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Cougar attack was a rare event

The early Sunday morning cougar attack on a man in eastern California has many Oregonians wondering about more than the sensibilities of sleeping alone outside in cougar country.

But the take-home message from California's 13th cougar attack on a human in 27 years — while Oregon has remained attack-free for more than 100 years — is there is no take-home message.

What happened between a cougar and a 63-year-old man in a sleeping bag along a creek near the town of Nevada City can't be explained by biology, psychology or even geography.

What little you can deduce about cougar attacks in the West can be figured only with mathematics, and even then it's pretty garbled.

"It's hard to make sense of rare events, and I think attacks are so rare that it's hard to make sense of them in a statistical way," says Rick Hopkins, a San Jose-based cougar expert.

What the statistics say is you have a state with 37 million Californians and the most cougar habitat of any state in the West, so chances are you'll average an attack every-other year over time, regardless of what else is happening there.

That is, after all, what the statistics say.

"Your odds of being attacked are enormously small, but they are not zero," Hopkins says.

But it doesn't explain Oregon, which is sandwiched between two states with plenty of confirmed attacks.

"You're a statistical anomaly," Hopkins says.

Ron Anglin, Wildlife Division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, likes it that way.

"There's no real good explanation as to why they get attacks (in California) and not here," Anglin says. "I'm just glad we haven't had anything like that happen here. It would be just awful."

The victim, an unidentified Marin County man, was alone in a sleeping bag under the stars early Sunday morning when he was awakened by what felt like swats from a large paw on his head.

In the ensuing 90 seconds, the animal bit and scratched the man through the sleeping bag before it stopped, ambled 20 feet away and stared at him for another 30 seconds before wandering off, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The man then drove to a hospital in nearby Grass Valley, where he was treated for non-life threatening injuries and released.

He sustained severe bites and scratches to his scalp, his left arm and armpit. He also has significant scratches on his back.

DFG wildlife forensics scientists extracted DNA from saliva from the armpit area of his shirt, which was punctured by a canine tooth, and analysis proved it was from a female cougar, according to the DFG. Cougar tracks were found in the area, and fresh tracks were discovered nearby late Monday, according to the DFG.

Game wardens since have tried to find the cougar using tracking dogs and motion-sensor cameras.

Wardens have no idea what triggered the attack.

"We're humans," Hopkins says. "No one wants to think things happen without a reason."

No one knows why the cougar attacked the man, nor why it stopped.

"Everybody wants an answer, but there is no answer," Hopkins says.

With so many such encounters happening in California, a common bit of speculation says it's because the state is so populous and has by far the highest number of people per square mile living in cougar habitat in the West.

But the state's attack rate — the number of attacks per person — ranks it 11th in Western states, says Hopkins, who bases his analysis on official attack data reported by Western states and Canada.

Another oft-mentioned reason for California attacks is that California is the only state that doesn't allow sport-hunting of cougars, so they have less fear of people.

Statistically, the highest cougar-attack rates in North America are on British Columbia's Vancouver Island, "and they hunt the hell out of cougars there."

"There's just not an issue with sport-hunting," he says.

It comes down to luck, which happens to be nothing but statistics: What are your chances of one particular outcome based on a pool of circumstances?

In Oregon, the zero attacks documented so far does not mean zero chance of having one.

"I think the worst thing people in Oregon can do is say, 'We've never had an attack in Oregon, so we're safe," Hopkins says. "But it's a statistical thing."

And the statistics say someone, somewhere, at some time will be attacked by a cougar.

A person and an animal will have to fill in all the remaining information at that other date.

"No one can predict where the next attack will happen," Hopkins says. "But I guarantee you it will be somewhere in cougar country."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman