The cougar came out of the rain forest unseen, silently trailing Sandy as she walked to the greenhouse near her wilderness cabin on Flores Island, in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound.
The young male animal had stalked her before. But this September day, driven by hunger, it was determined to kill and eat her.
The cougar attack injured Sandy. Her partner, Rick, saved her with a spear, and the very private couple was suddenly thrust into the news. Six weeks later, they agreed to tell their story for the first time.
The couple have lived in the wilderness north of Tofino, homesteading on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, for more than 30 years. They were part of a back-to-the-land movement that swept across B.C. in the 1970s. They stuck with it, building a home from salvaged beach logs and surrounding it with gardens. In their early 60s now, they treasure their solitude. They agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail on condition their surname was not published. But Rick and Sandy wanted to thank all those who have helped them, and to plead with the public not to hate cougars.
“I don’t like the thought that people think [if] they see a cougar, it’s going to kill them. Because it’s not true,” she said. “That was one cougar … just a bad ass … I forgave him.”
On the evening of the attack, she was making dinner on the wood stove. Across a clearing on the other side of a creek, Rick was cutting shake blocks. He glanced up to check on Sandy because she had been on edge all day, saw her watering flowers outside the cabin door and turned back to his work. The chain saw blotted out all other sound.
Sandy had been “face to face” with the cougar three times over the summer. It walked away once when she fired a bear banger, and again when a group of people yelled. The third time, the 18-month-old, 40-kilogram cat found her alone in the garden.
“His whole body was tense with muscles. … His ears went back and he started hissing and then both his paws were batting into the air at me,” Sandy said.
She slashed him with a machete. “Yeah, I made the mark of Zorro,” she said with a laugh.
B.C. Conservation officers came to the island with tracking dogs, but failed to find the cougar.
Sandy tried not to worry, but sometimes sensed the cat there, watching.
“That day that he got me, I felt really uneasy,” she said. “I was uncomfortable with turning my back to the forest.”
Rick said he tried to reassure her, because they had not seen the animal and no prints were on the beach.
Sandy hooked a canister of bear spray on her belt before leaving the cabin. It was 6 p.m.
Reading the tracks later, Rick said, the cougar came out of the trees, followed Sandy down the path, then lay in wait.
“I was coming back … and I just happened to look down,” Sandy said. “I think me looking down saved my life because he would have got me in the face and I would have fallen on my back and he would have ripped my neck open. … He did a flying leap and all I saw before his teeth got into my skull was his face for a second. … And when he took a bite it sounded like he was crunching my skull because the noise was so intense. … It really felt like all my bones were breaking.”
Knocked to the ground, Sandy was in shock, unable to scream. She could not find the bear spray.
“For a second I kind of thought, maybe I’ll just give him my neck and just get it over with because … I was just really damaged so bad I didn’t really want to live. Then I thought about Rick. If Rick came and the cougar killed me, then it could kill Rick.”
So, Sandy fought back. She jammed her right hand into the cougar’s mouth and it crushed her fingers. She struggled to get free and it clawed and bit at her head, ripping out chunks of scalp. It tore her left bicep partly off. Its claws punched holes in her back and shoulders. Then the cougar began dragging her into the bush.
“I dug my hands into the earth,” she said. “He was breathing really heavy in my ears … and then that’s when I could scream.”
Rick had just turned off the saw and heard a “blood curdling” sound.
He knew the cougar had got her. “I just screamed as loud as I could scream her name.” Then he was running, grabbing a boar spear he had bought weeks earlier.
“The intensity of that thing’s eyes were unbelievable,” said Rick, who drove the spear into its shoulder. “All I felt was this thing totally wriggling, wriggling under the spear while I was looking down at Sandy. … I pulled it out … and he was gone.”
Conservation Officers found the animal dead nearby. They believe it is the first cougar killed with a spear in history. A necropsy showed it was healthy, but hungry, with only the remains of a squirrel in its stomach.
Sandy can’t use her right hand; her badly torn scalp is healing, but she worries her hair will not grow back. Repeated visits to Victoria for skin grafts continue.
Rick, who goes away for months to work in reforestation, is worried about leaving Sandy alone.
Sandy is determined to put it behind her. “I gotta deal with it,” she said. “You know, one bad cougar – I can’t let it change how I feel about living there.”