It's a funny mood around Peggy Templer's house in the northern California woods, a mixture of dread, relief and fear. Shock waves are still in the air. Lions'll do that to you, this lion in particular.
Up early, it was around quarter to six when Peggy let her puppy, Touchdown (“I'm a huge football fan”), out into the meadow on the north side of her house. On the other sides, her house and the chicken coops are shaded by redwood trees and wrapped around by forest, but there's that open sunny field. The dog bounded out to take care of business and hung a left out of sight. Then Peggy heard him scream.
Mountain lions don't usually growl, but this one did, a mean, low note, not even slightly in harmony with Touchdown's scream. Peggy heard him. The pup is her new Springer Spaniel, black and white, long, soft fur, floppy ears, four months old, twenty-seven and a half pounds, normally bouncing off the walls with puppy joy. He screamed bloody murder when the lion grabbed him, out of her view, and put up a furious fight, banging against the porch, knocking loose a couple of bricks, but it was only seconds before he went silent.
All the animals were in terror. Peggy has three cats and, with Touchdown, two dogs. She gets pets from the animal shelter. Old Ladybug is a mutt, but Peggy had a Springer Spaniel she loved deeply that got old and died this past April. She thought hard about getting another and decided she wanted a papered, pedigreed, purebred spaniel, and she got glowing references for Vanity Fair Springers, in Oregon. Her son Travis lives in Oregon and brought Touchdown from Vanity's Larry Schwartz, a dog-man whose reputation is tip-top.
“It was love at first sight. He and I bonded completely, and the other animals took to him immediately. Ladybug was his new mother.” Game, set, match—a perfect match-up—new pup, new home. Until this.
Cougars are nocturnal. They're seen in daylight, but nighttime is their time, and they are especially active at both ends of it, dusk and dawn. This big cat was out of sight around the corner of the house under the redwoods. Peggy rounded the corner as if on two wheels. A great, tawny beast was moving fast through the shadows, heading back to the woods. It held Touchdown in its jaws, clamped onto the puppy's head, the dog limp now and silent. The lion was so tall, so strong, it held the two-thirds-grown dog in its mouth without any part of Touchdown touching down.
“I didn't know I could scream that loud.”
The lion found its entry to the woods and vanished.
“I watched its butt disappear.”
Peggy is divorced. She lives alone in this house she's been in for forty years. A short way uphill, her son Carson has moved into a new house with his family. They're all used to wild animals.
“We see mountain lions, black bears, bobcats—there's nothing but woods from here down to the Noyo River. It's a wildlife corridor. We've even seen coyotes. They're white. We haven't heard them howling yet, but we've seen them. I never saw this lion before. He's bigger than any I've ever seen.”
Your typical mountain lion is comparable in size to an adult human, but the biggest can grow to two hundred thirty pounds. This was a big one, maybe visiting from Canada. (Not really, but they do grow bigger as you go north.) They have the biggest range of any land animal in the western hemisphere; they live from north of the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America, solitary beasts except when the males find their mates and when the females have young. They are “stealth predators.” They like to take their prey from behind, using surprise, speed and formidable strength to kill. Their staple food is venison, but they eat raccoons and wood rats. Near major estuaries like Mendocino County's Noyo River, they eat seals and sea lions. They enjoy a varied, all-meat diet, including domestic cats, the occasional dog and the rare (but increasing in number) human. If you see one, look it in the eye and make a huge commotion. Don't cringe, run or hold still. That's what the experts say. Cougars are very respectful of people who threaten them.
Thirty-five minutes later, that mountain lion strolled into Peggy's yard again, sauntered casually by and vanished back into the woods.
Peggy went into the woods, barehanded, after this animal, more full of grief than fear. Also tramping and calling, visiting son Travis and his wife, Rachel. Peggy continued after the others gave up.
“I was scared a little, but I had to search. I had to find something of him. I hoped I'd at least find his purple collar.”
But no. Not a trace.
The next day a lady friend called on Peggy, finding her haggard and still shaken. She came to console her.
At one in the afternoon31 hours after he was caught, killed and eaten by an outsized mountain lion, Touchdown...crept...into...his...yard.
At least that was the initial, irrational impression of his mistress. Touchdown wobbled, bloody and blind, but he came on. Her friend saw Peggy's face before she saw Peggy's dog.
“I've never seen anybody look like that. She was in some kind of altered state.”
Peggy: “It did not compute!” When she recovered her balance, she recontacted the people she had passed her doleful news to. “The commonest reaction was 'No way!'”
Dr. Colin Chaves (pronounced to rhyme with “saves” or “waves”), who treated the punctured dog with the swollen, pumpkin-size head, eyes swollen blind and a bite on his back: “Bizarre! I've heard of any number of attacks like that, but usually the victims are dead. I would have doubted the facts in this case, but Peggy's whole family was witness to what happened.” He said the prognosis is good, but with head wounds you have to be watchful.
On her porch, reliving the events of the past few days—the initial attack was Sunday, July 5—Peggy still shakes her head in disbelief. Meanwhile, granddaughter Leila, age five, who lives what now seems a treacherous hundred yards away, is standing on the ground with just her upper body above the deck level. She is climbing onto the deck. Touchdown, his eyesight still diminished, sees the movement and hears it. He reacts. Peggy says, “I've never heard him do that.” It is a growl, a mean, low sound, sustained until he knows that thing over there is Leila. It is not the sound of a wee pup, not at all.