A 4-year-old boy is lucky to be alive after being attacked by an 80-pound wild cat, likely a mountain lion, in a Rancho Penasquitos canyon on Memorial Day, a wildlife official said Tuesday.
A female mountain lion suspected of attacking the boy was shot and killed by wildlife officers hours later, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) spokesperson Lt. Scott Bringman said.
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The boy was hiking with a group of six adults and five children in the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, in an area known as Carson's Crossing at the center of the preserve, when the animal attacked at about 2:30 p.m., SDFD Battalion Chief Rick Ballard told NBC 7.
Bringman said the boy's father should be commended for his quick actions. While the rest of the group dispersed, the father "threw rocks and the animal left the scene."
The boy was, "Extremely lucky, I mean an 80-pound lion could really did some damage and luckily the dad was there and fended off the animal," he said.
The child was rushed to Rady’s Children Hospital with head wounds, Ballard said. DFW said the boy's injuries were non-life threatening but consistent with a mountain lion attack. Mountain lion tracks were also found at the scene.
While the agency was investigating the attack, a female mountain lion that appeared "habituated" approached them. Wildlife officers shot and killed the animal.
"The animal did not appear to be scared of the wardens, which is an indication that the animal is habituated," Bringman said. "So at that point in time the animal was euthanized."
DFW will transport the animal's body and the boy's clothing and other samples to a a laboratory in Sacramento for analysis. Wildlife forensics specialists will attempt to match DNA evidence from the animal to the boy, Bringman said.
Bringman said it was unusual that the animal returned to the same area just hours after the attack. Mountain lions are not typically spotted, even though they live in the area.
The DFW must still confirm if the animal that was subdued was the same animal that left the boy with wounds to his head on Monday.
"Once it attacks somebody, and based on the evidence that this animal being habituated, wasn’t scared of the wardens, it is a problem. We do not relocate them because that animal will be a problem somewhere else," he said.
The last time a mountain lion attacked in San Diego County was in Dec. 1994, when a 56-year-old woman was killed at Cuyamaca State Park, according to the DFW. The only other attack dating back to 1986 was of a 10-year-old girl in Sept. 1993.
Residents in the area said there were reports of a big cat in the area before.
"It was pretty spooky because we've known there is a big cat down here and we like to go to Carson's Crossing where the big cat has been seen," nearby resident Katherine Weadock said after learning of the attack.
A recording informs visitors the trails at Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve were closed Tuesday due to a wildlife issue.
The trailhead at Park Village Road was marked with caution tape, but an NBC 7 camera crew spotted two cyclists and a jogger enter the canyon.
The preserve is located between Rancho Penasquitos and Sorrento Hills, just north of Mira Mesa. It covers seven miles between the merge of Interstates 5 and 805 to just east of Interstate 15.
Bringman said the preserve would remain closed until lab testing confirmed the mountain lion that was killed was the same mountain lion that attacked the four-year-old.
Neighbors told NBC 7 signs are frequently posted near the trail when wild felines are reported.
"We walk in this canyon all the time so it is a bit scary that you can get attacked like that," resident Marcela Reices said.
Bobcats and coyotes are known to live in the preserve. Residents hike through the area to see a waterfall, a freshwater marsh and a grove of sycamore trees.
With the addition of housing into the foothills in San Diego County, there have been an increasing number of reports of wildlife spotted in yards and near homes.
In October, one resident in Chula Vista contacted the state and the federal government when she noticed four bobcats in her Eastlake neighborhood.
One Poway homeowner shared video with NBC 7 after she said she spotted two mountain lions in her yard in July.
That same month two bobcats activated a Carmel Valley resident's home-security motion lights and could be seen jumping around playing with their dinner. The woman said they were in their backyard for about three hours overnight.
Some of the most striking video NBC San Diego received in 2018 showing a big cat near humans was the curious bobcat captured outside the Anza Borrego Desert Research Center.
In all of these reported incidents over the last two years, no humans were injured in the interaction.
In September 2016, a Carmel Valley woman was bitten by a bobcat that she had picked up when she saw it was injured.
EDITOR'S NOTE (May 27, 2019, 10:14 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated the child was a girl. We have corrected the information from SDFD and regret the error.