pet dog, or hit by lightning, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation.
“Lions hunt four-legged prey, and humans are not typically in their diet,” Mike Porrass from Colorado Parks and Wildlife told the Denver Post.
Getting enough to eat can be challenging for juvenile lions, though. Dominant males may kill young lions that enter their territories, so juveniles sometimes have to eke out a living in marginal habitats, according to the National Park Service. That can lead them to starve, perhaps getting hungry enough to risk a confrontation with humans.
Mountain lion attacks on livestock or pets usually involve a hungry juvenile that has been pushed into a marginal habitat.
“Evidence shows that the hungrier an animal is, not just a mountain lion but other animals too, the more likely it is to hunt in a suburban area,” Mark Elbroch, director of the puma program at Panthera, a wild-cat conservation organisation, told INSIDER.
Where was mum?
The primary factor that helps young mountain lions avoid conflict and starvation is the same as that of many other animals: a mother.
Mountain lions, like all big cats, have a learning period to develop the requisite skills for killing or subduing prey. The largest cats have the longest learning curve, Elbroch said – “that’s one of the reasons they stay with their mums the longest.”
According to the National Park Service, mountain lions become capable hunters at six months, but remain with their mother for another year after that, finally leaving at 18 months to fend for themselves. Cougars any younger than that are generally still being taught what is and isn’t cougar prey.
So this cat shouldn’t have been hunting alone.
“Regardless of whether it’s six months or a year old, it should be with mum,” Elbroch told INSIDER before the animal’s age was confirmed. That’s why his first question after news of the encounter emerged was, “was it with mum?”
During the fight, Kauffman said, he was waiting for other cats to burst through the trees and join in, but none came.
Wildlife officials set up cameras in the area where Kauffman and the kitten tussled, but they never saw a mother lion.
Instead, the cameras helped them notice two other young mountain lions lurking nearby.
An encounter with a bigger mountain lion could have been worse
Elbroch noted another instance in which a young mountain lion was observed to be fending for itself without a mother. That cat wound up significantly undersized by the time it was one year old.
“This lion was orphaned as a youngster and had a starvation period,” he said of that case. “It stunted her growth.”
The lion that attacked Kauffman may have faced a similar struggle, Elbroch said. A comparable hypothesis was also floated last year to explain why two bikers in Washington state were attacked by a mountain lion.
But in the case of the year-old undersized mountain lion, Elbroch noted, the cat never went near anything as big as a human.
“She only went for a porcupine, and it killed her,” he said.
If the Colorado attack had involved an older or larger mountain lion, Elbroch added, it would have been harder for Kauffman to fend it off because the animal would have been “a lot heavier and a heck of a lot stronger.”
But an adult would not have been any more skilled or efficient at attacking a human.
“No mountain lion has practice hunting people,” Elbroch said.
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