WAYNESBORO — Mystery solved.
Speculation over what kind of animal attacked a hiker near Humpback Rocks on Friday — namely, a bear or mountain lion — was resolved Monday, thanks to the victim’s mother. The answer? Neither.
It turns out, 31-year-old Kyle Houghton fought off a large bobcat, according to his mother, Stephanie Houghton.
The Winchester woman called The News Virginian on Monday after seeing media reports over the weekend that speculated on the nature of the attack. A TV news outlet initially quoted a 911 dispatcher as saying a mountain lion attacked the man.
But rangers and other wildlife officials said it was more likely a bear, given the rarity of mountain lion sightings — officially, they don’t even exist any longer in Virginia — and the active black bear population in the area around where the attack took place.
Stephanie Houghton knows exactly what happened — and why a mountain lion was first reported as the culprit.
“That’s my fault,” she said. “Kyle called me Friday afternoon and said he’d just been attacked by a big cat. He hadn’t called 911 yet, so I told him I would call for him.”
Houghton explained that at the time, she did not know what, exactly, had attacked her son.
“But when I think of a ‘big cat,’ like he said, I think mountain lion, which is what I told the 911 operator,” she said. “So that’s how that started. It was because of me.”
Houghton related the experience her son endured on Friday.
She said Kyle and his girlfriend, Katie, were on day two of a four-day hike and were just below Humpback Rocks when the attack occurred at about 2:30 p.m. The rocks, a popular destination for hikers that offers spectacular views of the Valley and mountains, is at the top of a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just south of Waynesboro.
“He said it took place at the part that levels out just before Cedar Cliff overlook,” she said. “They were walking down the trail and he said they kept hearing noises behind them. But after a while, they just figured, ‘oh, it’s just the noises the woods make.”
The couple soon took a break, and sat down on a log to eat their lunch. That’s when Kyle noticed the bobcat.
“Kyle saw him in a kind of stalking pose and quietly said to Katie, ‘Look at that,’ and gestured to the cat,” Houghton explained.
She said her son thinks the cat, which he estimated weighed 75 to 80 pounds and was much bigger than the average-sized bobcat, was stalking Katie.
“She’s 5-foot 6, but she’s a size 0,” she said. “She has a very petite frame. Kyle thinks he was following them along the trail and was going to go after Katie.”
As the bobcat began trotting toward Katie, Kyle stood up and got in front of her, Houghton explained.
“That’s when it started sprinting towards him,” she said. “Kyle knew he would go for his neck so he put his left arm up to protect himself and that’s when the cat pounced.”
The bobcat sunk its teeth into Kyle’s left arm, while scratching and clawing at his right arm.
“At this point, the adrenaline is flowing, and he grabs the cat, and slammed it to the ground and starts stomping on it,” Houghton said. She said her son is a big man — “6-foot, 3-inches tall and 250 pounds, all muscle,” as she put it — but the bobcat still put up a fight.
At this point, with Kyle’s arm bleeding profusely, and the bobcat not backing down, Katie ran to her pack and grabbed the couple’s bear spray.
“They sprayed it on the bobcat and that’s when it go up and ran away,” Houghton explained.
Katie wrapped Kyle’s arms as best she could and they began to make their way down the trail, without Kyle’s glasses, which were lost in the attack.
That’s when Kyle, who lives in Northern Virginia, called his mom and asked her to pick them up. After calling 911, Houghton and her husband, Robert, got in the car and began the two-hour drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When Kyle and Katie arrived at a picnic area about a mile from where the attack took place, they were met there by a ranger, who called for an ambulance to take Kyle to Augusta Health. While they were waiting, the ranger interviewed the couple and concluded that it was indeed a large bobcat that attacked Kyle.
Medical personnel at Augusta Health cleaned and dressed Kyle’s wounds. He was then given a series of 10 rabies shots, which will be followed up over the next two weeks with four additional shots. The vaccination will protect Kyle from the deadly virus in case the bobcat has it and transmitted it to him.
Rabies is almost always fatal once a person starts showing symptoms of the disease, usually within several days to two weeks of exposure. During this incubation period, however, the virus can be neutralized with the vaccination and rendered harmless.
Houghton believes the bobcat could very well be rabid.
“The ranger told them how rare it is for a bobcat to attack a human,” she said.
Bobcats also are nocturnal, but the attack took place in broad daylight.
Three days after the attack, Houghton said she and her husband were spending the holiday “taking it easy,” grateful their son and his girlfriend are OK.
“After all that,” she said with a quiet laugh. “Oh my. I’m just glad they’re all right and it wasn’t worse. That was a big cat.”
Though most bobcats are under 45 pounds and three-feet long, they have been known to grow and weigh nearly twice that.
“If Katie were alone, or if it was someone else much smaller [than Kyle], it could have been really tragic.”