Five Against the Wild: A Gripping Tale of Courage and Survival in Cougar Territory

*Warning: This story contains profanity, descriptions, and photos of a graphic nature. The photos have been concealed in a slideshow. Do not flip through the slideshow if you do not want to see the photos*

Do you have a friend for whom you would do anything? I do; two that I’ve known for 45 years come to mind. I was reluctant to say that in the past because it gave away my age.

That all changed when I met four women (and heard lots about the fifth), over 50, who give a whole new meaning to the term ‘Ride or Die’ in the most extraordinary way.

Almost everyone has seen the story of what happened in the Campbell Global Forest northeast of Fall City:

On Saturday, Feb. 17 at 12:48 p.m., Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Officers received a report of a human-cougar incident with documented injuries on a trail northeast of Fall City, Washington in King County.~Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW)

Much has been written and reported about Keri Bergere, 60, and her fellow bicyclists: Annie Bilotta, 64, Aune Tietz, 59, Erica Wolf, 51, and Tisch Williams, 59, but I wanted to learn more. So, this past weekend, fellow wildlife enthusiast Susan Burk and I ventured up to Kenmore to talk to part of this courageous quintet.

When we arrived, Bergere and Bilotta were seated and waiting in a local coffee shop. Aside from Bergere’s still obvious injuries, my first impression was that they were fit, youthful and SMALL. How in the world did these women survive this ordeal? After some greetings and background questions, we got right into their story.

The group of five friends left William’s North Bend home at 9:58 am on Saturday, February 17th and entered Campbell Global property around 11:30 pm at Gate 4. All have permits to be on the property and ride there regularly, and they love gravel cycling. [1] Gravel cycling can mean anything from rough pavement and rock chunks to sandy dirt and single-track trails.

The day had been windy, and they considered canceling because of concerns about branches blowing, but the wind stopped, and it was an overcast but nice day, said Bilotta. Erica Wolf, Tisch Williams, and Keri Bergere were riding in front of the group, with Bergere in the back. Aune Tietz and Annie Bilotta were riding 200 feet behind.

Around two hours into the ride at 12:11 pm,[2] Bilotta said, “The cougars came out from the right side of the road. They just came running out between the two groups of us, and one cougar loped across the road, went up this embankment and seemed to disappear. It looked like the other one was going to do the same thing. But kind of mid-leap, he changed his mind, went into this turn, grabbed Keri’s (Bergere) shoulders or head, and pulled her down.”

Bilotta said Tietz’s first thought was, ‘Oh, cute bobcats.’ Then she saw their tails and thought they were cougars. Bilotta thought they were coyotes. Both women realized they were cougars about the same, and Bilotta started to say ‘cougars.’ She didn’t even get the word out before it had Bergere said Bilotta, “When we count down how long it was when we saw them to when they got Keri, we estimate 3 seconds.”

Despite reports to the contrary, they were not stalked and had not seen the cats earlier. it wasn’t a face-off; it was a total random chance collision. They say it was as if the animal saw the moving bike and thought, ‘Oh, wait, there’s prey. Let me do this instead.’

I asked Bilotta about the cat’s size relative to each other and if she could compare them to something we could relate to. She compared the cat to a German Shepherd and said, “They seemed the same size (the cats). We just talked to Fish & Wildlife, and they said it could have been a mother and a son because the female cats aren’t that much bigger than he was, but in the split seconds we saw them, they both seemed to be about the same size.”  Since the cats came out right behind Bergere, she didn’t see them before the attack.

They had 3 seconds to react.

Bilotta and Tietz started screaming and rushed over: NO! They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The cougar was not going off into the woods; it was taking their friend. No, no, no, no!

Bilotta said, “I went over immediately with my bike, thinking I would whack it. I got there, threw my bike down, and the first thing I did was try to choke it. It was on her face. I just went to its neck and tried to choke it. Aune (Tietz) started trying to pull his tail and back legs to get them off Keri (Bergere) and separate his body from hers.”

Erica Wolf and Tisch Williams heard the commotion and ran to help. At some point, Tietz picked up a melon-sized rock and repeatedly bounced it off the cougar’s head with no visible effect.

The women’s only weapon was a mini-Leatherman with a 2” saw blade. Williams, who had joined us in the coffee shop, said, “I’m in medicine, so I was trying to get in between the ribcage and the intercostals; that’s what I was trying to do.”  Unfortunately, the cat’s hair was too thick, and the tool was too small to stop the attack.

Bilotta said during the fight, she kept thinking, “I can’t believe we’re actually out here battling a wild animal.” At the same time, they were all worried about the second cougar. Where was it? Would it come back? What would they do if it did?

Ten minutes into the ordeal, Bergere felt the cat clamp down even harder, and at this point, the woman said she let out a high-pitched squeal of pain. She said, pointing at her injured face, “There was a hole here and a hole down here. It was a vice-like grip for ten minutes, and then after ten minutes, it didn’t like release and came back down; it just went further, and that’s when I felt everything breaking.”

After the cougar had Bergere down for at least fifteen minutes, she managed to scramble away when the cat’s grip loosened slightly. Unfortunately for the others, the battle continued. They tried to call 911 but didn’t have a signal. Eventually, they triggered an SOS on a Garmin In Reach Mini but weren’t aware they needed to respond on the phone app to the reason for the SOS.

Bilotta’s wife was called and didn’t answer, not recognizing the number. Her son answered when he was called and contacted her wife, and they were able to let them know they were bike riding in a group. Someone else got a cell signal, called 911, and provided the exact coordinates from Garmin.

Approximately 35 minutes into the fight, two other members of their Recycled Cycle team, Daniel Perry and Alisse Cassell, happened upon them and helped to hold the cougar down. The women, including Erica Wolf (who had joined us in the coffee shop and excluded Aune Tietz, who couldn’t join us), say their help was invaluable.

At 12:48 pm that day, 37 minutes after their fight started, the WDFW received the 911 report of the incident. Within minutes, Officer Chris Moszeter, a WDFW enforcement officer for the area who happened to be nearby, arrived.

Shortly after he arrived, the cougar, later to be determined to be a 75-pound 9 to 12-month-old cougar, was shot between the shoulder blades still under the Wolf’s bike. Even though the women had fought hard to win this battle, they were heartbroken to see it happen.  

Tisch said the first thing she thought of during Bergere’s attack was a story she was told about the 2018 attack cougar in which the person who ran was killed. She said, “I wanted to run, but we couldn’t. I wanted to save her.”

Paramedics transported Bergere to Harborview Hospital (she refused the expensive helicopter ride) and underwent surgery. Her left ear was mutilated where the cougar gripped her head with its paw while biting the other side of her head. The doctors have since repaired that damage and did an amazing job. Luckily, she had goggles on, so her eyes were spared.

Bergere sustained serious injuries with nerve damage to her face and now has metal plates in her jaw, cheek, and temple. It’s unknown how extensive the nerve damage is in the long term, so it’s a waiting game to see how long healing will take. She said of everyone who cared for her, from doctors to nurses to the cleaning staff, “They are the best human beings I’ve met in my life.”

She hopes one day she can look as good as Izzy, who survived in 2018.

The four other women were battered and bruised. Tietz had a sprained thumb, Bilotta had a deep scratch on her hand that she believed was from a cougar claw, Wolf had a hole in the sole of her shoe and sock with an injury to her foot, presumed to be from a cougar claw. Not one to waste a good pair of shoes, so she filled the hole with gorilla glue and wore them during our interview.

Wolf’s bike was used to hold the cougar down. The 17lb carbon fiber Specialized bike was purchased just months prior for $6k.  Unfortunately, the bike was destroyed. Specialized replaced the bike at no charge, and Northwest Bicycle in Maple Valley assembled it at no charge. The bike has now been named BB for Badass Bitches.

Erica Wolf with her new Specialized bike

They are already biking on trails again. As she has not been medically cleared to do so, Bergere can’t yet but can’t wait to get out. She asks her doctor every week, “Can I go now?!” When asked about the GoFundMe, at this writing, almost $80,000, all the overwhelmed Bergere could say is, “I’m so grateful for everyone.”

All the ladies now carry bear spray and a knife on every ride. WDFW has offered to teach their team how to deploy bear spray properly. They are also learning how to use the Garmin inReach Mini units that some team members carry. They will also stay close together when they ride. They have each other’s emergency contacts on their phones. They aren’t sure if they’ll ever bike in that area again.

They had no memory of any sounds from Bergere when the cat took her down or from the cat ever. This fact has convinced them to never ride out of sight of each other again. Said Bergere“We won’t be doing that anymore.”

To learn more about cougar behavior and the possible motivations behind the attack, Living Snoqualmie contacted Dr. Mark Elbroch, the Director of Panthera’s Puma Program, for which he designs science-based conservation strategies for cougars.

Mark earned his doctoral degree in Ecology at the University of California-Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Chilean Patagonia. He has thus far contributed to mountain lion research and conservation in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Mexico, and Chile. His book, the Cougar Conundrum, can be found on Amazon.

Dr. Elbroch stated that based on his research in Washington State, a 75-pound male cat would be approximately ten months old and classified as a kitten. Cougars generally stay with their mothers until 20 months of age but to 14 to 15 months in Washington State. Cats less than a year old without a mother don’t tend to survive.

I asked if he could surmise if the other cat were a sibling or mother based on the women’s report that their size was similar. He said no but that a mother cat would have been noticeably larger. Since their glimpse of both cats was so brief, he couldn’t rule out either option. He said the mother or a sibling would have fled at the first sign of danger.

When asked why the cat attacked Bergere when it looked like it would cross the road like the other cat, he said cougars are highly sensitive to movement and react to things moving quickly or unexpectedly. It could be as simple as something about Keri catching the cat’s attention, and it decided at that moment to attack.

Since the cat was so young, it would be more risk-accepting than an older cat. It should have been nervous being on the road in the daytime. It should have been uncomfortable around humans, but because of its age, it had less life experience and wasn’t.

As for why the attack went on for so long, Elbroch said domestic cats and their wild counterparts exhibit focal lock when stalking their prey. Their gaze narrows, allowing them to focus on a specific point. The cats use this intense concentration to calculate their attack trajectory. When they are in attack mode, you cannot stop fighting until you break that lock. He thinks a shot of bear spray directly into the cat’s eye would have helped break that intensity.

Even though Dr. Elbroch supports the lethal removal of this cat, he said there is no evidence to support the idea that this attack meant this cat would have started hunting humans.

Elbroch pointed out that hunting may increase conflict. Since the average age of lethally removed cats has decreased, there is evidence that if an age dynamic is changed in a population of cats, you create more conflict. Therefore, more hunting may equal more conflict.

He said that while we know that if a cat population is reduced by 16%, there will be fewer cats, we don’t know the threshold for creating a population of younger cats. Evidence suggests we might be changing the age structure of our population, and younger cougars = more trouble. Elbroch says more studies are needed to know what’s happening.  

Dr. Elbroch’s insights underline the complexity of human-wildlife interactions and the importance of understanding animal behavior to prevent future conflicts. While the lethal removal of the cougar was deemed necessary, it also opens a conversation on managing wildlife populations and the consequences of altering their natural dynamics.

This harrowing encounter in the Snoqualmie Valley tells a story of survival and courage and poignantly reminds us of our shared environment with nature’s predators. As the five women heal from their physical and emotional scars, their story continues to resonate, prompting further research and dialogue on coexisting with our planet’s wild inhabitants.

[Featured image from L to R: Tisch Williams, Annie Billota, WDFW Sgt Carlos Pace, Aune Tietz, Keri Bergere, Erica Wolf ]

*This post has been updated to add clarity to names in quotes


[1] It has been rumored they were not permitted to be in the area and operating e-bikes. This is untrue.

[2] All times were verified by Living Snoqualmie by reviewing GPS and phone call logs.

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Comments

  • Excellent reporting, Melissa!

    It is good to hear the first-hand reports of these courageous and resourceful women. Thankfully, they all survived the attack. Although a kitten, 75-pounds of cat is a formidable and well-equipped opponent. While attacks are rare, they can be devastating to a victim.

    Thank you for bring Dr. Elbroch’s comments into the discussion. Elbroch’s research and videos have greatly increased our knowledge of the fourth largest cat species. I might note that he is a prolific author as well as researcher, and has written many books on tracking, multiple field guides, and an encyclopedia on animal skulls.

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