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Animal Attacks 5-Year-Old in Sandias

By Jeremy Hunt
Journal Staff Writer
    It was a scream, his father said later, that you never want to hear.
    Five-year-old Jose Salazar Jr. walked around a bend as the family was hiking Saturday evening on the Balsam Glade Nature Trail in the Cibola National Forest. He was momentarily out of sight of his family, 20 to 30 feet behind him, when he screamed.
    A big cat, most likely a cougar, had tackled Jose and was batting at him, and when Jose's parents rushed forward, the cat picked the boy up by the neck, dragged him down the mountainside and was only stopped by a fallen tree.
    The cat couldn't lift Jose over it. Jose's father was running, almost tripping every other step, and jumped forward. He was about to reach the cat when it leaped out of the way.
    Jose Salazar Sr. ripped up his shirt to bandage his son and tried to hide the boy's wounds from his wife.
    "I held him in a way so she couldn't see his scalp was half hanging off. I didn't tell her because I was trying to stay calm," he said.
    The Salazars, whose son was flown by helicopter from the Sandia Ski Area to University of New Mexico Hospital on Saturday evening, talked with reporters at the hospital Sunday night. Jose Jr. was in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery, they said.
    Before those harrowing moments, Charlotte Salazar said, "It had been a beautiful evening, and we said, 'Why not take a drive up to the mountains?' ''
    Signs posted throughout picnic areas and trail heads in the Sandia Mountains warn visitors that they are in "Cougar Country" and "Bear Country."
    State Game and Fish Department officials, however, said Sunday afternoon they weren't sure what kind of animal had attacked little Jose. A veteran tracker and his dogs had gone to the trail Saturday shortly afterward and were unable to find signs of a cougar.
    The conditions were good for tracking, spokesman Ross Morgan said. If it was a cougar, the tracker and his team of dogs should have been able to find it or evidence it was there, he said.
    "At this point, we're unsure about exactly what it is," he said. "As of right now, all we have to go on is what (Jose Jr.) was telling us. He was the one that was attacked."
    Game and Fish had called on this tracker and his dogs before, Morgan said.
    "As soon as we got the call, he was there," he said. "He's probably the best (in the state). These dogs are so well trained that they will not key on anything but a (cougar)."
    Jose's scratches are consistent with a cougar, said Morgan, and larger than a bobcat's. A small bear could have made scratches that size, he said.
    The boy, shown pictures brought to the hospital by Game and Fish, identified the animal as a "big cat." So did his father, although Charlotte Salazar said it looked like a large bobcat.
    Regardless, if it had had one second more, Jose Salazar Sr. said, the cat could have gotten a better grip, picked Jose up and been gone.
    That thought "just makes me want to throw up," he said Sunday.
    Officials say cougar attacks aren't common, but they do happen. A Santa Fe turkey hunter was pounced on by a cougar in 2001, but the cougar left him alone on the ground after that. The only reported human fatality in New Mexico by a cougar happened in Española in 1974, when an 8-year-old boy was killed.
    Officials put Las Cruces on warning last week after a poodle was found dead, apparently the work of a cougar.