Mauled by a Mountain Lion

How do you move on after a cougar tries to kill you? Following an attack in 2004, Anne Hjelle got back on the trail.

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Being tackled by a mountain lion feels something like getting hit by a bus.

The animal sprang out of the brush in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Southern California without warning, and the force tore me off my bike and off the trail I’d been riding. I fought, thrashing and punching as its jaws clamped down on the back of my neck, and then my face. I felt my left cheek tear away.

My riding partner, Debi, hurled her bike at the lion, to no avail. She grabbed one of my legs, trying to pull me from its grip as it dragged me away. I felt its jaws close on my throat, and passed out.

I regained consciousness moments later, choking on my own blood. Other riders had thrown rocks at the lion, at last scaring it off.

My first surgery was that night. It lasted six and a half hours. When the bandages came off the next morning, a nurse reluctantly handed me a compact mirror. Nothing about my face looked familiar.

Eight days later, I left the hospital and returned home on my own two feet. Strangers stared at me when I ventured out to pick up prescriptions, triggering the urge to look down, to hide my face. It was a taste of my new reality: Those stares have persisted ever since.

When I was cleared to ride my bike a few months later, I brought my husband and some friends back to the trail. The lion that had attacked me (and killed another rider that same day) had been caught and euthanized, and mountain lion attacks are exceedingly rare as it is, but I still felt the grip of fear. I told myself not to give into it: I had to prove to myself that my nerves would not control me. I couldn’t do anything to speed up the healing of my face, but I could work on strengthening my mind. I decided to focus on that.

As soon as we started the ride, I felt that old feeling of euphoria creep back in. For the first time since the attack, I felt my life was finally returning to normal.

I was hopeful for the second reconstructive surgery. But once it was over, I knew I would never look like I once did. The dead nerves around my eyes would never heal, my smile would never regain its former symmetry. Now I had to accept that, as a personal trainer in Orange County, I would always look a little different in a place and a career where appearance really matters.

But I couldn’t dwell in grief or self-pity. The damage was only cosmetic, I reminded myself: I was alive, I had my family, I could still ride.

I kept biking consistently, forcing myself to fight my fears. I used to relish solo rides before the attack, but now, I feel more comfortable having someone else in sight. It will probably always be that way, but that’s all right: Solo or not, I’m still out there.

In the years since the attack, I’ve thought a lot about fear. It can be useful for making safe decisions, but it can also be restrictive. Over time, I’ve learned to balance my fear with logic: There is almost no chance that I will get attacked again. That’s what I tell myself when I feel my heart rate start climbing. And I look around: Among mountains and trees, it’s easy to remember that braving a little uneasiness is worth it.

Once, at a local speaking event, a woman told me that she stopped hiking at Whiting Ranch after hearing what happened to me. That broke my heart. I tell my story because I want people to know that if
I can overcome my fear, anyone can.

I took her hiking there the next week. For her, it was the first
step forward.  

Play the Odds

125: Reported cougar attacks in the last 100 years. They’re rare, and the human almost always wins.