Killing Power??

Killing Power??

Author: Steve Matthes

Originally published in Full Cry January 1990

It was while watching the awesome, destructive powers of a young black bear being dealt out to members of a pack of hounds that the question first started in my mind as to just what animal in the Americas possessed the greatest killing power. I had seen adult lions on the ground, fighting off a pack of hounds, do less damage than this half-grown bear had done in less time than it takes to tell about it. When the smoke cleared away and the bear was dead from the help of a .30-.30 slug, one dog was down and another had a broken front leg. Up until this time, I felt that a mountain lion (pound for pound) was the most destructive of any of our larger predators. Now, I wasn't quite so sure. 

Around a campfire that evening, as the hunt was hashed, and re-hashed, this subject was brought up, and quite naturally there were varied opinions. My friend, Riley Patterson, a professional hunter, was of the opinion that a bear was the rightful owner of that distinction; while my other old friend, Bob Quiroz, also a professional hunter, cast his vote for the mountain lion. After what I had seen that little ninety-pound Bear do that day, I had no opinion; but l sure as the devil viewed these critters in a new light!  

As often happens when good friends discuss things they don't agree on, arguments ensue and may get quite heated. This was the case that night with my two friends-with their different opinions on the degree of killing ability of lion and bear. The argument raged on into the night, each man pulling out all the stops, and sometimes reaching beyond the point of reason for some questionable fact to prove their point. In the end, as in most such arguments that are based on belief or feeling, no minds were changed, nor points proven; but the argument did take a turn that opened up a whole new can-of-worms in the way of thought and speculation for the imagination to play with. 

The argument finally got around to comparing the two animals with the "greats" in the boxing world. Pat was of the belief that the power of a John L. Sullivan-that he likened unto that of a bear- would surely destroy the fancy footed, less rugged man, such as a Gene Tunney. While Bob was of the opinion that Tunney would dance away from Sullivan's bear-like charges and through sheer speed and finesse cut Sullivan down-as a lion would destroy any animal foolish enough to attack it. 

 This is where the argument took a turn that led to something that has so intrigued me for many years .... Bob then went on to say, "Heck, Pat, what chance would a clumsy bear have of laying a paw on an animal as agile as a big cat? Every time he lunged at the cat, the cat would slash it, move out of range, and keep doing this until the bear was worn down and weak from loss of blood-then the cat would move in and make its kill.''  

But, Pat countered, "I didn't see anything clumsy or slow about that bear when he was working those dogs over today and, as Steve mentioned, he's seen a lion do less damage in an equal length of time than this bear did today. Besides who is to say that the lion might choose to close in on the bear and when it did, and the bear got ahold of the cat, it would be 'adios kitty'!"  

At this point, the argument lost momentum, as where do you go from there? But the thought of two of these animals, of equal weight, fighting it out, sure intrigued me and never quite left my mind during the next forty years or so-even though I knew it was something that wasn't likely to happen, or couldn't happen, staged or otherwise .... Yet, it did.  

After retiring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975, I have been spending most of my time camped back in the mountains with only my dogs and horse for companions, and it was on one of these extended stays, that what I knew "couldn't happen," did happen.  

About daybreak on April 7, 1985, I was headed up the North Fork of Mad River in northern California with my horse and two hounds, Old Babe and her son, Cougar. When Cougar acted like he winded something down in a brushy draw below the trail we were on. Before I could call him back, he went down there to investigate. A few seconds later, he gave out his long, bawling voice that said "lion." Moments later he was joined by Babe and the race was on! The race was short, and soon I heard them barking "treed" on the side of the mountain, less than a quarter of a mile away. Because the taking of lion in California is no longer legal, I was armed only with my camera. So, with it, I went down into the draw where Cougar had first sounded off and, as I suspected, there was a fresh lion kill. It was a doe deer, and from the looks of her full bag, she had suckling fawns somewhere; probably close by. The lion had opened her up and just started to feed on the leafy fat around the intestines. After snapping a picture of the kill, I went on up to the dogs were they had an adult female lion up a tree. I snapped some pictures of her and the dogs, then led them away from the tree, and continued on up the canyon. 

On the previous day, I had found some nice pools at the headwaters of the river with good, frying-size trout that I wished to get into the frying pan. So the following morning found me at about the same time, at the same place, but without any dogs. When I got to the place in the trail above where Cougar had jumped the lion the day before, I was about to ride on, but then out of just plain curiosity to see if the cat had come back and, if so, how much it had eaten of the doe. I stopped and tied the horse up. It was a little too brushy and steep for safe riding down to the kill and because it was just a short distance I walked and slid down to it. What I expected to see when I got there wasn't there ... and what I never in this world expected to see was!  

Near where the deer's carcass had been the day before, there was now only a large mound made up of leaves, small sticks, twigs and other debris, about a foot and a half high, and perhaps four feet or more in diameter ... and with a bear's paw protruding from it! What I had expected to see (if the cat had returned to make a feed on the deer) was just such a pile of loose trash, as the big cats make to cover a carcass when they have finished a meal and perhaps there would be a deer's foot, ear or some other part of the animal showing-that the lion had failed to get covered up. But a bear's paw! This really threw me! 

Getting over the shock of surprise at what I was seeing, I began glancing around and soon I was able to put things together and figure out what had happened. First, I noticed pieces of the deer scattered about as only a bear can do when working over an animal's carcass. There were bits of deer hide, tufts of deer hair, deer bones (some splintered), pieces and bits of intestines scattered about in an area of ten or twelve feet. This showed me, without any doubt, it had been the work of a bear. Unlike the lion, who is a neat, clean butcher-leaving things in a neat, clean pile that he, or she, can cover up-a bear is a real slob, leaving the remains scattered from "hell-to-breakfast."  

Not wishing to disturb anything until I had finished reading the sign and trying to get a picture in my mind as to what bad happened here, I didn't look under the pile of leaves, but continued to look about where tracks and other ground disturbances registered. The first thing I was aware of was that some kind of violent action had been going on in the area where a bear had been eating on the deer. The kicked-up leaf mold, broken, rotted limbs, twigs and small stones, which covered scattered parts of the deer, gave evidence that whatever had happened commenced during, or after, the bear had been eating on the deer. This led me to the conclusion that the lion had returned to her kill, only to find the bear finishing-up its meal on the hijacked deer. What happened next, one can only guess. Whether the bear initiated the battle that certainly ensued--when the lion approached it while feeding attempting to drive the cat off, is uncertain. However, I have the feeling that it was the lion, who, upon finding the bear busy with the remains of the deer she had planned on for her supper, struck the first blow, and the battle was on! 

The place where the fight took place would cover an area of about twenty square feet, was semi-flat and in the bottom of a draw. One side of the draw was quite steep (about 45 degrees) and free of vegetation for about thirty feet before it met with a dense growth of manzanita. On this open sidehill, sign was easy to read, and here I was able to picture part of what had happened during the struggle. 

In three different places· I found the earth torn up where it looked like something had run up the side of the opening, but, before reaching the manzanita thicket, had tumbled back down into the draw and, at the top of each of these places, were the claw marks of the bear, dug deep into the soil as if desperately trying to make it to the top; then, seemingly, being dragged before falling back down! Even though the side hill was steep, if the bear had not been interfered with, reaching the manzanita would have posed no problem. So, I feel it is safe to say he was badly hurt, or the big cat was on it!  

At this point, all I could say for sure from reading the sign was there had been one whale of a battle, and the loser was buried under a pile of leaves! Going over to it, I grabbed the bear's paw and dragged it out in hopes of learning, from examining the battle scars, a little more about how the fight had gone. At first glance, all that was obvious was that the bear had been opened up, and fed on in the normal manner of most lion kills and that more than one lion had fed on it. While there were numerous claw marks and puncture wounds all over the bear, most were on its back. However, none appeared to be of a lethal nature; but when I examined it more closely, I found teeth marks in the neck at the base of the skull, as are found on most lion kills on other animals. Also, under the throat, were the usual teeth marks where the lion had, clung onto the bear in the final phase of the struggle.  

While l had learned all that I could about the battle between these two animals from reading the sign and examining the bear, I still wasn't quite satisfied and wished to learn more. Knowing that sometimes if a person sees "the other guy," he can get a better idea of how a fight really went, I decided to go back to camp and get the dogs and find the cat. I knew it wouldn't go far after such a battle, and with such a belly full of bear meat as she had taken on. My thinking on this was correct, and about an hour later when I got back with the dogs, they treed the cat less than a mile down the canyon from the kill. She had taken refuge from the dogs in a heavily foliaged live oak tree, and even with the poor visibility caused by the deep shadows and foliage density, two things were plainly visible, she was carrying one big load of bear meat in her ... and she sure had earned it!  

High above, in the uppermost branches of the tree were her three kittens of about bobcat size, that she had brought back with her to share the original kill only to find the bear had taken it over. She was no longer the sleek-coated, flawless beauty I had seen perched high in the white oak the day before. Today, she had gone up only as far as the first limbs in the oak tree that would get her out of reach of the dogs. Her unmarked, tawny coat of yesterday was now rumpled-looking from what appeared to be welts under the hair on her side probably put there when the bear raked her with a swipe from one of its long clawed front feet. But most noticeable was the puffed-looking right front leg just below the shoulder. Other than this, I could see no other obvious injuries, and wishing to get her into another tree, on another limb with less foliage where I could get a better look at her and perhaps take a picture, I began pelting her with small sticks. 

Of the hundreds of lions that I have seen treed with my dogs, this was the first one I ever saw that refused to budge when treated in this manner. Often, only a slight wave, or clap of the hands will send them out of the tree and on their way. All she would do was lay her ears back and give a low soft hiss to show her fear or displeasure. I finally concluded the poor old gal was so stiff and sore from the encounter with the bear, that she either wouldn't, or couldn't make another run for it. 

As badly as I would have liked to have had a better look to determine the extent of damage the bear had dealt out to her I had to settle for what I could see here; see more to tell me she had taken one devil of a beating to get the job done! Why the big cat attacked the bear something so contrary to the norm- also leaves some questions in my mind as to why? I believe, though, that if it happened as I think it did, when the cat found her "kill" being eaten by the bear, her outrage at the offense so stirred her up that she threw caution to the wind and tore into the thief-having her babies with her probably contributed to, the attack, because of a mother's protective instinct. The only other explanation I can come up with is that, perhaps, it was the same scenario, only reversed: The bear may have come on the scene while cats were feeding and decided to take over. This would have brought on the same reaction from a mother where her babies were in danger--and her prize about to be stolen! Regardless how the fight started from all indications it sure would have been something to see! 

Had my two old friends, Bob and Pat, been there I'm sure the argument of forty years ago would have flared up anew. I can just hear Bob saying, "What did I tell you, Pat? That cat's even fifteen or twenty pounds lighter than the bear, and still she killed it!"  

And I am sure Pat would have come back with, "Yah, but that bear wasn't grown yet. I'll bet, though, that if it still weighed the same as it does, but had the muscle quality and mind of an adult bruin, it would have knocked the sox off that darn cat!" 

Then, I am sure that Bob would have countered with, and correctly so, "A year and a half old bear is no longer a baby. He is one powerful, tough customer!"  

Of course, I can only guess that this is the way the argument would have gone; but, I am sure it would have been along those lines, and, as of forty years ago, no minds would have been changed or points proven! All I know is that even after hearing the opposing views of these two hunters, and after seeing the results of the encounter between the bear and the lion, I would still hesitate to say, for sure, which of the two animals pound for pound possesses the greatest killing power, but would probably give the "nod" to the cat. 

As Goldman, the trainer-manager of Rocky Marciano (the great and only retired heavy-weight boxing champion to never lose a fight) said to critics of Rocky's lack of boxing finesse, "He may not box so well, but you can't argue with a sock in the jaw!" I guess it is the outcome, rather than how it was done that is the basis of proof.  


Editors note: As many of you have already found out by purchasing Steve's  book, "Brave, and other Stories;"  he is a top story teller, drawing from his many years as a houndman and big game hunter. Steve and his wife, Vera, have put together the best of Steve's stories based on his true experiences, into a 340 page book that every houndman should have in his library. 

Our friends at Double U Hunting Supply have a few new first edition copies available from a box that's been stowed away for years! Purchase one here.

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