Bobcat, not bear, blamed for attack on sleeping camper

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2007 - 8:55 PM

A Minnesota DNR official said it looks like a bobcat pounced on a man's head in Itasca State Park and tried to pull him away.

Minnesota's most common wild feline, the famously elusive bobcat, is the likely culprit in an attack early Thursday on a camper sleeping in Itasca State Park.

Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Greg Spaulding came to that conclusion after examining photos of 2-inch claw marks on the face and head of the camper, Jon Kenning.

"It looks like it grabbed him and pulled," Spaulding said, adding that the spacing between the cuts also correlates with bobcat claws.

A DNR news release said it's possible that snoring or Kenning's moving head could have tricked a bobcat into thinking there was small prey in the tent where he was sleeping.

"In a weird way, I'm not surprised" it was a bobcat, said Kenning, 28. "I think it was a mistake on its part. [Bobcats] tend to go for rodents and maybe it saw my big, furry head sticking out of my sleeping bag and started batting me around."

Spaulding and John Erb, a DNR biologist who studies bobcats, said they've never heard of one attacking a human. Spaulding traps the animals and said he's seen evidence that they've killed fawns, lambs and full-grown sheep, but not people.

Bobcats have sharp, sickle-shaped claws that can reach about a half-inch in length.

Kenning said he didn't see the animal that attacked him at 2:13 a.m., as he slept. The Clearwater County Sheriff's office originally thought it could have been a small bear.

Kenning suffered cuts to the lower right side of his face and the back of his head. "Oh yeah, there's a lot of pain," he said Friday, "but I feel a lot better today. Yesterday was rough."

Kenning, a Hutchinson, Minn., native, is a visiting assistant professor at Creighton University in Nebraska and was leading 10 students on a two-day biology field course in the park. He said his tent was closed with two zippers, and he guessed that the animal could have used its paw or nose to open the tent, a maneuver his small terrier pulls off with ease.

Officials could not say why a bobcat would wander into a tent but noted that the animal, which can reach 3 feet in length and weigh 35 pounds, is common in the park. They move like shadows and often live in or under farm buildings without ever being seen, Spaulding said.

Bobcats prowl northern Minnesota and number about 4,000 each fall before hunting season, when licensed trappers harvest them for fur, Erb said. A record 1,000 were harvested from December 2006 to early January 2007, he added.

The current Minnesota bobcat population is about 2,600, which will increase once spring litters are accounted for, Erb said. Their numbers have grown in the past five years, meaning that encounters with humans are more likely, Spaulding said, but he also said that the chance of a repeat attack on a camper is virtually nonexistent.

The attack has piqued the interest of park visitors, but park manager Paul Wannarka said no one's been scared off. The park expects a capacity crowd this Memorial Day weekend at its 250 campsites. Information about the attack and safety tips are being posted at the park.

Kenning, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, is expected to make a full recovery.

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