Mystery attacker wasn't a cougar, officials say

BROOKINGS — When Bruce Wales stepped out of his pickup Aug. 12 and into the attack zone of some wild animal east of Brookings, he might have stepped right into Oregon wildlife history.

Then again, he probably didn't.

Wales believes he may have been attacked by a cougar, which, if verified, would make him the first such victim in state history.

Wildlife officials can't confirm the cause of his injuries, however, so one of Oregon's weirdest backwoods records remains intact, though why is anybody's guess.

Wales is a 49-year-old Brookings school teacher. He was bitten and scratched on his legs during a quick, confusing and confounding confrontation with an unidentified animal in the woods.

Wales believes a small cougar tore him up. The trouble is, the bite and scratch marks don't match the teeth and claws of any size cougar — or any other predator considered large enough to warrant fear from humans.

Something certainly bit Wales, but it's no cougar, state biologists say.

"With the wounds we saw and the measurements we took, we can't get a cougar jaw or a bear jaw to match those marks," says wildlife biologist Mark Vargas of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who has helped investigate the case. "We can't even get it to fit a bobcat."

The animal is more likely to have been a grey fox or a feral cat, he says.

"We know he got bit by something, and we can't in good faith put it at a cougar," Vargas says. "But he believes it was a small one."

So Wales' experience gets filed under the "unfounded" category, keeping alive Oregon's

seemingly inexplicable string of more than a century without a verified injury or fatal attack on a human by a cougar.

As strange as it sounds, a state purported by Vargas and others to sport some of the highest densities of these apex predators still does not have a single confirmed case in which someone has had as much as a fingernail bitten off by a cougar. Ever.

Of the at least 97 injuries and 21 deaths attributed by various researchers to cougars in North America since 1890, only one of those reports comes from Oregon.

Ten-year-old Randy Brewer in 1972 likely suffered bite and scratch marks on his neck from a cougar while walking on a forest road near Cheshire, but that one was never verified.

A small cougar was killed in the area a week later, leaving Brewer's case classified only as "probable."

A handful of hunters over the years have said they were stalked by cougars and they all expressed belief that they would have been attacked had they not shot first.

But why other Western states have fatal cougar stories while Oregon sits here literally unscathed is difficult for many to fathom.

"Why not is a question I've been asking myself for a while," Vargas says.

"Our cougar densities are some of the highest in the country," he says. "Maybe we just don't have the people yet using the back woods as much, but we've come close."

As head of the carnivore advocacy group Predator Defense, Brooks Fahy sits on the opposite fence of Vargas on just about everything cougar. They don't agree on Oregon's cougar-management tactics, hunting seasons or even whether density estimates in the Cougar Management Plan that Vargas helped author are remotely close to reality.

However, they share this macabre belief that it's a matter of time before someone in Oregon breaks the string.

"The scientific inquiry actually is why aren't there more attacks," says Fahy, of Lane County. "It's like a lightning strike. It's just a matter of being one out of how-many times.

"There will be an attack in Oregon some day," Fahy says. "And when that happens, the media will totally jump on it and totally blow it out of proportion."

Human proportions, Fahy insists, don't register as true prey to cougars.

"We don't fall within their search-image," Fahy says. "We're not on their radar screens."

If a person gets on a cougar's radar screen, he or she will never see what hits them, Fahy says.

"As strong and magnificent as cougars are, they're not supernatural," says Fahy, whose been knocked down twice by cougars while working with them in captivity.

"They're just animals trying to make a living. And sometimes they make a mistake."

It remains a mystery as to what thought it could take down Wales, who did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.

Like in the Brewer incident, ODFW biologists and Oregon State Police launched an investigation. In Wales' case, they brought out all the stops.

For two days, they used traps and call boxes trying to lure in a cougar. Two sets of tracking hounds used by separate Wildlife Services agents over two days never captured a cougar scent at the scene.

You can't even spell c-o-u-g-a-r around those dogs without them going crazy.

Meanwhile, Wales has begun the lengthy and painful series of rabies shots, Vargas says.

And Vargas keeps his cougar-attack kit handy, ready for the next time someone like Wales steps into a suspected cougar attack that might end Oregon's lengthy flirtation with wildlife history.

"I'm glad it hasn't happened," Vargas says. "I hope it doesn't happen. But..."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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