It’s said there a few sounds in the nature as bloodcurdling as the scream of a female cougar.
Unless, of course, it’s the scream of a 19-year-old woman — in which case, even hungry cougars are loathe to hang around.
It was that sound which likely saved 16-year-old Mykaela Belter from a serious mauling or worse after a large cat attacked her along a hiking trail in Waterton Parks — only to release and retreat when Belter’s sister Gabrielle screamed in horror.
“I gave her a thank you,” said Mykaela, who’s now at her grandma’s house, nursing four stitches and bruises along her thigh and lower back.
The attack has wildlife officials in the National Park baffled, because the 90-pound female cougar — since captured and killed — shows no signs of starvation or distress, and the typically shy animal was stalking people in a crowded area.
Belter says she was taken by surprise as she walked with Gabrielle down the trail near Bertha Falls, her dad Gary and brother Jaxon just a few steps behind on the busy route, located only a kilometre from the Waterton townsite.
As they passed by some bushes, the cougar suddenly lunged.
“It really didn’t hurt very much — it felt like when a house cat claws you, but then I looked down and thought, ‘oh wow, a cougar,’” said Mykaela, who lives in St. Albert, near Edmonton.
Not far behind, her horrified father Gary Belter was thinking much stronger words than just “oh wow.”
“The girls were just walking along together — the cougar stuck its head out of the bush and then it lunged forward and grabbed Mykaela and started to pull her towards the bushes,” said Gary.
“Gabby reached over to grab Mykaela and screamed at the same time, and it let go.”
By then dad was right there, ready to fight for his daughter’s life — though he admits that between adrenaline and shock, he could barely fathom what was really happening.
“Part of it was being so shocked to even see a cougar, and then realizing, it has its paws around my daughter,” said Gary.
“Then I was running forward, thinking the cat can’t pull her away that quickly, she’s too big, and I can grab her — but then it let go.”
At first the cougar moved a metre or two back, and looked ready to pounce again, but the sudden commotion and crowd of hikers running to help convinced the mountain lion to leave.
Gabrielle may have saved her sister, but the 19-year-old says she barely had time to think.
“It all happened so fast,” said Gabrielle.
“I panicked and grabbed her arm while screaming, because I didn’t know what else to do. My sister jerked back and then it just let go.”
Parks officials have sent the cougar’s corpse for tests, to try and determine why the cat was preying on people and ignoring its usual instinct to avoid humans.
“Cougars are normally shy and secretive — they’ll normally see us long before we see them and vanish,” said Dennis Madsen, the park’s resource conservation manager.
Wildlife officers tracked the cougar to the same crowded trailhead where Mykaela was clawed, and ended up destroying it after they found the animal stalking another group of hikers.
It was found to be healthy, well fed and in apparently normal condition, said Madsen.
“We’ll have to conduct an autopsy,” he said.
Mykaela says she understands the cougar’s threatening behaviour meant officers had no choice but to shoot it, but she still wishes the ending could have been different.
“I understand, but I was sad when I heard,” said Mykaela.
For her dad Gary, having his daughter safe and saying she’s ready to hike again is all he can ask for — plus, the family now has a tale they will never forget.
“It’s more of a good story than anything now,” he said.
On Twitter: @SUNMichaelPlatt