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Couple survive mountain lion attack

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — State wildlife officials on Thursday credited a 65-year-old Fortuna woman with saving her 70-year-old husband's life by clubbing a mountain lion that had his head gripped in its jaws until the animal let go.

Jim and Nell Hamm, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Feb. 9, were hiking in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on the far North Coast when he was attacked by a single lion, Supervising Ranger Maury Morningstar said.

"He didn't scream. It was a different, horrible plea for help, and I turned around and by then the cat had wrestled Jim to the ground," Nell Hamm said in an interview from the hospital where her husband was recovering from a torn scalp, puncture wounds and other injuries.

Game wardens, who closed the park and released hounds to track the mountain lion, shot and killed a pair found near the trail where the attack happened.

One lion, a female, was shot with a rifle Wednesday night. The other, a male, was killed Thursday morning, said Fish and Game Warden Rick Banko. Their carcasses were flown to a state forensics lab in Rancho Cordova to determine if either animal mauled the man, he said.

Although she and her husband are avid hikers and experienced in the outdoors, neither of them had seen a mountain lion before Jim Hamm found himself on the ground trying to fight one off, his wife said. Nell Hamm said she grabbed a four-inch wide log and beat the animal with it, but it wouldn't relinquish its hold on her husband's head.

"Jim was talking to me all through this, and he said, 'I've got a pen in my pocket and get the pen and jab him in the eye,"' she said. "So I got the pen and tried to put it in his eye, but it didn't want to go in as easy as I thought it would."

When the pen bent and became useless, Nell Hamm went back to using the log. The lion eventually let go and with blood on its snout stood staring at the woman, who screamed and waved her wooden weapon until the animal slowly walked away.

"She saved his life, there is no doubt about it," said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game.

Hamm said she was scared to leave her dazed, bleeding husband alone, so the couple walked a quarter-mile to a trail head, where she gathered branches to protect them if more lions came around. They waited there — Hamm does not know for how long — until a ranger came by and summoned help.

"My concern was to get Jim out of there," she said. "I told him, 'Get up, get up, walk,' and he did."

Jim Hamm, whose lips had to be stitched back together, underwent surgery for lacerations on his head and body at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata. He was in fair condition on Thursday, and told his wife he plans to make the trip to New Zealand they planned for their Golden anniversary, she said.

Hamm said she and her husband want to use their experience to warn people never to hike in the backcountry alone. Park rangers told them that if they had not been together, Jim Hamm probably would not have survived the attacked.

"I feel that Jim and I fought for his life," she said. "We fought harder than we ever have to save his life, and we fought together."

Based on their weight of between 70 and 100 pounds, officials think the lions were relatively young.

The incident about 320 miles north of San Francisco was the 16th mountain lion attack reported to the state since 1890. It was the first attack since three people were injured, one of them fatally, in separate incidents in Orange and Tulare counties in 2004, Martarano said.

Since 1990, the 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions estimated to be in California have been protected from hunting, although residents can get special permits to shoot a lion if it is perceived as a danger to people, pets or livestock.

Sightings of the animals have increased in the past decade as housing has spread into their habitat, but attacks are relatively rare since mountain lions tend to be wary of people, said Karen Kovacs, a senior wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game.

"For the most part, their natural inclination is to go the other way when humans are around," Kovacs said. "This was atypical because this person was with somebody. Usually they attack someone who is alone."

The park was reopened to the public Thursday after the second lion was killed, Banko said.

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