Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bottle raised cougar attacks owner nearly killing him

Bottle raised cougar attacks owner nearly killing him

Posted: 6/2/05

Recalling vivid details of mountain lion attack

By Joel Stottrup

Cold weather can easily remind Princeton wildlife artist Donald Blakney of an experience he had nearly four years ago that he says few have lived to tell about.

It was an a average fall day on Oct. 1, 2001, with moderate temperatures and sunny skies when the then-61-year-old Blakney walked at mid-afternoon toward the cage of one of the two mountain lions he was keeping.

He was planning to clean the cage of his female mountain lion named Tonya, not far from the cage holding his other mountain lion, a male named Tooker. A locked metal gate was on each of the cages of Tooker and Tonya.

Blakney had been keeping the mountain lions for nearly three years as models for photographing. His plan was to eventually use the photos to make wildlife paintings that would include mountain lions.

But what happened next that afternoon nearly took his life, as he explained last week.

"I always knew that working with Tooker was dangerous," Blakney began, "and if he ever got a hold of me, he would do some damage. Little did I know he could do so much damage in such a short time."

As Blakney walked past the gate of Tooker's cage to head for the gate to Tonya's cage, as he had done many times before, something different happened this time.

The male lion "reached out and tripped me," recalled Blakney, explaining that Tooker did so by swiping beneath his gate with a paw.

"I fell down and this must have triggered an instinct in him," said Blakney. "He lunged through the chain link cage door, busting the wire and the bolts, and jumped me from behind.

"I threw him off and turned around to meet him, jumping back at me like a spring. He caught me, sinking his teeth in my right forearm and wrist."

Blakney said the cat then recoiled and sprang back on him, catching him "with his fangs in the left front shoulder and chest. Somehow, I got him off of me again and he sprang again for the fourth time, catching me in the left ear and cheek. Again, I got loose and he came for the fifth time, getting me in the left side of the head with his paw. Like a baseball bat, he knocked me off my feet, landing me on my back.

"He pinned me down, sinking his teeth in my right neck and ear. He's now fully on top of me as I was on my back."

Blakney remembers that every time Blakney screamed or moved, the 130-pound mountain lion crushed Blakney's jaw tighter.

"I could feel the bones cracking and the warm blood in my eye," Blakney recalled. "After some time, I decided he finally has me and I should play dead before I pass out. I knew this works with bears from my studies, but lions prefer to kill before they let loose. After some time, I decided he finally had me and I was a goner. I told God that I hoped I did things right and, 'Please forgive me.' "

Blakney said that after a while he opened an eye and looked at Tooker "nose to nose," and "noticed it was very brightly lit behind him. Suddenly, he let loose his grip and backed off about four feet toward my feet, snarling, with blood dripping from his face while he stood crouched looking at me.

"I slowly moved to my feet, expecting him to attack again. I got to my feet and slowly moved out the door and locked it."

Blakney said that the two dogs he had then, a 14-year-old collie and a 13-year-old collie-shepherd mix, had followed Blakney into the foyer part of the mountain lion enclosures when he initially went in. As the two dogs followed him back out as he retreated after the attack, the male mountain lion didn't seem to pay attention to the dogs, Blakney observed.

Blakney remembers falling down several times as he made his way about 50 yards to his house, once falling on one of the dogs and smearing blood on the dog. Blakney recalled falling and crawling up the deck and into the house, dialing 911 and saying, "I need help, I've been attacked by a mountain lion and I'm bleeding badly."

He said he then left the house, locked it and crawled out to put the dogs in their kennels.

Looking back on the acts of locking up the house and placing his dogs in the kennels, he explained that he figured he was going to bleed to death there in his yard and that those were his final preparations.

Sherburne County Sheriff's deputies received the call to respond to the Blakney home about five miles east of Princeton at 4:22 p.m. He was loaded into an ambulance and tended to until a North Memorial Air Care helicopter arrived and was flown to North Memorial Hospital .

Blakney said that although he was pronounced in good condition the day after the attack, he was in intensive care at North Memorial for 10 days. He said he received 96 stitches, nine of which were on the right side of his right eye.

He remembers that the right side of his lower jaw was in about 17 pieces and that a doctor told him it wouldn't work to try putting them back together. So instead, surgeons made a metal jaw.

Last Friday Blakney traced his finger from below the right side of his chin up about six inches alongside the right side of his jaw, explaining that a big metal plate is in place of where that part of the jaw bone had been. His teeth and gums were still intact and could be attached.

A few days after his new jaw was made, he said, a surgeon examined it and decided it needed a realignment and so cut into it and adjusted a couple screws.

Blakney said the mountain lion's fangs went almost two inches into his chest and just missed organs.

"That was another close call, and the fact that I didn't bleed to death is amazing," he said.

'Not the lion's fault'

Blakney quickly pointed out that he didn't feel the attack was the mountain lion's fault. "He was just playing out his instinct and was a very good lion through all my years with him," said Blakney.

Neighbor Judy Ziegler, shortly after the attack, said she felt Blakney was very fortunate to have lived.

Not long after the incident both mountain lions were intentionally killed. The male lion had to be killed so the head could be sent to a lab to examine for rabies and Blakney wanted the female lion killed because he didn't want it attacking anyone, he said.

Both lions were mounted by a taxidermist and are part of neighbor Mike Ziegler's display of mounted wild animals.

Blakney said he didn't feel any pain during the attack and that his first pain came after the surgery when he was no longer given morphine and needed other types of pain killers.

And though his jaw was wired up for eight weeks after it was reconstructed, he said it didn't affect his painting. He told of spending time right after the hospital stay assembling photos and making sketches in preparation for painting and did some painting right away.

"I don't have to get in the mood to paint," he said. "I can paint any time of night or day."

Blakney, who just opened a business in Princeton with partners Karen Taylor and Chuck Connell (Blakney does art work and custom framing and Taylor and Connell sell gifts), talked more about surviving the mountain lion attack.

"I'm spiritual enough to think that something happened to the cat in that moment, because they will kill you," Blakney said. "Maybe it was the dogs barking at him or maybe he [the mountain lion] reached back in his mind and thought, 'He raised me.' "

Whatever it was, Blakney said, there must have been some "divine intervention." He said he believed while he was pinned under the lion's body that he was going to die, and also when he was on the lawn, bleeding, that he would die there.

"You look at things a little more closely," he said about the effects of the attack on him spiritually.

It was either that "God didn't want me yet," Blakney said, or that "I was not finished with my work."

Blakney said his work is directed at conservation efforts, citing how he manages the 38-acre place where he lives with ponds and streams to keep it as habitat for wildlife.

He continues his many years of studying animals in the wild where he has taken more than 1,000 slide photos for use in his paintings. He plans to paint many more wildlife scenes.

His painting of three grouses called "The Triple" that he painted for the Rough Grouse Society in 2003 will make the October cover of Ultimate Outdoors.

He said his efforts in conservation have also included donating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art work to sportsmen's and conservation organizations.

He recently completed an acrylic painting commissioned by Milaca Unclaimed Freight. It is a unique ice-fishing view of a part of Mille Lacs Lake called Big Point. Ice houses and other structures are shown above the ice while a bald eagle soars above and fish are shown below the ice, like in a diorama.

More of Blakney's art can be found at his website,

He has not forgotten, meanwhile, how he raised the mountain lion that attacked him, raising Tooker from when he was six weeks old and still on the bottle.

"I think of it once in a while when I am out and around the farm," said Blakney. "I used to walk him in the yard."

Blakney acquired both of the mountain lions as infants from a place that raised exotic cats.

But he also is reminded quite often, even if he doesn't need the reminder, about the attack, he said.

Whenever he is out in the cold for very long and if the protection he wraps around his face isn't enough to keep his artificial jaw warm enough, it will hurt once he goes back into the house until his jaw has warmed up again, he said.

When he does start to think about that attack, he said, he often wonders what made the mountain lion let go of him and let him up.

"He could have taken hold of my arm and started chewing," he said. "I've thought about it a lot. I think it's unnatural for that cat to do that."