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Video: Boy survives mountain lion attack

TODAY contributor
updated 3/12/2008 10:48:27 AM ET 2008-03-12T14:48:27

Paul John Schalow is a 10-year-old who loves riding ATVs in the wilds of Arizona, and he’s not going to stop just because the last time he went he was attacked by a rabid mountain lion.

P.J., as he’s known, looked none the worse for wear on Wednesday in New York, when he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer about the attack, which happened last Saturday while he was on a family outing in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

Ten adults were on the expedition along with P.J., who was celebrating his birthday, and his cousin Brittany, 9.

After a morning spent riding their ATVs, they stopped by a river around 2 p.m. to eat lunch. The two kids were on a sandy beach when the female mountain lion arrived, apparently also intent on a meal.

“She was walking and she just stopped right behind me,” P.J. said, his tone as matter-of-fact as if he were describing an encounter with a kitten. “I see my little cousin Brittany, she looks scared in her face. So I turn around and I see it. Then everyone starts saying, ‘Hold still. Hold still,’ so we just froze.”

“I was actually scared at first. I was shaking,” added Brittany, who said her discomfort was made worse because “I had an itch in my back.”

But when she heard her grandmother yelling, “Stay still. Don’t move. Don’t move,” that’s just what she did.

P.J.’s grandfather, Newton Smith, was about 10 feet away, and he’s convinced that had the children started screaming and running, the lion would have gone into lethal attack mode. Instead, it casually investigated P.J., who showed remarkable courage by standing stock-still as the animal scratched his back with its claws. Even when the lion opened its jaws and tried to get his head in its jaws, he didn’t move.

Lauer expressed amazement that the boy could show so much control, but he shrugged it off, saying that the scratches on his back were already healing and he suffered no damage to his head. “I was lucky,” he said. “She had dull teeth.”

The mountain lion proved to be rabid, but it wasn’t foaming at the mouth and no one thought of that at the time. Smith did say that it seemed awfully strange to see a mountain lion, which is normally a nocturnal feeder very shy of humans, out in the middle of the day and approaching a large group of people.

“It did go through my mind, thinking that cats normally don’t come into camp at two in the afternoon,” he said. “It was just so subtle. He just walked — strolled — halfway between 10 adults and the children on the beach.”

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Cool heads prevail
Smith, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, was as calm as P.J. and Brittany in describing what had to be an incredibly tense moment.

“You could see he was definitely sizing [P.J] up,” Smith said. “He put his paw on his shoulder. He put his mouth directly on top of his head, and I think if the head had been smaller, he’d have been picked up.”

Fortunately, another adult — P.J.’s uncle — in the party had brought a handgun along and had left it in a vehicle that was parked nearby. He ran to get the gun, and when the animal started to investigate whether P.J.’s head was bite-sized, Smith told him to shoot the animal, which he did with one extremely well-placed shot.

Once the danger was past, Smith realized that he now had a possible trophy. He got his hunting knife and gutted the animal, explaining what he was doing and what all the icky stuff inside was to the children.

It was only when they took the carcass home and called wildlife officials, who came to check the carcass, that they learned there might be a problem. A few hours later, after tissue tests were done, they were told that the animal was in an advanced stage of rabies, which explained its erratic behavior. It also meant that everyone in the party who had been exposed to the animal had to begin a series of six rabies shots to be administered over a period of several weeks.

Lauer asked if the shots hurt, and P.J. smiled and said, “Sort of.”

Lauer then suggested that P.J. might want to celebrate his birthday next year in a less risky way — say, with balloons and a magician in the backyard.

P.J. shook his head “no” emphatically.

“You want to go back out in the wild?” Lauer asked in disbelief.

“Yeah,” replied P.J.

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