An elk hunter in the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington fended off an attack by a cougar while starting to field dress a dead elk this week.
Kirk Zehner, 33, of Walla Walla was bending over the carcass of an elk shot by a member of his hunting party, skinning knife in hand, when something hit him from behind, knocking him on to the carcass and driving his head into the ground. He instinctively struck at the attacker with his knife and heard a squeal. He attempted to get up but the animal pushed down on him again as it ran off. He saw only a grayish white blur leaving without another sound.
When Zehner's hunting partners arrived on the scene in off-road vehicles to haul the elk out, they found him shaking and drawn but uninjured. About half the length of his knife was covered in blood from his strike into the attacking animal. The backside of his sweatshirt was torn and bloody. Zehner helped field dress the elk with his knife, then cleaned it and his sweatshirt with water.
The incident occurred October 27 at about 7:30 a.m. in a brushy, steep ravine of the Lewis Peak area in northern Walla Walla County. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officers were notified of the attack October 29.
WDFW officer Mike Johnson of Walla Walla led an investigation of the incident and is convinced it was a cougar that attacked Zehner, based on the clothing tear marks and the strength and silence of the animal.
Although Johnson is not sure about the cat's motive, WDFW policy is to attempt to track and kill any cougar that attacks a human. A local hunter with cougar-tracking hounds was contacted, but scenting conditions were so bad two days after the incident that no immediate attempt was made to locate the animal. Zehner's stabbing of the animal could have fatally injured it, however, so hounds may be used to attempt to locate a carcass in the area to possibly learn more about the incident.
Cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare. In North America, fewer than 20 fatalities and 75 non-fatal attacks have been reported during the past 100 years. However, more cougar attacks have been reported in the western United States and Canada over the past 20 years than in the previous 80. In Washington, there have been nine recorded attacks by cougars on humans over the past 80 years, (including one fatality in 1924), and five of those attacks have occurred during the 1990's.