This Day Care Leader Wrestled a Cougar That Tried to Attack Her Kids
When a wild cat springs from the woods to prey on her young students, a day care owner instantly moves to protect them.
This story originally appeared in the May 1993 issue of the Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest.
Nudged awake by the morning sun, the young cougar opened its jaws in a teeth-baring yawn and stretched its muscular forelegs.
Then it started down the mountainside, crossed a narrow highway, and loped toward the wide, rushing river. For days, the cougar had been edging closer to the small lumber village of Lillooet on the Fraser River, at the edge of the mountains of southern British Columbia in Canada. Now, after drinking the river’s cold water, the cougar bedded down again in a nest of tall grass.
On July 3, 1991, the five children in Larrane Leech’s day care group were outdoors early, painting bright tempera landscapes under the penetrating sun. By 10 a.m., it was time to find shade, so Larrane decided they would walk down to the river. “We’re going to pick berries now,” she announced.
At 44, she had made her dream come true when she turned her home into a day care center. It had taken hard work to get her certification. After completing her courses in early childhood education, Larrane had volunteered in a day care center while working at a lumber mill and raising three teen sons alone.
So far, the center was operating smoothly. But she always worried about keeping her clients satisfied, as well as being able to care for enough children to make the business pay off.
Larrane had known all five children in her care since they were infants. Three were siblings: playful Mikey, age two; three-and-a-half-year-old Alleshia, the tough little athlete; and Jessica Allen, five, the exuberant leader. Four-year-old Natani Leech was actually an aunt to the three siblings, and Larrane, in turn, was Natani’s aunt. Only the bubbly toddler Lisa O’Laney, a few months shy of two, was unrelated to them. All were members of Indigenous tribes clustered around Lillooet, around 150 miles northeast of Vancouver.
The children had fallen easily into Larrane’s daily routine. Everyone loved circle time, when they passed around a black-and-white eagle feather; the child who held it could talk about whatever he or she wanted. A nature lover, Larrane also insisted they spend as much time as possible outdoors.
After clearing away the painting supplies and handing each child an empty jar on that July morning, Larrane called for Pal, her one-year-old German shepherd mix. Giggling with anticipation, Jessica and Natani paired off in front. Larrane linked Mikey’s hand with Alleshia’s, took little Lisa’s in her own, and said, “Let’s go.”
Larrane’s house stood on a wooded slope not far up from the mighty Fraser River. The group made its way over the dusty gravel road and then onto a dirt trail through the trees. The two oldest girls broke into a run through the tall brown grass at the trail’s edge, Natani’s waist-length hair swaying back and forth. Larrane and the little ones hurried to keep up.
Stopping the children at the first berry bush, Larrane pointed to the clusters of plump, sweet, navy blue fruit. “Look, the berries are all over,” she said. She helped Lisa find some clusters on the lowest branches. Mikey watched and then tentatively bit into a berry. “Mmm, good,” he said, and got busy plucking more.
The cougar cocked an ear toward the birdlike chatter and reflexively sniffed the air. Cougars rarely attack people or show themselves, but as towns expanded into mountainous countryside, there had been more and more sightings, especially in southern British Columbia. At the time, the province was home to some 3,000 of them.
The young cougar was instinctively versed in hunting strategies: Step silently and downwind through the brush to avoid being heard, scented, or seen; choose the weakest prey and attack from behind, clamping powerful jaws on the vital nerves and blood vessels of the prey’s neck.
Larrane and the children moved slowly from bush to bush. Pal stopped frequently in the shade, panting. Within 20 minutes, the children had filled their jars and were almost at the river. Here, the ground fell steeply to a cool, shady strip of sand roughly 15 feet wide.
“OK,” Larrane commanded after the group clambered down to the sandbank, “let’s get in our circle.” She could not risk letting a child wander off. Suddenly Alleshia jumped up and scooted toward the trees. “Come back, Alleshia,” Larrane called. Running after her, she caught up with the child and helped her back to the sandbank.
Now the cougar could see the funny little creatures that had been making all the noise. These were perfect prey: small, wiggly, and oblivious.
Stepping over the thick carpet of pine needles, the cat slunk toward the children, never so much as rustling a leaf or snapping a twig. Then it did something remarkable, something only a young, inexperienced cat would do. It walked onto the bank and merely nudged Mikey backward onto the sand. The rules of hunting required that the cougar grab the boy’s head in its mouth and carry him away. But the young cat paused, and to remove any hair before attacking and feeding, it began to lick the boy’s smooth skin with its rough tongue.
Kagan McLeod for Reader's Digest
Larrane sensed the children suddenly go quiet. She looked up to see the back end of a cat the size of Pal standing over Mikey. The cat’s head was down, out of sight behind its peaked shoulder blades, and its plumped, black-tipped tail swiped back and forth like a whip.
The sight of the cougar near her kids momentarily froze Larrane. Now Natani was giggling nervously. “Stop licking Mikey’s face,” she said playfully, as though talking to a house cat.
Larrane couldn’t tell whether Mikey had been bitten; he was silent and hidden beneath the beast. Her mind racing wildly, she sprang impulsively toward the cougar. Blindly intending to grab its tail, she shifted aim at the last minute and seized the cat by the scruff of the neck. Tugging once, she shook it from side to side.
Instantly, the cougar unsheathed its claws and wheeled toward Larrane, swiping both Mikey and Lisa in the face. Growling and hissing, it stretched up high and brought its paws down upon the head of the five-foot-one-inch woman. As she stumbled backward, one paw slipped onto her right shoulder, the claws grazing her ear.
This animal was capable of killing her. Although still in its youth, it had all the teeth and muscle a cougar needs to pull down a victim three times its size. Aware now of the danger, four of the children shrieked and ran behind Larrane. Mikey lay still on the ground.
“Stay behind me!” Larrane screamed as she faced the beast. Acting before she could think, she grabbed the animal’s forelegs and pulled them off her. The cougar’s thrashing forced her back into a crouch. Her soft sandals shifted and slipped in the sand, making it difficult to keep a secure stance. Summoning all her strength, Larrane forced herself back upright, still grasping the cat’s thick legs. Then she thrust her arms forward and locked them straight out in front of her. At the same time, she used her thumbs to push the animal’s paws inward to protect herself from being cut.
Locked in a deadly dance with the cougar, Larrane felt as though she were watching herself in slow motion. She stared at the animal’s pink tongue and long ivory fangs. Stepping back and forth on its hind legs, the cat let out a menacing growl as it tried to tug its paws, with their sharp claws, away from her.
“Pal, do something!” Larrane yelled at the dog cowering on the sand not ten feet away. She felt the muscles in her arms, legs, and back weakening. What am I going to do? she thought. If the cat gets away from me, he’ll kill the children. “Just go away and leave us alone,” she yelled into the animal’s face. “Leave us alone!”
The cougar was now trying a new tactic to break Larrane’s grip. It began thrashing its upper body from side to side, and Larrane could sense its imminent escape. Again acting without any conscious plan, she arched her back to gather momentum, then shoved forward with all her might, thrusting the cat directly at the dog and shouting, “Pal, do something!”
The cougar fell backward but rolled instantly to its feet and darted past Pal through the brush farther along the sandbank.
Without knowing it, Larrane had responded perfectly. She had distracted the cougar from Mikey only a fraction of a second before it had a chance to crush the boy’s skull in its mighty jaws. Then her aggressive movements and loud shouting probably scared the animal. Cougar experts say the cats often lose their appetite for killing when angrily confronted.
Watching the cat retreat, Pal gave chase, barking madly. In one bound, the cougar leaped halfway up a pine tree. It then climbed to the top, wrapped its paws around a branch, and hung there, looking down at the dog. Larrane rushed to Mikey, who lay quietly on the sand. The left side of his face and neck was bathed in blood. But he was breathing, and his eyes were open so wide they seemed to bulge from his face.
He’s alive, Larrane thought, gasping in relief. But he was eerily still. He must be in shock, she decided as she pulled him into her arms.
Then her eyes fell on Lisa, wailing at her side. The girl’s face was also covered with blood.
Shifting Mikey to her right side and scooping Lisa up in her left arm, Larrane called to the other children, “We have to run home now.” She saw their terror as they looked at her. She touched her face and felt blood dripping. It’s scaring them just to look at me, she realized. “Let’s go,” she ordered, “as fast as we can!”
They scrambled up the hill, Lisa still crying, Mikey remaining silent. Larrane soon found the two children too heavy to carry and eased Mikey down. He suddenly jolted from his stupor. “Owie, owie, owie!” he screamed, tears coursing down his face.
Larrane pulled him along toward the house. Pal lingered behind, watching the cougar, before finally following the others. “Everything will be all right,” Larrane called out to the kids. But deep down, she was not so certain. The cougar could be anywhere. She considered what it had already done—to Lisa, to Mikey, and to the dream she had worked so long to realize. Would any parents trust her with their children after this?
In five minutes, they were all inside the front door. Suddenly Larrane was aware of her own pain. Her thighs were bruised, and the scratches on her arm, forehead, and ear burned. Her hands shook as she telephoned the hospital and the parents of Lisa and Mikey.
At the Lillooet Hospital, Mikey needed 40 stitches to close lacerations on his chin and neck, but all his wounds were shallow. Lisa had been lucky, too: The cat had clawed within an inch of her right eye, and she required only 20 stitches.
Larrane’s scratches needed only to be cleaned and left to heal. But the muscles in her arms, back, and legs were so sore that she had difficulty walking.
As awful as the attack was, Larrane now had to contend with the fact that she had no idea whether her beloved day care center could remain open. So she felt a sense of profound relief the morning after the attack when she opened the front door to four of her day care children—including Mikey. Only Lisa did not return.
For several days, as they sat in a circle passing the eagle feather, the children remained quiet. The pictures they painted at art time were showered with splatters of red.
Finally, a week later, Mikey took the eagle feather in his hand and said, “I had a dream last night.”
“And what did you see in your dream?” Larrane asked gently.
“I saw an eagle. And he was sitting on my bed. Then he flew over me.”
Larrane smiled. In Lillooet folklore, the eagle is a sign of strength, sent by ancestors as an assurance that the person who sees it will be kept safe. She knew the child was beginning to feel secure again.
Larrane felt secure too. She no longer had to worry about the cougar. Nine days after the attack, it had wandered into a neighbor’s yard and was put down. But above and beyond her regained sense of safety, Larrane had met the greatest challenge of her life head-on and won. Her friends and neighbors applauded her strength. And as a result, Larrane knew that she could accomplish anything.
In 1992, Canada’s governor general honored Larrane’s bravery by awarding her the Star of Courage. She died in 2020, at age 73.
Next, read about a brave 18-year-old who helped save a hiker that fell off a mountain cliff.