SALEM - Jacob Walsh had been playing carefree in the backyard at his cousin's home in rural Washington when a cougar sprang from the bushes, knocked him to the ground and began clawing at his neck, back and legs.
His cousin ran toward the house screaming "lion, lion, lion," as Jacob swung and kicked in a valiant struggle to get away, but at 4 years old he was no match for the wild cougar.
When Jacob's aunt came running out of the house seconds later, the struggle was already over. She saw the cougar stalking away with Jacob's limp body dangling from its mouth.
By then, Jacob was unconscious. He couldn't see or hear his aunt chasing after the cougar, yelling "let him go," "let him go." Apparently dragging Jacob by the neck was impeding the cougar's getaway. Each time his aunt yelled the cougar glanced back at the advancing woman and eventually released the boy and ran off.
This month, Jacob and his grandfather drove from their home in rural southwest Washington to Salem to testify in support of a bill before the Oregon Legislature to overturn portions of Measure 18, an initiative passed by voters in 1994 banning use of dogs and bait to hunt down bears and cougars that threaten people or livestock.
Jacob, now age 7, still bears physical scars from 200 stitches on his neck, back, arms and legs from the cougar attack. He also suffered a broken collarbone, dislocated left hip, dislocated right elbow, and damage to several vertebrae and discs in his neck and spine.
The emotional scars also linger, although his grandfather, Darrell Shute, said counseling is helping Jacob overcome the emotional trauma.
Jacob still has nightmares and doesn't like to talk much about what happened that day, so his grandfather did most of the talking as the two of them sat side by side before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and testified in support of House Bill 2436.
"We're hoping that testifying on this legislation will empower Jacob and help restore some of his sense of control," Shute said.
Despite Jacob's story and widespread support among rural residents and farm groups for HB 2436, Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a veto letter putting lawmakers on notice that he opposes repeal of the bear and cougar initiative.
"The citizens of Oregon have voted twice on this issue and the governor is not interested in overturning the will of the people," said Jim Myron, natural resource policy advisor to the governor.
However, short of overturning the Measure 18, Myron said the governor is willing to support legislation to deal with "any remaining unresolved issues relating to the public's safety."
Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Halsey, who chairs the committee, said under normal circumstances he also opposes overturning initiatives passed by voters, but in this case he believes the evidence of safety hazards associated with soaring cougar populations in rural areas are so great that the Legislature must act.
In a nutshell, HB2436 would restore the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's authority to manage the state's cougar and bear populations with tools including dogs and traps when necessary.
A group called Oregonians for Responsible Wildlife Management based in Wilsonville heard about Jacob's run-in with a cougar and invited him to come to Oregon and testify on HB2436.
After hearing Jacob's story and testimony from dozens who overwhelmingly supported the bill, committee members voted to advance House Bill 2436 with a do-pass recommendation to a vote before the full House. The Oregon House of Representatives passed House Bill 2436, which will allow the use of dogs for the management of cougar populations, on April 23. After more than 45 minutes of debate HB 2436 was passed with bipartisan support. Six Democrats and 29 Republicans voted yes to pass the bill to the Senate with a total vote of 35 in favor. By passing HB 2436A with bipartisan support, the Oregon House of Representatives has sent a loud and clear message to the senate and governor that they support protecting children from cougars and that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should be allowed to use dogs to manage cougars, according to Jerod Broadfoot, a member of the coalition that sponsored HB2436.
So many people from across Oregon and other Northwest states showed up to testify and show their support for the bill that they overflowed the legislative hearing room and clogged the halls at the state capitol.
Dean Powell of Baker City testified that since passage of Measure 18, cougars have been coming into his yard killing and eating his pigs, ducks and geese.
In written testimony, Ivan Crow, mayor of Halfway, said that since passage of Measure 18, cougar sightings have increased to the point that people are afraid to let their children play in the fields, swim in ditches and explore the valley as kids have done in that area for generations.
Lowell Armon of Lostine said cougars killed three of his neighbor's sheep and have become so prevalent in the area that he's taken to packing a gun when he takes his children to the school bus stop.
In the town of Shady Cove, a half dozen cougar sighting a month prompted officials to post cougar warning signs. A rash of cougar sightings and encounters in Elgin, Enterprise, Wallowa and La Grande were reported in newspaper clippings provided to the committee.
State wildlife officials also submitted documents showing how a 10-fold increase in cougar populations in some areas since passage of Measure 18 have decimated elk and deer populations in many areas of the state.
Some of the farm groups supporting the bill include the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Oregon State Grange, and the Oregon Family Farm Association.
Ed Merriman worked 20 years as a reporter and editorial writer at newspapers in Oregon and Washington. For the last seven years he held the title of senior reporter at the Capital Press newspaper in Salem and worked out of the state Capitol Building as a member of the press corps.