On an unseasonably warm February day, Travis Kauffman headed out around noon for a run in the foothills outside Fort Collins, wearing shorts and a fleece pullover.
Within two hours, he’d emerge from the woods — clothes tattered, body blood-smeared, but alive.
The story of how he came face-to-face with a juvenile mountain lion and not only survived, but killed the animal that attacked him, soon became the stuff of legend. It’s the type of story that feeds the impulses of internet commenters and quickly embeds itself in local folklore, like a Wild West tall tale come to life.
The basic plotline was well-known within hours: A mountain lion ambushed a trail runner in a popular open space area. Without the aid of weapons, the runner fought back. The cat continued the onslaught and lost its life. But the details were largely unknown.
KUNC’s Luke Runyon spoke with Kauffman for his first sit-down media interview. He’d been anonymous since the attack on Feb. 4. He identified himself at a press conference with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Feb. 14. Full disclosure, Runyon and Kauffman have known each other for about four years.
Kauffman started his run that day with a grueling slog. He began at Arthur’s Rock trailhead, eventually hooking up with Towers Trail, a steep 4×4 road within Horsetooth Open Space that stretches from Horsetooth Reservoir to the top of a ridge more than 7,000 feet in elevation.
After the lung-busting climb, Kauffman took in the view from the top of the well-trafficked trail. He began his descent on a different one, West Ridge Trail, running south toward Horsetooth Mountain. Kauffman is an experienced trail runner, but this was his first time on West Ridge.
“So (this was) a less than ideal first introduction to that set of trails,” Kauffman said. “But it was very pretty.”
A few weeks back, Kauffman signed up for a 50-kilometer trail race, the Dirty 30 this summer in Colorado’s Golden Gate Canyon State Park. This ill-fated run was part of his training, getting him ready to take on that challenge.
Originally from northern Arkansas, Kauffman moved to Colorado six years ago and works for an environmental consulting firm.
The 31-year-old — at 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 150 pounds — skipped the earbuds on this run, opting instead for the sound of his own footsteps. A quarter-mile into his descent from Towers, he heard pine needles rustling on the trail behind him.
“I stopped and turned,” he said. “And it’s one of those situations where sometimes I turn, sometimes I don’t. But in the back of my mind I always wonder if it’s something dangerous like a bear or a bobcat or a mountain lion, and in this case it was in fact a mountain lion.
“So I remember seeing that and just having my gut feel the full impact of the situation.”
The juvenile cougar barreled toward him. Kauffman put up his arms and screamed in an attempt to scare the cat away.
“Unfortunately, it kept running,” he said.
The cat leapt at Kauffman’s face. He raised his arms in a defensive motion to blunt the initial attack. Its mouth locked around his wrist. One tooth sunk into the meaty part of his thumb, another dug into the top of his wrist.
The mountain lion hugged Kauffman’s body, digging its front claws into his back. Its back legs thrashed at his thighs. He tried to throw it off. But with its mouth clamped around his wrist, the two ended up tumbling more than 20 feet off the trail into a gully.
“But during that fall, the cat ended up on its back and it still had my wrist this whole time in its mouth,” Kauffman said.
With the leverage of being on top of the cougar, Kauffman used one of his legs to pin the animal’s hindquarters to the ground, and then searched for a way to fight back. He grabbed sticks, but they were rotted, and crumbled when he tried to use them against the cat. With his free hand, he found a rock and began hitting its head. The angle was awkward and Kauffman let the cat’s legs slip out from under him.
“Its back legs got free at that point and it’s scratching my back and my calves and then some more of my thighs a little bit,” he says.
As he recounts what happened, Kauffman’s orange tabby Obie wanders through his Fort Collins home, pawing at the microphone and meowing to be let outside. Kauffman and his girlfriend Annie Bierbower adopted him six months ago.
“Because I’m a recent cat owner, I know that the back claws are pretty dangerous when it comes down to an attack,” Kauffman said. “And I was pretty worried about its claws just sinking into my stomach and groin area.”
He was able to repin the mountain lion’s legs with his left leg and swung the other around to the cat’s throat.
“I got my right foot onto its neck,” he said. “And then I was able to get some weight onto its windpipe and that’s what eventually suffocated it.”
Only when the cat was dead did it release Kauffman’s wrist from its mouth.
The whole battle lasted about ten minutes. That was long enough for Kauffman to begin to process the life-changing event underway. While he battled the mountain lion, he occasionally would look up and scan the trees, looking for a second cat to join.
“One of the thoughts that I was having was like, ‘Well this would be a pretty crappy way to die,'” he said. “Just off on the side of the mountain, screaming and having this cat wrapped around my wrist. Then eventually another cat comes in and takes me out, and then getting eaten by a bunch of mountain lions. That wouldn’t be an ideal way to go.
“It very much turned into just a full-on fight for survival.”
After suffocating the cat, covered in scratches and puncture wounds, and full of adrenaline, Kauffman started running again.
“I was looking around and feeling like I was being watched by cats on all sides,” he said. “Because I really took in my surroundings a little bit more and then realized that the whole west side of the trail was filled with rock overhangs and just prime mountain lion territory.”
He eventually encountered another runner, a man named Spencer. Kauffman didn’t get his last name. The two began walking down Towers Trail, and came across two hikers, Noah and Rachel Wiarda of Fort Collins, who helped Kauffman down to the Soderberg Open Space trailhead.
Rachel drove Kauffman to the Poudre Valley Hospital emergency room, while Noah and Spencer went to fetch Kauffman’s truck at the trailhead where he started his run and drop it off at the hospital.
Kauffman received more than two dozen stitches on his face, a brace for his wrist and an antibiotic regimen. A necropsy on the mountain lion showed no signs of rabies. Investigators could not determine the animal’s sex, but estimated its weight to be 35 to 40 pounds.
In the time it took for Kauffman to hike down and officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to visit the scene of the attack, the dead mountain lion had already been partially eaten.
County open space officials temporarily closed the area where the attack occurred, citing additional mountain lion activity. State wildlife officials relocated two other juvenile mountain lions from the area, possible siblings of the cat Kauffman killed, according to a press release.
News of the attack went viral. For more than a week, Kauffman’s identity was not widely known. But that didn’t stop internet theories from floating around about his purported background in martial arts, his workout regimen and his training in hand-to-hand combat. Colorado Parks and Wildlife fielded inquiries asking if he was single.
Kauffman says he’s not a competitive runner, more of a hobbyist who’s beginning to train for longer races. He plays adult recreational soccer in a local league and sometimes turns on the Insanity brand of taped workouts. He’s never done martial arts. He lives with his girlfriend.
“It’s weird being considered a celebrity for just surviving, which is a weird way to achieve a certain degree of notoriety,” Kauffman said. “For the most part I tend to lie under the radar a little bit.”
The foothills might feel like a place just for people, for recreation, Kauffman said. But they’re wild places. Being aware of your surroundings while out hiking and trail running might save your life.
Kauffman says the decision to not wear earbuds to listen to music saved his life. He heard the mountain lion coming before he saw it, and that might’ve given him the edge.
“The first night I could not go to sleep because I just kept picturing him turning around, turning around, and the cat lunging on him,” said Bierbower, Kauffman’s girlfriend. “Just thinking if he hadn’t turned around… you just keep replaying that because I’m convinced too that him turning around 100 percent saved his life.”
The stitches on Kauffman’s face are gone, and the wounds on his back, legs and wrist are beginning to heal. He’s even gone out running again since the attack occurred, not at Horsetooth, but other nearby trails. He still plans on running the 50k race in June.
The Rocky Mountain foothills, with all their crags and cliffs, are prime hunting territory for mountain lions. It’s why they live there.
When he goes running now he notices small things he didn’t pay much attention to before, like when the trail shifts from open grasslands to a narrow, rocky outcropping, shaded in pine trees. He looks over his shoulder more.
“It’s such a really weird freak thing,” Kauffman said. “Mountain lions are so reclusive and really shy away from humans. I know logically that it’s not a legitimate concern that I should be actually worried about. But I mean, it’s there.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials praised Kauffman’s handling of the situation, saying he did everything you’re supposed to in an encounter with a mountain lion. He tried to scare it off by making noise and raising his arms. When that didn’t work, he used sticks and rocks to defend himself. And when that still wasn’t enough, he used his body and wits to kill the animal. He said he was following his gut.
“During the whole process I didn’t really make that many decisions. There was a lot of instinct,” he said. “And so there weren’t a lot of decisions to second-guess or a lot of critical moments that I had to rethink or go through and reprocess.
“For the most part I don’t feel any residual trauma from it. And I tend to like to move forward. That’s kind of my personality.”
In his own words:
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated the weight of the mountain lion was approximately 80 pounds based on earlier reports. It has been corrected with the estimated weight in the necropsy report, which was 35 to 40 pounds.