A 16-year-old camp counselor fought a mountain lion with his hands and feet to rescue an injured 6-year-old Missoula boy Friday morning at Marshall Mountain ski area.
The victim, Dante Swallow, received puncture wounds to the neck and scrapes to his back and stomach in the encounter on a road near the top of the Marshall Mountain's chair lift. He was taken to Community Medical Center by ambulance and released after receiving stitches for the puncture wounds, according to a hospital spokesperson.
The young male lion that attacked Swallow was later tracked down and killed by state fish and game wardens and sheriff's deputies.
The boy's father, Dann Swallow, said he was preparing to meet his son at the ski area for a parent-camper picnic when he was notified of the incident. He met the ambulance at Community where he found the boy "amazingly calm," given what happened.
"He remembers it happening," Dann Swallow said. "He turned around, saw the lion coming towards him and it was on top of him before he knew it. … It came out of nowhere. … He's been pretty rational through the whole incident."
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Aaron Hall, Swallow's rescuer and a camp counselor at Marshall Mountain's summer day camp, said he was frightened by the attack, but was otherwise uninjured. Hall is in his first year as a summer-camp counselor.
"I was really scared," Hall said. "It's the scariest thing that's ever happened."
Swallow was in the last day of a weeklong summer day camp run by Marshall Mountain, Hall said. Thirty-seven campers and three counselors went on a hike to the top of the chair lift.
There was no warning of the attack, Hall said, other than hearing someone possibly Swallow yell that there was a mountain lion nearby.
When he turned around, Hall said he didn't recognize the animal as a mountain lion, thinking at first it was a dog.
"All I saw was two paws around Dante, and then I saw a mountain lion face," Hall said. "His face. Piercing eyes and his mouth."
The lion had pounced on Swallow from behind, grabbing the child around the neck and head, Hall said, forcing the boy to his knees.
In an adrenaline-charged reaction, Hall said he didn't even remember fighting with the mountain lion.
"I don't remember kicking the animal," said Hall. "I was cussing and everything else. I was just using my hands. I was waving and just getting him off."
The lion backed off a short distance, Hall said, allowing him to scoop up Swallow in his arms and administer first aid to the puncture wounds on Swallow's neck.
As the lion backed off, Hall said he and counselor Theresa Knight commandeered maintenance supervisor Jim Winn's pickup and headed at breakneck speed down the mountain. Winn had been working on some equipment nearby and heard the cries for help.
"I was ready to just run down the face (of the mountain)," Hall said. "I was ready just to boogie down the hill."
The other counselor, Julie Engler, hustled the remaining children to a warming hut and called for help on a two-way radio, while Winn grabbed his .41 Magnum revolver and went to track down the cat.
Fire and medical personnel met the trio halfway down the main Marshall Canyon road, Hall said, where Swallow was transferred to an ambulance for ride to the hospital.
Swallow was surprisingly calm on his way down the mountain, Hall said, attributing the boy's behavior more to shock than anything else.
"He was really calm," Hall said, noting that Swallow cried only once when given an intravenous injection in the ambulance.
Shortly after the incident, Winn said he spotted the cat paralleling the road, heading uphill toward the other campers.
"I tried for a head shot, but there was too much brush," Winn said, describing firing at the lion. Winn was unsure if he had hit the animal, though.
Fish and game wardens, Missoula County sheriff's deputies and three dog handlers with four Walker hounds a breed of lion-hunting dogs arrived in short order and tracked the cat.
The cat was treed and killed within about 30 minutes, sa
id Lt. Mike McMeekin of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department. Upon examining the lion carcass, officers discovered that Winn's bullet had grazed the cat's cheek.
"It went superbly," said McMeekin. "That is one special kid (Aaron Hall)."
Bill Thomas, information officer for Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimated the male lion was 2-3 years old.
"Cats under 2 years of age are usually the ones that end up getting into conflicts with people," Thomas said. When cats are 1 Þ-years-old, they are kicked out of their mother's territory and begin searching for a territory of their own.
"They are in transition, wandering around, so they have a greater likelihood of coming into conflict with people," Thomas said.
Thomas advised hikers, campers and bikers to know what to do if confronted or attacked by a bear or lion. Knowing how to react, Thomas said, is what saved Swallow's life.
Dann Swallow had taken the time to educate both of his sons about the dangers of animals attacks because he and his wife hike frequently with their kids.
"We do a lot of outdoor activities and a lot time hiking," the father said. "I just hope this doesn't have a long-term effect."
Winding down after the stressful day, Hall said he'd rather not run into another mountain lion, at least not under similar circumstances.
"In the zoo," said Hall about any future meeting with the big cats.
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