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A four-year-old girl recovering from a vicious cougar attack on Vancouver Island was saved by her mother, who knocked the animal in the head with a cooler, chasing it back to the woods.

Hayley Bazille suffered serious wounds to her head and neck when the animal pounced on her as she walked along a wooded path to a swimming hole on Wednesday afternoon near a remote campsite on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Conservation officials praised Monique Bazille's aggressive response, saying the mother saved her daughter's life by fighting the powerful predator.

"Cougars when they attack, it's for a predatory reason," B.C. conservation officer Peter Pauwels said. "It's not like a bear, which could be trying to scare you. So you have to fight back, and if it's a young child, somebody has to step up and try to rescue her"

Hayley's grandfather told a local television station that the cougar pounced on the little girl and she fell with her head between some rocks. The cougar was trying to pull the child out when her mother tackled it, he said.

Ms. Bazille released a statement urging people to be careful with their children.

"Her mother wants to help prevent this from happening to any other children and reminds parents to be aware and keep young children close by your side in remote or rural areas, even if there are other people around," said the statement issued by the B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver, where the child was being treated.

Mr. Pauwels said the youngster was wearing a life jacket that protected her neck and that might have been another factor that saved her life. Still, the cougar inflicted serious head and scalp wounds.

"There was a fair amount of bleeding, but no arteries were hit, fortunately," Mr. Pauwels said.

Yesterday, Hayley was in stable condition at B.C. Children's Hospital after surgery. She was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Campbell River on Vancouver Island, then flown again to Vancouver with her mother at her side.

A hospital spokesman said yesterday that the girl was alert and awake and ate Froot Loops for breakfast.

The attack occurred in the heart of British Columbia's cougar country near the remote Fair Harbour campsite about 30 kilometres west of the tiny village of Zeballos on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The only phone is at the area marina.

Hayley's family had driven to the popular swimming area on the Kaouk River. Three family members, including the mother, the girl and her older sister were walking single file down a path from the parking lot to the riverbank.

The cougar, which had been spotted at the river earlier in the day, was in the bushes when it lunged at the youngest girl. The mother, who was following behind, did not see the attack, but sensed something was wrong when she heard dogs at the beach barking.

"She ran up and the attack was in progress," Mr. Pauwels said. "She hit it with a cooler. She just came up and that's what she had in her hand and she hit it. And he let go."

Conservation and police officers, accompanied by three dogs, searched the area Wednesday and yesterday for the animal, which they believe is a young male.

On Wednesday before the attack, there was a report that the cougar came out of the bush at the swimming area and grabbed a towel.

Earlier this year, a cougar attacked a German tourist near Port Alice on Vancouver Island, although her injuries were far less severe.

Cougars prey on deer and elk and rarely approach humans, Mr. Pauwels said. It's likely the cougar was young and an inexperienced hunter. "They get turned loose at 18 months from their mothers, [and]they have to fend for themselves. If they see people, they will go for the easiest target.

"Fortunately in this case, the mother was close enough that she was able to save the child's life. If she had have been further away, the story might have had a different ending," Mr. Pauwels said.

In the past five years, cougars have attacked eight people in British Columbia, two of whom were children.