Trail runner comes forward: How I killed that mountain lion

By Kirk Mitchell

Travis Kauffman, the Colorado man who killed a mountain lion with his bare hands, and Annie Bierbouer embrace at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Office on Feb. 14, 2019. 

Travis Kauffman was on a long-distance run 10 days ago in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Colorado, when he heard pine needles rustling and a twig break.

He doesn’t always turn his head for such noises because it’s usually a deer or rabbit. But this time he’s glad he thought the sound could be something else.

“That something else happened to be a mountain lion. One of my worst fears was imagined,” Kauffman told a national media audience Thursday afternoon in a conference room in the Hilton Fort Collins. “I was pretty bummed out to see a mountain lion running after me.”

What followed was a life-and-death struggle with a mountain lion — a fight he wasn’t sure he would survive.

“There was a point when I thought I could end up there and stay there,” he said.

Instead, Kauffman — in an almost unheard-of feat — killed the mountain lion with his bare hands.

Before he spoke Thursday, a succession of Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials described how Kauffman’s rare encounter could have turned out so much differently. He received more than 20 stitches to his face, authorities said, and also suffered bruises and puncture wounds to his neck and legs.

The soft-spoken Kauffman gave a dramatic, sometimes humorous description of what happened. He joked about being 5-foot-10 and weighing around 150 pounds.

“This story is bigger than my teeny frame. If it was Chuck Norris, he would have come out of it without a scratch and then put (the cat) on his shoulder,” Kauffman said.

He told reporters that after an upcoming vacation he will be back on the same trail training.

Kauffman, 31, said he moved from Mountain Home, Arkansas, to Fort Collins because he loves Colorado’s outdoors lifestyle and climate. He works as a consultant for an environmental consulting firm and is a biker, trail runner and skier.

Around noon on Feb. 4, he set out for a 12-to-14-mile run on Horsetooth Mountain, in the hills west of Fort Collins.

While he was on the West Ridge Trail, Kauffman said, he heard something moving in the pine needles and turned around. He locked eyes with the wild cat. He yelled and waved his arms over his head to make himself look bigger.

But the mountain lion lunged for his face anyway.

Kauffman managed to get his hands in front of the animal. It latched onto his wrist while clawing his face and neck.

“I was screaming all along, doing my barbarian yell,” Kauffman said. “It was thrashing and it had my wrist in its jaws.”

Kauffman grabbed two sticks and stabbed the cat’s neck with them. Both sticks broke.

“I was really surprised by the sounds of it,” Kauffman said. “It was silent. There were no growls, no cat noises. It was pretty visually intense.”

He picked up a large rock and pummeled the lion in the back of the head. But with his wrist in the animal’s jaws, he wasn’t able to get the leverage to do enough damage to the cat to get it off of him.

Kauffman realized that the cat’s claws that cut his lip could also blind his eyes. He recalled seeing the mountain lion’s claws retract and re-extend. It began grinding its teeth on his wrist and he feared he would lose the use of his hand. The sound was disturbing, he said.

At this point, a primal realization took over.

“My fear response turned into a fight response,” he said. “It was just pure adrenalin.”

Man and lion wrestled on the ground. Kauffman maneuvered around the cat, which he described as being about 4 feet long and 3 feet tall, weighing 50 pounds.

He climbed on top of the lion, which was on its back. Fearing that the cat’s back paws would gouge his “nether parts,” he worked a knee on top of its back legs to pin it down, and, with his other foot, stepped on the animal’s neck.

The lion struggled for another three minutes before letting go of his wrist and falling back.

Kauffman ran up the trail worried that the cat’s mother might jump out at him.

Several people helped him get to safety and the hospital.

Colorado wildlife officials found the mountain lion’s corpse. Kauffman said it had been cannibalized by other mountain lions. In the following days, wildlife officials set up cameras that picked up the images of two young mountain lions at night in the area where the fight happened.

Wildlife officers set up traps and caught the two young mountain lions, which will be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. They never found the mother lion.

When Kauffman’s girlfriend, Annie Bierbower, heard about the attack she rushed from work to the hospital.

“I was thankful he had his eyes, fingers and all his body parts,” she told reporters at Thursday’s conference.

Kauffman said he’ll soon be on the same trail that– which he believes to be safe, in part because what happened to him was such a rare incident. He’s eager to resume training for the Dirty 30, a 50-kilometer trail run near Denver in June.

“I will run on those trails again. I will be running with a buddy, though,” he said. And maybe a knife.