The following is a guest article written by Dean Potter, Climber, Base Jumper, Slackliner and Dog Companion.  It is his recollection of a cougar encounter during a walk with his two canines near Yosemite National Park.

Whisper and Jackie

Slight rain absorbs into the earth and softens the remaining snow while intensifying the early springtime greens. My puppy Whisper and her best friend Jackie run in front of me. I follow along glancing out ahead while studying animal tracks that crisscross the road in the moist, dark soil.

We live just outside the park boundaries of Yosemite within a 20-acre plot of land called the ‘Flying Spur’. To the east, Half Dome and El Captain drift in and out of the clouds, faintly emerging between sparse cedars and pines.

Living just outside Yosemite means regular encounters with the wild. Pictured here: Whisper's encounter with a bear.

Most every morning we walk to Little Nelly Waterfall along the Old Coulterville Road. I always take time to remind the little ladies of some of the words they know.  I make them “Come,” “Sit,” “Shake,” “Lay down,” “Stay,” “Wait,” and “Heel,” with hope that they will mind if there’s danger.  Other than these safety drills, I don’t like controlling them too much.  This is their special time to let their instincts run wild and I appreciate the fact that at their roots, they are untamed beasts.

I strongly believe in freedom and feel that I do not own the dogs.  We are companions and if anything, I belong to them. More aptly stated, I’m their servant. I facilitate their every need; clothe them with warm jackets, safe harnesses and styling collars, feed them organic gourmet food, brush their teeth, and cuddle in the same bed.  I even clean up their poops.

About fifty yards in front of us a large grayish-tan animal slinks across the road.  My chest abruptly thuds. “That’s no deer, coyote or bear!” I say to myself. The left side of my brain processes, “There ‘s only one other animal that big in this forest…Mountain Lion!”

I holler, “Whisper! Jackie! Wait! Stay! No!” But it’s no use.  They let out their little war cries; “Tallyho!” and the chase begins.

The 22-pound girlies are now in uncontrollable kill-mode; little do they realize, it’s probably them who are in danger. I gasp and start yelling, “Come!” over and over, along with full volume raspy roars followed by piercing high-pitch finger-whistles.

For an instant I am dumbfounded and stand gawking unable to react.  I watch in horror as the two little ‘princesses’ bluff the most feared predator still to roam this Sierra Nevada backcountry.  Their two blurred bodies and brightly colored jackets go out of sight and I finally come to my senses.

The right brain clicks in. I leap forward with all my might. Gravel skids beneath my shoes and my perception changes.  I focus my vision on the dim dust cloud that the girls have stirred up and follow their tracks into the forest. Ahead I faintly hear the chase and ascertain that Jackie leads. I hear her squeaking yips and anxious cries as Whisper drums behind with a constant, deep-toned bark.  I continue my coarse yells and sprint uphill for a few minutes, falling behind the vicious duo.

My bare legs thrash through sharp Manzanita bushes and I stare out in front, oblivious to my bleeding shins. My forearms and hands sweat as my heart beats between my temples. I hear crackling brush and intensifying barks down hill from where I stand.  I scream and repeat my commands so loud I start coughing, slightly loosing my voice.

Much to my surprise both Whisper and Jackie race to my side, tongues hanging low, froth bubbling from their mouths and panting.  I grab the two little muscle-bundles under both my arms like Oozies. Their rapid fire barks spray down the bushes with piercing bullets. Having watched too many Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies, I growl and roar to the now hidden lion. Tightly hugging the little, squirming, fearless ones, I retreat by walking backwards towards the false safety of the road, while continuing to fire barking bullets at the hidden predator.

I toss the ferocious pair to the dirt, scolding them and make them promise they won’t ever chase again. They both grin nervously and vaguely nod in doggy agreement.  I think Whisper may be crossing her little fingers but before I can tell she trots in the direction of the waterfall.  “Move out!” I command and we continue our daily march.  I fully realize the situation could have ended with Whisper and Jackie being Mountain Lion shish kabobs.  But this time, no dog was left behind.

My heart softens. Out of mortal fear for my precious babies’ lives, I make the little ones heel and sternly control them.  I change my philosophy to discipline instead of total dog freedom. Impulsively, I begin blurting out commands.  The little cuties stiffen-up and I feel tension in my chest. Our fun and groove disappear momentarily before I see my flaw. I contemplate the way fear drives all creatures to become cold and protective.  My mind flashes to the condemning and controlling of others and war.  I realize my mistake. “Stay close,” I softly tone to the girls, expressing my gentle concern.

For the next five miles I say nothing and the pups intuit what I’m feeling.  They both trot barely ahead of me and keep looking back to insure I’m pleased. Slight smiles spread from all of our faces. The faint spring storm subsides and the three of us return to our isolated driveway without further incident.

Being a long driveway, we still have another half mile before we’re home. Now in our territory Whisper and Jackie check to see if any intruders lurk. I stroll, marveling at their conviction and sense of duty as the feisty gals circle around every bush and rock, checking for critters; eating juicy morsels and sniffing scents.

Within sight of the house a small herd of mule deer bound into a lush meadow.  The ‘little killers’ start to dart but having walked for nearly two hours they decide to listen to my command, “Stay.” I grumble.  “Good girls!” I exclaim with glee, in a gay Englishman’s voice.

At our front door, the little ladies’ demeanors totally flip and they prance and perk. Perhaps they hope that once I’ve toweled them off and warmed them by the woodstove that they will get yummy treats for being extra good girlies.  Content from the exercise myself I know the real truth: a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.

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4 thoughts

  1. Enjoyed your writing. I could see everything going on and how you felt by the words.
    Thank you.

  2. This is a good story, and very glad that the dogs are ok. But can’t help myself, I have to point out that these dogs should have been on a leash, especially in the backcountry!! I don’t want to spur a debate about whether dogs should be in the backcountry at all (there are a lot of strong opinions on this). I just know that when my dogs are out hiking with me, they are always on leash (including staying on a long line at campsites). This is for their own safety, and for the safety of the other critters in the forest (not to mention for the sake of other hikers). Doesn’t sound like this cougar provoked the attack, and it could have been entirely avoided had the dogs been on leash. Recognizing that it’s nicer to allow your dogs the freedom to run and play, I just don’t think that the backcountry is the place for it…that’s what dog parks and dog beaches are for.

    1. Hello Anon,
      This is not the back-country. This is the front-country, with houses, and even condos. Villages near the Yosemite National Park. Like in most areas that are not urban, dogs roam semi free, a natural behavior. Dog parks and dog beaches are in areas where urban development has restricted the amount of space available for dogs (and humans) to roam free. I live near the place where this story happened, and my dog, like all others, is often unleashed. He chases squirrels, birds, whatever. The occasional encounter with bear, cougar or coyote might happen, but that is why we live out there: nature. When you live in the territory of wild animals, there is a chance of running into them. All dogs in the area face that chance. The owner-parents are not too paranoid about it… 🙂

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