The Woman Who Wrestled a Cougar

With no one to call for help, Larrane Leech put herself face-to-face with a young cougar to protect the children in her daycare. A Reader's Digest Canada classic, originally published in 1993.

Nudged awake by the July morning sun, the young cougar opened its jaws in a teeth-baring yawn and stretched its muscular forelegs. Then it started down the mountainside, crossed a narrow highway and loped toward the wide, rushing river. For days, the cougar had been edging closer to the small lumber village of Lillooet on the Fraser River, on the edge of the mountains of southern British Columbia. Now, after drinking the river’s cold water, the cougar bedded down again in the nest of tall grass.

The five children in Larrane Leech’s day-care group were outdoors early, painting bright tempera landscapes under the penetrating sun. By 10 a.m. it was time to find shade, so Larrane decided they would walk down to the river. “We’re going to pick chaukum berries now,” she announced.

When Larrane turned her home into a day-care centre a few months earlier, it was the beginning of a dream come true. It had taken hard work and determination to get her certification. After completing her course work in early-childhood education, she had worked as a volunteer in a day-care centre, while holding down a job at the local lumber mill and raising three teenager sons alone.

So far, the centre was operating smoothly. But it was too soon to tell whether the families she worked for would be happy with it. And she worried about being able to care for enough children to make the business pay off.

Venturing Into the Outdoors

Larrane had known all five children in her care since they were infants. Three were siblings: playful Mikey, age two, Jessica, five, the exuberant leader, and three-and-a-half-year-old Alleshia Allen, the tough little athlete. Four-year-old Natani Leech, the long-haired beauty, was actually their aunt, and Larrane in turn was her aunt. Only the bubbly toddler Lisa O’Laney, a few months shy of two, was unrelated to them. All were members of native tribes clustered around Lillooet, more than 100 miles northeast of Vancouver.

The children had fallen easily into Larrane’s daily routine. An avid outdoorswoman at 44, she insisted they spend as much time as possible outdoors. Everyone’s favourite activity was circle time, when they passed around a black and white eagle feather; the child who held it could then talk about anything at all.

After clearing away the painting supplies and handing each child an empty jar, Larrane called for Pal, her year-old part-German Shepherd puppy. Giggling with anticipation, Jessica and Natani paired off in front. Larrane linked Mikey’s hand with Alleshia’s, took little Lisa’s in her own and said, “Let’s go.”

Larrane’s house stood on a wooded slope not far up from the mighty Fraser River. The group made its way over the dusty gravel road and then onto a dirt trail through the trees. The two oldest girls broke into a run through the tall, Brown grass at the trail’s edge, Natani’s waist-length hair swaying back and forth. Larrane and the little ones hurried to keep up.

Stopping the children at the first chaukum-berry bush, Larrane pointed to the long, thin branches bearing clusters of plump, sweet navy-blue fruit. “Look, the berries are all over,” she said. She helped Lisa find some clusters on the lowest branches. Mikey watched, then tentatively bit into one of the berries. “Mmmmmm, good,” he said, and got busy plucking more.

The cougar cocked an ear toward the birdlike chatter and reflexively sniffed the air. Cougars rarely attack people or show themselves, But in recent years, as towns have expanded into mountainous countryside, there have been more and more sightings, especially in southern British Columbia. The province is home to some 3000 of them.

The young cougar was instinctively versed in hunting strategies: step silently and downwind through the brush to avoid being heard, scented or seen; choose the weakest prey and attack from behind, clamping powerful jaws on the vital nerves and blood vessels of the prey’s neck.

Larrane and the children moved slowly from bush to bush. Pal stopped frequently in the shade, panting. In 20 minutes, the children filled their jars and were almost to the river. Here, the ground fell steeply to a cool, shady strip of sand about five yards wide.

“Okay,” Larrane commanded after the group clambered down to the sandbank, “let’s get in our circle.” She could not risk letting a child wander off. Suddenly Alleshia jumped up and scooted toward the trees. “Come back, Alleshia,” Larrane called. Running after her, she caught up with the child and leaned over to help her back to the sandbank.

Now the cougar could see the funny little creatures that had been making all the noise. Automatically, its predatory machinery kicked in. These were perfect prey: small, wiggly and heedless of any possible attack.

The Cat and It’s Prey

Stepping over the thick carpet of pine needles, the cat slunk toward the children, never so much as rustling a leaf or snapping a twig. Then it did something remarkable, something only a young, inexperienced cat would do. It walked onto the bank and merely nudged one of the children, a young boy, backward onto the sand. The rules of hunting required that the cougar grab the boy’s head in its mouth and carry him away. But the young cat paused, and to remove any hair before attacking and feeding, it began to lick the boy’s smooth skin with its rough tongue.

Larrane sensed the children suddenly go quiet. She looked up to see the back end of a cat the size of Pal standing over Mikey. The cat’s head was down, out of sight behind its peaked shoulder blades, and its plumped, black-tipped tail swiped back and forth like a whip.

Larrane was momentarily frozen by the sight. Now Natani was giggling nervously. “Stop licking Mikey’s face,” she said playfully, as though talking to a house cat.

Larrane couldn’t tell whether Mikey had been bitten; he was silent and hidden beneath the beast. Her mind racing wildly, she sprang impulsively toward the cougar. Blindly intending to grab its tail, she shifted aim at the last minute and seize the cat by the scruff of the neck. Tugging once, she shook it from side to side.

Instantly, the cougar unsheathed its claws and wheeled toward Larrane, swiping Mikey’s face and Lisa’s too. Growling and hissing, it stretched up high and brought its paws down upon the head of the five-foot-one-inch woman. As she stumbled backward, one paw slipped onto her right shoulder, the claws grazing her ear.

This animal was capable of killing her. Although still in its youth, it had all the teeth and muscle a cougar needs to pull down a victim three times its size.

Aware now of the danger, four of the children shrieked and ran behind Larrane. Mikey lay still on the ground.

“Stay behind me,” Larrane screamed as she faced the beast. Acting before she could think, she grabbed the animal’s forelegs and pulled them off her. The cougar’s thrashing forced her back into a crouch. Her soft sandals shifted and slipped in the sand, making it difficult to keep a secure stance.

Summoning all her strength, Larrane forced herself back upright, still grasping the cat’s thick legs. Then she thrust her arms forward and locked them straight out in front of her. At the same time, she used her thumbs to push the animal’s paws inward to protect herself from being cut.

“Pal, do something!”

Locked in a deadly dance with the cougar, Larrane felt as though she were watching herself in slow motion. She stared at the animal’s pink tongue and long ivory fangs. Stepping back and forth on its hind legs, the cat let out a menacing growl as it tried to tug its paws with their sharp claws away from her.

“Pal, do something!” Larrane yelled at the pup cowering on the sand not ten feet away. She felt the muscles in her arms, legs and back weakening. What in the world am I going to do? she thought. No one will ever find us here, and if the cat gets away from me, he’ll surely kill the children. “Just go away and leave us alone,” she yelled into the animal’s face. “Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.”

The cougar was now trying a new tactic to break Larrane’s grip. It began thrashing its upper body from side to side, and Larrane could sense its imminent escape. Again acting without any conscious plan, she arched her back to gather momentum, then shoved forward with all her might, thrusting the cat directly at the dog and shouting, “Pal, do something!”

The cougar fell backward but rolled instantly onto its feet and darted past Pal through the brush farther along the sandbank.

Without knowing it, Larrane had responded perfectly. She had distracted the cougar from Mikey only a fraction of a second before it had a chance to crush the boy’s skull in its mighty jaws. Then her aggressive movements and loud shouting probably scared the animal. Cougar experts say the cats often lose their appetite for killing when angrily confronted.

Watching the cat retreat, Pal gave chase, barking madly. In one bound, the cougar leaped halfway up a pine, then climbed to the top, wrapped its paws around a branch and hung there, looking down at the dog.

Larrane rushed to Mikey, who lay quietly on the sand. The left side of his face and neck was bathed in blood. But he was breathing, and his eyes were open so side they seemed to bulge from his face.

He’s alive, Larrane thought, gasping in relief. But he was eerily still. He must be in shock, she decided as she pulled him into her arms.

Then her eyes fell on Lisa, wailing at her side. The girl’s face was also covered with blood.

Shifting Mikey to her right side and scooping Lisa up in her left arm, Larrane called to the other children. “We have to run home now.” She saw their terror as they looked at her. She touched her face and felt blood dripping. It’s scaring them just to look at me, she realized. “Let’s go,” she ordered, “as fast as we can!”

A Quick Escape

They scrambled up the hill, Lisa still crying, Mikey remaining silent. Larrane soon found the two children too heavy to carry and eased Mikey down. He suddenly jolted from his stupor. “Owie, owie, owie!” he screamed, tears coursing down his face.

Larrane pulled him along toward the house. Pal lingered behind, watching the cougar—before finally following the others. “Everything will be all right,” Larrane called out to the kids. But deep down, she was not so certain. The cougar could be anywhere. She considered what it had already done—to Lisa, to Mikey and to the dream she had worked so long to realize. Would any parents trust her with their children after this?

In five minutes, they were all inside the front door. Suddenly Larrane was aware of her own pain. Her thighs were bruised, and the scratches on her arm, forehead and ear burned. Her hands shook as she telephoned the hospital and the parents of Lisa and Mikey.

At the Lillooet District Hospital, Mikey needed 40 stitched to close the lacerations on his chin and neck, but all his wounds were shallow. Lisa had been lucky too. The cat had clawed within an inch of her right eye. The doctors used 20 stitched to repair the cuts on her face, and gave both children tetanus shots.

Larrane’s scratches need only to be cleaned and left to heal. But the muscles in her arms, back and legs were so sore that she had difficulty walking.

The next morning she felt profound relief when she opened the front door to four of her day-care children—including Mikey. Only Lisa did not return.

For several days, as they sat in a circle passing the eagle feather, the children remained quiet. The pictures they painted at art time were showered with splatters of red.

Finally, a week later, Mikey took the eagle feather in his hand and said, “I had a dream last night.”

“And what did you see in your dream?” Larrane asked gently. “I saw an eagle. And he was sitting on my bed. Then he flew over me.”

Larrane smiled. In Lillooet folklore, the eagle is a sight of strength, sent by ancestors as an assurance that the person who sees it will be kept safe. She knew the child was beginning to feel secure again.

Larrane felt secure too. She had met the greatest challenge of her life head on. Her friends and neighbours applauded her strength. And now, she felt, she could accomplish anything.

Police and a local conservation officer set out in search of the cat immediately after the attack was reported. Over the next two days, veteran cougar hunter Dennie Pernble and his dogs joined the hunt, but the trail had gone cold. Nine days after the attack, the cougar wandered into Doug Johnston’s yard, one mile north of Larrane’s house. Johnston called his neighbour Dayle Turley, who came over with a shotgun and killed the cat.

In December 1992, Canada’s Governor General, Ramon John Hnatyshyn, awarded Larrane Leech the Star of Courage. And on her dining-room wall hung a commendation of the village of Lillooet for her “outstanding bravery.” 

Next, read this heart-pounding story of how a Facebook thread saved these two friends who were gravely injured in the Bali jungle.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada