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Occupational hazard

click to enlarge Paul Butcher and his black labs  Shadow and Sebastian  were recently stalked by a mountain lion during their usual morning run. - BLANCA MIDDLEBROOK
  • Blanca Middlebrook
  • Paul Butcher and his black labs Shadow and Sebastian were recently stalked by a mountain lion during their usual morning run.

Ken Logan, the Colorado Division of Wildlife's chief carnivore researcher, has this to say about mountain lions: Despite their size, strength and stealth, they tend to avoid humans, maintaining a relatively peaceful coexistence.

Paul Butcher, director of the Colorado Springs Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, recently had this to say about mountain lions: Holy $%&!

Logan, of course, was speaking in theoretical terms about the massive cats. Butcher was speaking more like a guy who had one of them stalking him down a public road for several minutes.

Butcher, now in his 10th year as head of the parks department, recently set out on his usual morning run, accompanied in the pre-dawn darkness by his two black labs, Shadow and Sebastian.

Suddenly, on Mark Dabling Boulevard in the northwest part of our village, Shadow turned, saw the lion and growled in that fierce "come one step closer and I'll retrieve a duck" way that labs have.

Butcher turned and saw the lion, too -- and remembered the tip he'd learned from the wildlife experts when confronted by a mountain lion: Make yourself look bigger.

And then he had another thought.

"I'm 5-foot-4," Butcher said. "All I could think was, 'Exactly how big should I make myself look?'"

Breakfast menu

The experts say there are between 4,500 and 5,000 mountain lions in Colorado. And, as biologist Logan pointed out, most don't want anything to do with humans. The one that confronted Butcher, however, was different. As the sun's first rays filtered over the horizon on that recent day, the cat seemed to be looking over the breakfast menu, a menu that consisted of two items: dog and parks director.

Butcher had run down Raven Hills Court to Buckeye Drive in the Rockrimmon neighborhood, then south on Delmonico Drive, toward the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. He ran under the railroad tracks and then turned north on Mark Dabling. The mountain lion appeared from the tall grass and stood in the road about 50 yards behind Butcher and his leashed dogs.

"Shadow saw it first and went nuts," Butcher said. "I turned and saw it too. I was trying to move away from the lion. But the dogs were trying to move toward it. They about ripped my arms off."

I asked how long the confrontation lasted.

"It seemed like, oh, about a year," Butcher said. "But I think it was probably seven or eight minutes. It followed us for about a mile. It stayed right in the middle of the road, turned sideways, staring at us. When we'd move, it moved with us. When we stopped, the lion stopped. I'd go 30 or 40 feet and turn back and it had moved about the same distance, always toward us."

Bright ideas

He said he and his dogs often encounter wildlife on their morning runs. Bears sometimes. But deer mostly. And a lot of coyotes.

"We've come across packs of coyotes, three or four of them together, but they always back off," he said. "The dogs bark and the coyotes run. But this was different. The mountain lion was completely unafraid. I honestly feel like if we'd been down in the creek bed that runs alongside the road, if we'd been running where we sometimes do through the tall grass, this would have been a much different story. I think he would have attacked."

Back up on the road, the lion hesitated but never backed away. And Butcher began to design a battle plan.

"There were no rocks or big sticks," he said. "All I saw were a few of those bright yellow, flexible, plastic gas line markers, the ones that say 'Don't Dig Here.' I thought I might have to take one of those out of the ground and use it on the lion. Then I thought about all those martial arts movies and I couldn't recall even one where Jackie Chan fights off a gang of attackers with a flexible plastic gas line marker. And making myself look bigger, well, that didn't seem like such a hot idea, either.

"If the lion attacked, I figured the dogs and I would try to surround it and do the best we could."

Into the tall grass

Personal footnote: I've had one encounter with a mountain lion during my 12 years in Colorado. It came last summer at the end of a long fly-fishing day in Eleven Mile Canyon, near Lake George.

When the mountain lion appeared I had one advantage that Butcher did not: I was in my Chevy Suburban. The huge cat circled the vehicle twice as I, in somewhat of a stupor, forgot that I could have merely driven away. (I was not injured in the incident, although I did strain my back the next day when I reached into the vehicle to remove the driver's seat, which was heavily stained and had to be burned.)

Anyway, as Butcher wondering what hitting a 130-pound mountain lion with a flimsy plastic gas line marker would feel like (ridiculous and then very, very painful, I would guess), the cat vanished back into the tall grass.

Butcher and his dogs still run the same route most mornings.

He said he's now considering carrying a can of pepper spray.

And I only point out the pepper spray thing for those of you who are like me and think it might be funny some morning -- if Butcher's dogs sleep in -- to put on a long tan overcoat, crouch in the grass alongside Mark Dabling Road and leap out to say hello to the director of our parks department.

--richt@csindy.com

  • Occupational hazard

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