Don Massey has seen a few cougars in the 45 years he's herded cattle in the area.
Every time, the secretive felines have kept their distance. But last week, one hungry mountain lion came too close for comfort."It jumped on me and my horse," said the 64-year-old Vernal resident, who only received a bad scratch on his right thumb during the attack.
His black Labrador pup, Blackey, did not get off so easily. Yet, it may have been the dog's misfortune that saved Massey.
While the cougar attacked the dog, Massey was able to beat it with a stick and then kill it with a rock.
"It knocked him out," Massey said.
The encounter took place while Massey was out gathering cattle in the Book Cliffs, a remote area about 70 miles south of Vernal. He and two other Sweet Water Ranch employees had ridden off together that morning but eventually got separated.
About 11 a.m., Massey turned around to check for cows and a cougar lunged toward him, scratching his horse's shoulder. The horse bucked, throwing Massey to the ground, and bolted down the canyon.
The cougar followed the horse for a while but then turned back. Meanwhile, Massey found a branch to protect himself.
"I was sitting there waiting for him," Massey said. "I had a stick in my hand and had my dog with me."
Then, "(the cougar) jumped on my dog," he said.
The cougar locked its jaws on the dog's throat while Massey beat it with the branch. During the struggle, the cougar scratched Massey's right thumb.
"I knocked him out while fighting with the dog," he said. Then "I got me a rock and I finished killing him off."
Massey, assuming Blackey was dead, looked for his horse and rode back to the ranch house. He waited until 10 p.m., when the other two ranch hands appeared and drove him to the Ashley Valley Medical Center in Vernal.
The next morning, Massey was surprised to find Blackey back at the ranch house. "My dog survived," he said.
Representatives of the Division of Wildlife Resources determined the cougar was female, less than a year old and starving, said Ron Stewart, information and education officer for the division's northeastern region.
"It was very thin, to the point of bones showing," Stewart said. "It had probably been starving for a while. We don't know the cause for sure, but it could be due to an injury or disease."
The animal, which weighed between 25 and 30 pounds and measured about four feet from head to tail, had a gash on one of its legs. Normally, cougars feed on rabbits, squirrels and deer. Attacks against humans are "extremely unusual."
The carcass was transported to Salt Lake City Thursday to be checked for rabies. Blackey has been quarantined at a Vernal veterinary clinic. If he's found to have rabies, he'll be euthanized.
Meanwhile, Massey is sporting a thick bandage on his right hand but was otherwise unaffected by the incident.
Mature cougars can measure between 42 and 54 inches and weigh up to 200 pounds.