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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougar attacks child in Leavenworth; boy’s dogs drive big cat off

A photo of the cougar that attacked a child in Leavenworth, Wash. Saturday. (Courtesy)

A cougar attacked a child Saturday evening in a city park in Leavenworth, Wash.

The big cat was spotted Saturday afternoon in Enchantment Park, and was acting abnormally, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife statement. Officials searched the park for the cougar, but were unable to find it. The city then closed the park. WDFW intended to search with dogs Sunday morning.

However, around dusk on Saturday the cougar attacked a young boy. The boy’s two dogs fought the cougar, eventually running the big cat off. The boy suffered only minor injuries.

“The cougar came out and did attack the child,” said WDFW Capt. Michael Jewell. “They had some dogs with them that they turned loose. The dogs intervened and were able to successfully chase the cougar away.”

WDFW officers searched the park again, eventually finding and killing the cougar Sunday at 1:30 a.m.

The cougar was a young adult male and did not appear to be unhealthy, according to WDFW biologists who visually examined the animal. WDFW will conduct further testing.

Enchantment Park is in the heart of downtown Leavenworth, near the Wenatchee River. The park has a playground, play fields and hiking trails. Wildlife are not an uncommon sight, according to the city of Leavenworth’s website.

“It’s a really popular park,” Jewell said. “Not necessarily easy to control access in and out of it. And who could have predicted something like this?”

Last year there were several high-profile cougar attacks in Washington and nationwide. On May 19, 2018, a cougar attacked two mountain bikers near Seattle, eventually killing one of them. In February a runner in Colorado killed a cougar with his bare hands after being attacked on a trail.

Cougar attacks are rare and fatalities even more uncommon. Prior to last year’s fatal attack, the last cougar-related fatality in Washington was in 1924, when a cougar ambushed a teenage boy near his home in Olema, Okanogan County.

In addition to the high-profile attacks, there have been numerous sightings and close calls throughout Washington and Idaho.

Biologists and wildlife managers disagree on why there have been more attacks. Some believe increased attacks indicate a growing cougar population. Others say that’s not necessarily the case.

According to one WDFW study, the rate at which cougars enter and inhabit human areas remains relatively steady, regardless of the overall cougar population. That finding comes from a study in western Washington, near Snoqualmie.

Between 2004 and 2008, about 50 percent of the adult females studied in an area survived. That number indicates a declining population. During that same time, the average cougar was in residential areas 16 percent of the time. Compare that with 2013-17, when 90 percent of female cougars survived in the same study area. The ratio of residential use stayed steady, at 16 percent.

Instead, some biologists believe the increased number of sightings and encounters has to do with an expanding human footprint and the fact that there have been numerous high-profile cougar attacks. Those attacks raise awareness, which leads to increased sightings. This is a cognitive phenomenon known as the frequency illusion or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Not all researchers agree with this analysis; some maintain that the cougar population is growing.

Cougars are notoriously hard to study, but improving technology is helping scientists gain a better understanding of the elusive cats. For instance, recent research indicates that cougars are more social than previously believed, although the findings have been questioned by some biologists.

Cougars were hunted for decades, leading to their near-extinction in North America. But since the 1970s, they have made a slow comeback with stricter hunting regulations and tighter management. In 1996, Washington outlawed hound hunting.

In January, concerns about cougars took center stage at a WDFW Commission meeting in Spokane. Residents of northeast Washington in particular raised concerns about what they believe to be a growing cougar population.

Experts recommend carrying bear spray when recreating in cougar country.