In the first known attack of its kind in California, a mountain lion sprang from the brush and severely mauled a 5-year-old El Toro girl Sunday as she and her parents hiked in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano, authorities said.
A male hiker--identified late Sunday as Gregory Ysais, 36, an electronics technician from Mission Viejo--responding to the mother's screams, used a stick to beat the cat, which released the child's head from its powerful jaws and disappeared into a thicket.
"There was no warning, no nothing. It grabbed her by the head and ran off with her," said Laura Michele Small's mother, Susan, a 37-year-old El Toro piano teacher. "I thought I would never see her again."
The blond, blue-eyed youngster was in very critical condition late Sunday as she underwent extensive surgery for severe puncture wounds and cuts about her face and skull at Mission Community Hospital in Mission Viejo, where she was airlifted. A team of eye, brain and plastic surgeons was working on the child, according to her mother, who said the extent of eye and nerve damage was not immediately known.
Cats on Increase
"I'm very frightened for her," said Susan Small, "but her vital signs are good."
State wildlife biologists, wardens and park officials said Sunday's attack in the 7,500-acre park was the first known attack on a human by a mountain lion in California.
The huge cats, also known as cougars, have been on the increase in recent years in Orange County and elsewhere, prompting controversial legislation to reverse a 1972 statewide moratorium on hunting of mountain lions.
Shortly after the 2 p.m. attack, rangers, game wardens and sheriff's deputies launched an unsuccessful search for the renegade animal. The hunt, suspended at dusk, was resumed about 9:30 p.m. with the aid of tracking dogs. Two state game wardens, an animal control officer and a park ranger were planning to work into the night.
"We wanted to get out there while the scent was still fresh," senior park ranger Bruce Buchman explained.
Meanwhile, rangers evacuated a capacity crowd of 250 campers staying at the sprawling Orange County regional park as Easter vacation got under way.
"We're clearing the park because we don't want any campers here right now," Orange County Parks Manager Larry Paul said from the wilderness park headquarters about six miles northeast of San Juan Capistrano, near the popular San Juan Hot Springs.
"It's for their own safety," Paul said. "If we have a cat that is inclined to attack a human being, we have to make sure we reduce the chance of anyone else getting hurt."
Laura Michele Small was attacked as she and her parents were walking along a stream near the dead-end of a nature trail in the rustic park, Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Burinda said.
The mother said she and her husband, Donald, arrived at the park with Laura and their 9-year-old son, David, about 1 p.m. Sunday for one of their frequent afternoon hikes in the park.
While her husband and son went ahead, Small said she and Laura waded into a shallow creek in search of tadpoles. The little girl walked onto the bank in a small clearing. When Susan Small turned around to look, she saw a muscular, buff-colored animal she first took for a large dog "grab (Laura) by the head and run off with her."
"I didn't even see what direction it took her, but I realized it was a mountain lion and started screaming," she said in an interview from the hospital.
Donald W. Small, a 39-year-old optical engineer, rushed back downstream with his son, who ran for help. The two parents went separate directions searching for their daughter in the brush.
"I heard someone crying, so I headed in that direction," Mrs. Small said. Tearing through cacti and underbrush, she stumbled upon the cougar and saw that "it still had (Laura) by the head."
At the same time, a man and woman hiking responded to her cries for help. "The man had a large stick and he beat the mountain lion off," Mrs. Small said. "I rushed to my daughter and picked her up. She was really badly injured. I didn't know if she was alive at that point."
Mrs. Small raced out with the child in arms to a park ranger who had been patrolling nearby. The ranger administered first aid, and the child was taken by specially equipped paramedic helicopter to the Mission Viejo Hospital.
In the frenzy of activity, Susan Small said she did not get the name of the man who saved her daughter. Parks officials later identified him as Gregory Ysais of Mission Viejo.
'Grateful to Him'
"We're really grateful to him," Small said. "I was still screaming at that point. . . . If he could contact us, that would be great. We would be glad to reward him."
Small said she and her husband have frequented the park for 10 years and have never seen or heard of mountain lions in the area, "much less of them attacking people unprovoked."
In recent years, however, there have been frequent sightings of cougars around populated areas of south Orange County.
In a survey of 100 miles of south county roads last summer, wildlife biologists spotted a total of 12 sets of cougar prints, up 200% from the previous year. They estimated that as many as 26 to 35 adult mountain lions could be wandering in nearby mountains.
Ron Hein, wildlife manager for the state Fish and Game Department in Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties, said Sunday that there had been no known lion attacks on humans in California.
But three times last year, Hein said, mountain lions were found in populated areas in Orange County. He said they were tranquilized, captured and returned to wilderness areas. He predicted that as development encroaches ever closer to mountain lion habitat, the chance of such encounters will increase.
"I guess I have to say I'm not surprised, no," Hein said of Sunday's cougar attack. "We're probably going to have more of these incidents, and perhaps someone could make a good case for harvesting some of these animals as we did years ago."
Times staff writer Josh Getlin contributed to this article.