[Article by contributing writer, Melissa Grant]
The necropsy results are in for the cougar involved in the fatal Mountain biker attack on May 19, 2018. Says Dr. Kristin Mansfield, a veterinarian with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the necropsy found the cougar was “lean but its weight and body condition fall within the normal range for a cougar of its age.” Nothing was found that would explain the attack and there was no evidence of disease that would put humans at risk.
The May attack left 31-year-old Seattle resident Issac Sederbaum injured and 32-year-old SJ Brooks dead. At the time wildlife officials said the cougar was underweight for a three-year-old male but the new report disagrees with that first assessment. Even though officials are confident that the correct animal was killed, DNA testing is underway to confirm.
So, what happened? Watching the story unfold on social media that day, it seemed everyone wanted answers. What was wrong with the cougar? Why were those people attacked? Why did he come back after the initial attack? Why did the cougar have to be killed when he was just doing what a cougar does? We have an answer to the first inquiry: nothing was wrong with the cougar, but rather than help answer the unknowns, it just adds more mystery to the story in the eyes of many.
Wildlife biologist Daryl Ratajczak specializes in teaching people about cougars and bears. Shortly after the attack he wrote:
“In many tragic incidents in which a human fatality occurs, we can begin to piece together clues as to “what” happened. That’s not so difficult and it is what forensic science is all about. “Why” it occurred… well, that’s not as easy of a question to answer.”
He continued to say that every once in a while there is no good reason to explain “why” other than that’s just the way it happens sometimes.
The two bikers did everything they were supposed to in the face of a wild animal attack – they stood their ground, put an object between themselves and the animal, and tried to scare it off. And it worked for a time, until it didn’t.
People asked -was it diseased? Was it under weight? Was it protecting its territory? Says Daryl: it could be all of those things or it could be none of those things. The fact of the matter is there are countless cats that are diseased or underweight that do not attack humans. We are also in their territory 24-7. Always have been, always will be.
Not knowing the why is uncomfortable for us. We’d like to know the victims did something wrong. That way we can convince ourselves that we can go biking and hiking and it won’t happen to us. Daryl teaches very good webinars about animal behavior and how to act in similar situations but says:
“We always couch our advice with “In most situations” because that is what happens in most situations, but unfortunately not all. I tell everyone what we believe is the best response one should take based on countless case studies and observations. But the truth is people have absolutely no idea how their body and mind will react in a pressure situation. You also have no idea with any certainty how the animal will react in that situation either situation. You also have no idea with any certainty how the animal will react in that situation either.”
Wow that’s a pretty uncomfortable reality. Daryl himself has faced a charging bear and says it’s over in an instant leaving you to think and rethink your response. The takeaway is to be as prepared as you can, but nothing in life is for sure.
Much conversation left people asking why the cougar had to be killed when it was just doing what cougars do in the wild. Consider the tale of the Yellowstone Grizzly sow in 2011. A hiker named Brain Matayoshi was killed when he and his wife ran from the mother and her cubs. Their flight incited her to charge, attack and kill him in front of his wife. The bear was spared because she was merely acting as a mother with cub’s acts.
Unfortunately, two months later a hiker named John Wallace was also killed and DNA evidence showed that the same mother and at least one of her cubs was present. The official responsible for allowing the bear to live faced enormous public criticism .
Ratajczak, a former Chief of Wildlife for the state of Tennessee, recounts a previous bear attack training conference he hosted for state and federal wildlife agencies. He said when you talk to wildlife officers who were on scene of bear attack – especially when it involves children – and they sometimes still break down recounting the event a decade later, you kind of lose sympathy for the bear.
He said, “It is difficult to because you dedicate your career to wildlife, but in these situations it hammers home the preciousness of human life.”