|A four-year-old Arizona girl was attacked and dragged into the bushes by a fully mature 160-pound male mountain lion Saturday night, April 29, while camping with her family at Bartlett Lake.
State wildlife experts said that the girl's father was able to scare the lion away, which probably saved his daughter's life. The little girl is recovering at the Phoenix Children's Hospital.
"Lion attacks on humans are rare and this particular incident was extremely unusual. Most lion-human confrontations usually involve young, inexperienced lions or ones that are thin and gaunt from lack of food. This was a fully grown, fat and healthy adult lion and it came into a fully lighted campsite full of people," said Kevin Bergersen, an Arizona Game and Fish Department field supervisor.
The Richard Martinez family from Mesa was camping at Bartlett when the attack occurred. They had camped up a draw from SB Cove and sited their tent under a mesquite tree about 200 yards up slope from the other campers along the shoreline. The parents were in the tent getting things ready for going to bed. Their two children, the four-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother, were playing outside catching bugs off the tent.
The parents heard a commotion outside. The father, Richard, rushed out to see what was happening. A lion had four-year-old Victoria's head in its mouth and was dragging her into the bushes. The father ran into the bushes and confronted the lion, and threw rocks at it. The lion let go of the scared little girl and ran away.
The parents rushed the little girl to the Sheriff's Aid Station at Bartlett. She was given first aid, then air evacuated to the Children's Hospital in Phoenix. She suffered puncture wounds to her head from the lion's teeth and had claw marks on her body.
"The little girl was very fortunate that her father did all the right things. Had the lion's teeth gripped her head a few inches lower toward the base of the skull, or if it had had a few more minutes with its human prey, there might have been a much sadder outcome to the incident," Bergersen said.
Wildlife experts said the general rule of thumb to follow when anyone is being attacked by a lion or even a black bear is to fight back. As unusual as lion attacks on humans are in Arizona, the Bartlett Lake incident was made even more bizarre because the two Game and Fish officers and a Sheriff's deputy were able to locate and kill the lion that night. The lion attack occurred around 8:30 p.m. Two Game and Fish officers joined forces with a Sheriff's deputy at the scene of the attack. The wildlife officers were able to confirm it was a lion attack. They found a lion track and lion hair in the bushes where the little girl was dragged. They also found hair on some branches from the little girl. During the investigation at the scene, another camper in the area told the officers that a lion had come into her camp that night and chased her dog. The officers were getting ready to leave the scene of the attack at 11:15 p.m. and investigate the other incident that night when Bergersen looked up and saw a pair of eyes in the vegetation illuminated by his spotlight. "I don't know what made me look up, but I did. It was the lion. It had returned to the site of the attack," he said.
The wildlife officers were amazed at finding the lion that night. Lions will typically return to a scene to feed on cached prey, sometimes for a few days following a successful hunt. But neither wildlife officer expected the lion to stick around the area that night. "There was a lot of human activity at the scene, the father had chased it away, and lions will normally avoid humans. I would speculate that this lion had become way too accustomed to being around people," Bergersen said.
Bergersen added that the father, Richard, somehow felt it was his fault that the little girl was attacked. "The father didn't do anything wrong. The camp was well lighted. The children were in camp. The lion came into the well-lighted camp after the little girl. That's something you just don't expect to happen. Had the father not acted promptly and confronted the lion in the bushes, things would have turned out a lot differently. He saved his little girl's life," he said. Bergersen speculated that because of the dry habitat conditions in the surrounding uplands, the lion was orienting closer to the permanent water supply to find its quarry. "Arroyos, like the one the Martinez family were camped in, are wildlife highways, especially at night. It is possible that the arroyo was the lion's hunting ground," he said.
Deer are a prime food source for lions. Due to successive years of mostly dry conditions, the state's deer population is the lowest it has been in more than 20 years. State wildlife officials have been advising the public the past few months that the dry winter and lack of sufficient spring rains will probably result in increased wildlife-human interactions.
"We are expecting wildlife-human interactions to increase. People need to be lion and bear aware while afield. There is no reason to become fearful, just cautious. Keep your children close at hand. Don't let your children play away from camp, or away from adult supervision," he advised. The same goes for pets.
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