This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
FORT COLLINS — Travis Kauffman says he’s glad his 15 seconds of fame has come and gone.
Five and a half months after he killed a mountain lion with his bare hands during a trail run in Fort Collins, Kauffman says he’s back to being an ordinary guy. The injuries the 32-year-old environmental engineer suffered during the Feb. 4 incident have healed without lasting problems, the local and international notoriety has subsided and he’s happily blended into the background of daily life in Fort Collins.
Although he has several physical scars from the incident, including a faint slash across his left cheek where the lion’s claw opened a big cut on his face, he doesn’t carry any lasting anxiety or PTSD. He hasn’t had any bad dreams and has largely forgotten about it despite often running on the same trail.
“It’s one of those things where time has passed and it’s become a distant memory and everything has returned to normal,” Kauffman said recently in Fort Collins. “But looking back, it’s still crazy to think about how the whole thing went viral overnight.”
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Mountain lion sightings have become increasingly common along Colorado’s Front Range, especially in the foothills west of Fort Collins, Boulder and Golden. Mountain lion attacks on humans, however, are rare in Colorado, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife counting fewer than 20 over the past 30 years.
However, two of those incidents resulted in fatalities. A 10-year-old boy was killed by a mountain lion while hiking near Grand Lake in 1997, and an adult runner was killed in Idaho Springs in 1991.
Although the cat scratched his cheek inches from his eye, the worst of the injuries Kauffman suffered was where the cat latched his jaw on his right wrist, causing two puncture wounds and temporary nerve damage that resulted in a temporary loss of feeling in two of his fingertips. That affected his grip for a while and made it hard to hold the handlebars of his mountain bike, but it finally subsided last month.
The only other lingering impact is a small scar on the bridge of his nose that he says occasionally makes his skin tight and a little itchy.
“That’s really about it,” he says on July 16 after a short trail run at the Maxwell Natural Area trailhead west of Fort Collins while wearing the same aqua blue Nike shorts with holes from where the cat had scratched him. “I know I was lucky to survive it pretty unscathed.”
Since February, Kauffman has been running more than ever before, occasionally alone on the very trail system where the incident occurred. He hasn’t seen another lion, but he says he’s much more cognizant of his surroundings and is keenly aware of animal tracks.
The reason he was out running on the trails in February was to train for his first running race — the Dirty 30 50K on June 1 in Golden. He finished that 31-mile trail race at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in 7 hours, 13 minutes, 55 seconds, placing 95th out of 432 finishers.
“That’s a pretty good effort for someone who has never run a race before,” says race director Megan Finnesy. “He was pretty humble about how he went about it. He never called attention to who he was. I shook the hand of every finisher, including his, but I never knew who he was.”
The race started on a route called Mountain Lion Trail, which Kauffman admits was more than a bit ironic.
“Yeah, that was weird, almost like some strange sort of poetic justice,” he says. “It was a hard race, but it was good, too. I was just happy to finish, but it’s definitely inspired me to run more. I have always just run for recreation and enjoyment, really just to get some exercise and stay fit, so running races is entirely new to me.”
Kauffman, also an avid skier and mountain biker, recently signed up for the Oct. 19 Blue Sky Trail Marathon in Fort Collins and the Nov. 2 Moab Trail Marathon in Utah.
He’s invested in more trail running gear, but the owner of a Fort Collins running store gave him new pair of shoes after hearing Kauffman was wearing a model of the store’s shoes when he encountered the cat.
“I never really understood the mentality of paying to run or bike in an event like that, but now that I’ve done it I get it,” Kauffman says. “There is a really crazy cool trail running community behind events like that. And you definitely push yourself to a different limit than you would when you don’t have that objective in mind.”
Kauffman initially tried to remain anonymous after the Feb. 4 incident to avoid the attention, but revealed his story 10 days later at a news conference in Fort Collins. Later that month he appeared on NBC’s Today Show.
In the interim, he wound up getting more than 500 emails about the incident, some from people he knew, but most from strangers.
He had gone for a solo trail run in Lory State Park at about 1 p.m. on that mild February Monday with the intent of reaching the Towers Trail in the uppers reaches of the adjacent Horsetooth Mountain Park. After running to the summit, he took in the view and began running down another trail when he heard some leaves rustle in the brush along West Ridge Trail.
When he turned around to see a small mountain lion chasing him, he stopped and put his hands up and yelled, the cat lunged at him and grasped his body. The mountain lion’s mouth clamped down on his wrist and its claws dug into his legs, shoulder and face.
“It immediately had its claws on me and, I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is real,’” Kauffman says. “It immediately clamped onto my wrist, then it was almost as if it was trying to climb up my body. It was a frantic flurry of paws. I felt a claw poke into my legs and then it was swatting at my face and I felt a big scratch on my cheek. Then I felt its claws dig into my shoulder as it tried to wrap itself around me.”
From there, a scuffle ensued that lasted about 10 minutes as Kauffman and the cat fell to the ground and rolled down an incline off the trail. With the cat’s jaw still locked onto his wrist, Kauffman tried without much success to hit the cat with both a stick and a rock.
Eventually, Kauffman was able to pin the cat’s rear legs to the ground and begin to suffocate with his left foot on its neck. It wasn’t until the cat fell limp that he was able to free his right wrist.
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The necropsy reported that the animal was a juvenile cat, weighing between 35 and 40 pounds and possibly strayed from its mother.
“It looked like a small cat and I never was overpowered by it, but my biggest concern the moment the incident started was worrying about where the mother cat might be,” Kauffman said. “While all of that was happening, I could see a good amount of blood dripping onto the cat’s fur from my face, so I was wondering how bad the cut was. And all the while, my head was on a swivel because I figured the mom would show up and that would be it for me. It was pretty terrifying, but it wasn’t like I had to make any decisions. I just reacted and did what I had to do.”