The first time the mountain lion pawed its way through the Idaho campsite Friday, the cat went unnoticed by everyone except for one woman. Kera Butt was camping with her family in Green Canyon Hot Springs, near Yellowstone National Park, when she caught a glimpse of the animal.
"As we were eating dinner, I turned my head and saw the back part of the cat," Butt told East Idaho News. "I saw it move and I told everyone, 'I just saw a cat.'"
Her family was skeptical. It must have been a different species of animal – perhaps she had mistaken a wolf for the larger predator, they said. Though mountain lions are native to the Yellowstone area, the cats are almost mythical in their ability to go unseen. They are stealthy hunters and usually shy around humans. Moreover, no more than a few dozen live in the 3,000-square-mile park at a time.
Butt's eyes did not deceive her. She had indeed spotted a mountain lion, an event the Idaho Department of Fish and Game called "highly unusual." Stranger still, the big cat would return later that night — in a brief moment that, to the Butt family, unfolded in horror.
By around 9 p.m. Friday night the family had dispersed throughout the campground after dinner. A few cousins went down to the creek to play. Butt had taken one of her daughters to use the bathroom in the forest, said Jim Sevy, a relative, in an interview with East Idaho News. Just beforehand, she put her daughter Kelsi, 4, in the tent to take a nap.
But Kelsi emerged soon after to join her cousins in the stream. "She got out of the tent because she couldn't find her shoe," Sevy, Kelsi's grandfather, said.
In that moment, the mountain lion struck. The adults in the family heard screaming – one of the 10-year-old cousins had witnessed the ambush. And as they ran toward the sounds, they saw the cat holding Kelsi in its mouth.
"The cat bit Kelsi on the side and tried to pick her up and drag her a little bit," Butt told East Idaho News. When the animal could no longer keep the child in its teeth, it attempted to grip her in its paws.
The Butts rallied to Kelsi's defense. They hollered at the animal until it gave up and fled as swiftly as it had come.
"The family began yelling at the cougar," said Gregg Losinski, a conservationist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, to the Rexburg Standard Journal, "and it dropped the girl and fled."
Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare. In one study of reported attacks in the U.S. between 1950 and 2009, researchers found 141 victims and 15 deaths, with reported attacks peaking in 1990. When mountain lions prey upon children, about one in four attacks are fatal, a group of Canadian scientists concluded in a 1998 survey of 50 attacks. Should a big cat attack, anecdotal evidence suggests fending it off with a rock or stick can be successful – though experts warn that bending over to pick up a weapon, or to lift a child, can expose vulnerable necks.
In Kelsi's case, the sound was enough fury. The animal disappeared after letting the child go relatively unharmed, considering the circumstances. "She is doing fine," Sevy told East Idaho News. "Her great-grandpa gave her a priesthood blessing and told her she will have stories to tell."
The girl was treated for scratch marks and puncture wounds on her arm, thigh and back, and was given a shot for rabies. Quick thinking and vigilance, the Fish and Game Department said in a press release, averted a tragedy. Butt was not immediately able to respond to a message from The Washington Post for comment.
As for the mountain lion, a young female cat was found nearby the camp early Saturday. Authorities recruited Mike Pimentel, a local hunter, to track the cat; his hounds treed a mountain lion around 2 a.m., according to the Fish and Game department. The lion was killed by Madison County Sheriff's Office deputies.
Through it all, Butt said she knew Kelsi was going to make it through the attack, as she told East Idaho News. "I just had this comfort that she was okay and I felt like angels were there protecting her," Butt said. And to show a mountain lion attack can't keep a preschooler down, Kelsi was firm in that she wanted go to church on Sunday to display her injuries to her friends.