Friday, May 18, 2007

Animals (sometimes) attack!

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep..." and, sometimes, extremely challenging. The vast majority of the time a venture into the wilderness is safe, save for those rare exceptions like the one recounted below. Thank goodness the boy's okay. I hope his family, and others who have read/will read this cautionary tale, learned something about preparing for wild-animal encounters, like carrying bear spray AND/or a firearm (notice the emphasis on and?).

Take care.
BOULDER - The Feldmans never heard the mountain lion before she struck. A wildlife official estimated the 83-pound cat tracked them for 45 minutes as they hiked near Artist's Point on Flagstaff Mountain.

This is the story of how then 7-year-old Shir Feldman survived a mountain lion attack, how his family fought to save him, and how the ordeal changed them all.

While rare, studies show that mountain lion attacks have increased in recent decades, likely due to habitat reduction, increased human recreation and human encroachment.

According to a report by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, since 2003 there have been seven fatal and 38 non-fatal attacks of humans by mountain lions in the United States and Canada. Sightings and interactions with mountain lions have increased on the Front Range and a DOW pilot plan for a long-term study of cougars has been proposed and is now being considered by the City of Boulder.

For their part, the Feldmans say they hold no grudges against mountain lions in general. They say they now look at the attack on their child as a gift of a deeper appreciation for life and told their story to 9NEWS in hopes it would help educate, and possibly inspire, others.

"You can't really plan everything," said Anat Feldman, Shir's mother. "When things come and they're not always such good surprises, you should always focus on what good it can teach you or how you can grow from it, become stronger from it and affect other people from it."

In April 2006 the Feldmans were visiting Boulder and their 19-year-old son, Tal, a student at the University of Colorado.

They were enjoying a hike on a clear spring afternoon and at about 5:30 p.m., the family began heading back to their car. Anat walked about 40 yards ahead with Tal and one of the twins, 7-year-old Gaul. The other twin, Shir, ambled behind holding the hand of his dad, Zur, and pausing from time to time to collect pine cones.

Even as he felt his son's hand push away from his, Zur Feldman said he was not alarmed – he thought Shir had stopped to inspect another potential treasure.

Then he heard Shir scream and Zur whirled around.

"It took me probably a few seconds to understand what I'm seeing," he recalled. "I saw Shir's head in the mountain lion's jaws."

In an instant, carrying his 46-pound son by the head in her mouth, the mountain lion was gone, running down the mountain.

Following the sound of his son's screams, 47-year-old Zur sprinted after the mountain lion. Born in Israel, he had served three years in the Israeli defense force before moving to the U.S., and had kept in shape, running five miles several times a week.

However, this animal was fast. Scrambling down the side of the rocky and heavily treed mountain, also screaming and roaring as he ran, Zur tripped and fell, losing sight of the lion and snatching up rocks in his hands as he leapt back on his feet.

Glimpsing her again, he says he does not remember when he threw the rocks, but he knows they did not reach the animal. He tripped a second time, again losing sight of the lion, and this time picked up handfuls of sticks before frantically resuming his run.

He would later recall that his thoughts were racing at what felt like a thousand miles a second. Memories of Shir's life, from the time he was a baby, flashed through his mind.

"I didn't care what happened to me," Zur said. "I really wanted him to be in my hands again."

Suddenly, Zur came upon the lion, who stood 20 feet in front of him. She had stopped running and was still holding Shir in her mouth. She dropped the now motionless boy on the forest floor and turned to face Feldman, who threw his sticks at the lion as he ran toward her.

"I remember her eyes, and she's posing, and he's on the leaves,' he said. "I thought, 'She's going to jump and attack me,' and I was ready to engage."

At that moment, Tal arrived. Crashing through the woods, waving his arms and screaming, the 19-year-old ran toward his father, brother and the lion.

The lion hesitated, Zur said, still looking at him. Then she turned and ran, leaving Shir, who was still.

"I thought Shir was gone," Zur said.

He ran to the boy and as he picked him up and saw his son covered in blood, he felt his emotions welling up, and he remembers struggling to stay in control.

Then he saw Shir's eyes, open and very much alive.

"His eyes said so much," Zur recalled.

Carrying Shir, Zur and Tal began running back up the mountain, with Zur talking to his son in both English and Hebrew.

"I asked him, 'Stay with me, Shir. Stay with me,'" he said, and Shir signaled with his eyes in response.

At they neared the top of the trail, Zur saw his wife, Anat, who had been waiting with Gaul, the other twin.

Anat says she never glimpsed the lion – it ran away with Shir before she realized it had struck – but she knew after hearing her husband and son Tal scream that the family was under attack.

"I anticipated, I don't know why, that it's a bear," Anat said. "I was thinking that we would probably be attacked next and then I will just – I will protect Gaul, and whatever it is. That vicious thing that has attacked us will have to finish me before it gets to Gaul."

Upon seeing her husband holding Shir, who was torn and bloody, Anat said she ran to take the boy. At first, Zur could not let go, but she finally convinced him to let her hold Shir so Zur could catch his breath.

The family then began to run back to their car in the parking lot, with Zur and Tal taking turns holding Shir while Anat called 911.

"Shir had a lot of open wounds," she recalled. "I remember I was begging them, I was screaming at them, I was just telling them … to please hurry up."

Gaul, Shir's twin, was silent on the race back to the car, the Feldmans recall. At one point, when his father dropped a water bottle, Gaul picked it up and then continued to run quietly beside his father.

After reaching the parking lot, they put Shir into their car while they waited for an ambulance. Paramedics then took Shir to Community Hospital in Boulder. He was then transferred to Children's Hospital in Denver, where surgeons worked for seven hours to repair his wounds.

Since it is policy that any mountain lion who injures a human is put down, the lion that attacked Shir was tracked and killed that night.

The lion's claws left deep punctures in Shir's stomach and thighs, yet none of them hit a vital organ or vein. His jaw was shattered, and his mouth was torn, as well as his scalp. In all, he received 180 stitches, and steel plates were inserted in his shattered jaw. His mouth was also wired shut.

Looking back, Shir's parents both marvel that his encounter with the mountain lion did not take his life. Not only was it remarkable that his neck was not broken, they say, but the fact the lion took him by the head prevented severe brain injuries as she dragged him over rocks for about 180 feet down the mountain – or half the length of a football field.

One cut his son received, Zur said, "Was a split of a hair from the main artery."

Within days, his jaws still wired shut, Shir returned to school. After the last surgery, when the steel plates were removed from his jaw, the family decided to take a two-week RV trip to major wilderness parks throughout the west – including Colorado.

"It was great to see how naturally the boys ran on the trails and climbed the rocks and had a lot of fun," Anat said. "That actually was the best gift – life goes on."

"Shir is great. He's back to his life, which is another miracle," said Anat.

The only visible reminders of the attack are a few fading scars on his face and neck.

"Obviously, it was Zur and Tal who did the right thing and saved Shir's life," Anat said, "but us working as a team was also an important lesson to the family."

While Shir was in the hospital, their 23-year-old daughter, Shai, flew home from college so the family would be together.

More than anything, Anat says she struggles to articulate to her husband her gratitude and admiration over his determination to save their son.

"I don't think I've expressed it enough," she said, "until now."

One irony, she says, is that the attack on Shir is the second potentially deadly encounter with a wild animal for one of the twins.

When he was nearly 2 years old, Gaul, now 8, was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake as he played in a school yard in Sacramento, Calif.

Gaul nearly died, yet now all he has to show from it is a scar that runs the length of his right arm.

"Animals don't like us," Gaul said with a laugh. "I love animals – these animals didn't like us for a reason. Maybe the mountain lion was hungry. Maybe I pulled the rattlesnake or touched it."

If they had one message to give others, Zur and Anat Feldman say, it would be: Never give up.

"This really emphasized that you never know what the outcome will be until you go through everything you have in you," Zur said. "I don't think there's a glory here. I think we all approached it as something that happened, and we need to make the best out of it, and we can really make it."

"It's a gift," he said, "to really go through this kind of experience and know that you can face it successfully."
(Copyright KUSA*TV. All rights reserved.)

No comments: