August 20, 2009


I'd like to think he was a happy yellow dog, an innocent, bounding along with his mouth open in his own imaginary world. Leaping out from the shrubbery on the embankment some ten, maybe twelve feet up, he hit the talus near the base maybe three feet from the bottom with that rocking-horse-like lope. Happy as can be, he bounced forward.

The forest had been burning some twenty miles north of here. I'd had a bad time of it at camp the past few days from the air pollution; but the sunsets were so beautiful. I'd let myself run out of food, save for the coconut oil and sunflower seeds. It was past 7 pm. Soon, it would be too late to reach town before closing. At 7:30, I noticed the air was clearing, and so my breathing was improving. By 7:48, I felt competent enough to go to town. Packing a few things, I left just after 8 with maybe ten minutes to spare.

Driving... From the corner of my eye, I saw an indistinct and unidentified yellow orange four legged form leap from the embankment, bouncing once, and disappearing beneath the fender line of my car near the windshield post.

I was going 45 mph down a fairly traveled mountain road. I felt the impact, heard a double impact, but no yelp. I thought the dog's head was hit by the bumper.

At least that's what I'd like to think. A happy, but dopey dog's last instant, running out in front of a car without looking. But is that what really happened? There was the momentary smell of old dry dirt. Part of my mind was puzzled by that as the rest processed what it saw, and a few instants later, searched for a prudent thing to do.

I assumed the impact severed the dog's spinal cord, tore major nerves, shredded portions of its brain as its head spun. In other words, Sudden and Certain death without pain.

With no breakdown lane to pull over into, stopping my car on the road would invite far more serious accidents. Pull into a driveway further down? But then I'd have to walk back hugging the embankment, risking getting hit. And the animal's behavior, leaping off what seemed to be a ten to twelve foot embankment, seemed insane. Could it be rabid?

Or... was that kind of leap more consistent with a cougar attacking prey?

I'd seen cougars here, remember warnings about not moving dead deer off the road lest a cougar kill you for disturbing it's meal. I'd heard Old San Jose Road has a long history of cougar attacks on horsemen and horse drawn wagons.

This was certainly less something a dog would do than a hungry cougar. But a speeding car?

The animal, if it was a dog, had to be dead. It felt cold and cruel not stopping to see if it was a dog; but there was nothing more I could do. All the more reason not to stop if it was rabid or a cougar. Whatever it was, it felt nothing. I felt hunger. There was nothing more I could do, not without a lot of risk, and missing my next few meals. It all happened so fast, I never applied the brakes. And now, I was further down the road.

I kept driving.

At the grocery store, I aimed a flashlight at the bumper, and below. No blood, no hair, no dents in front, nothing. Not a single trace disturbing the dirt on my bumper, Absolutely Nothing! I felt the impact, smelled the dust. Did it really happen?

But I had seen it disappear near the window post, not the the front of the car. If not for the stumble, it would have come through the windshield right at me.

Later that evening my flashlight revealed a polished streak starting at the front passenger side wheel well, a head sized start just at the front wheel well, and a possible paw scratch at the rear edge of the front wheel well. The bulk of the polished area drops down several inches at the door hinge.

What makes more sense, is that as the animal, a hungry cougar driven from it's home by the Lockheed Fire, bounced off the talus, misjudging it's stability, and so failed to gain enough height in the rebound to make it onto my car's hood. A well timed leap directed to place it on the hood, and it's jaws right on my head.

Me, dinner!

Missing that, it grabbed at the wheel well as it's head slammed into the fender. With it's momentum pushing it forward and the paw on the front wheel well, it was spun around by the momentum of the car, it's body slamming into the door sideways and bouncing back away. The impact with the door is where the dust came from.

Survivable? Maybe for a cougar, as the impact was the cougar expending it's momentum on the relatively smooth and slightly flexible surface of the car's door; not the car's momentum instantly accelerating the cougar to nearly 45 miles per hour, then crushing it under the wheels.

I watched the road on the way back two hours later; but didn't see anything. It was dark, and I wasn't sure where the two of us had met.

Sorrow, yes. If it was a dog, his happiness ended; but he probably never felt a thing. Perhaps that's the best way to go. If it was a tougher cougar, it might have learned a lesson.

And I felt shaken. The consequences of our actions, etc. It shook me. I'd had dog friends, real friends who were dogs, happy, willing to share their happiness with me as true friends do. I still felt, still wanted to believe it might be an innocent dog.

But the locals all said this is what a cougar does, what cougars have done many times before. A cougar... one so hungry and bold as to attack a car? If it was displaced by the Lockheed fire, then it might indeed be desparate enough to try attacking a car, especially if the cars it was use to seeing on the dirt roads of its territory were driving 5 to 15 miles per hour.

Now it's not sorrow; but the chilling effect of fear. It wanted me as it's dinner. It's timing was almost right, just misjudged how high it could rebound; likely the talus slipped more than it expected. A bit higher, and it would have smashed through the windshield, a potentially fatal mess whether it survived or not.

Innocence lost.

The luck, and now I think it was luck, was that it chose me in a car, not one of the many bicyclists nor motorcycle riders that frequent that road. Perhaps, simply by being at the right place at the right time, I saved someone's life. Just... because I am.

And also, by it's boldness, it delivered a strong warning; for with far less boldness, a cougar could easily get any of us living here by leaping from the cliffs as we unlock the gates at night. But the cougar living here didn't attack me, it merely complained about my presence by growling at me. That one seemed to understand that we humans will band together to fight back.


Copyright (C) 2008, JVV