Cougar's victim won't be 'prisoner of the drama'

Times Staff Writer

A young woman walked into a restaurant last week and sat close enough to get a good look at Anne Hjelle's face. A mountain lion had torn off the left side four years before, leaving it hanging by a flap of skin. Six surgeries hadn't camouflaged the scars.

"She saw me and had a deer-in-the-headlights look," said Hjelle, 35, of Mission Viejo. "She quickly got up and moved so she didn't have to look at me."

The stranger's reaction didn't hurt Hjelle's feelings.

"I've had to learn the hard way that beauty comes from within," she said.

Since being mauled by a mountain lion Jan. 8, 2004, while biking in Orange County's Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, Hjelle has been purposefully knocking down the fears borne from the jaws of a cougar. It's a determination driven by her love of the outdoors, the discipline and toughness drilled into her as a Marine, the courage gained as a competitive mountain biker and her belief that the Bible instructs her to "fear not."

A week after the attack -- her 40 bite marks and wounds held together by 200 stitches and staples -- she hiked to the spot where the cougar ambushed her, taking the lead as family and friends followed. It was her first step in making sure she wasn't going to be "a prisoner of the drama."

Soon after leaving the hospital, Hjelle -- a personal trainer who had a model's looks -- put away the hats and sunglasses she used to hide her face. She started to put her hair in a ponytail. She wasn't going to be ashamed.

"I could have curled up into a ball or gotten on with my life," said Hjelle, a former Marine helicopter mechanic. "It's not easy, but I wanted to conquer my fears -- just like you do in mountain biking."

On a sunny winter afternoon in early 2004, Hjelle headed out for a ride with Debi Nicholls, a woman whose intensity during the rides matched Hjelle's.

Barreling down Cactus Hill Trail, a narrow dirt path that slices through tall brush and fields of cactuses, Hjelle saw a blur leaping from the brush. She thought she had startled a deer. But then the mountain lion hit her "like a train."

She remembers everything. The silence of the attack. The color of the lion's fur. Her prayer for Jesus' protection as the amazingly strong cat dragged her toward a ravine.

Nicholls tossed her bike at the mountain lion. Then she grabbed her friend's left calf, locked in a fierce tug of war with the animal.

The cat's jaws moved in a series of bites to the front of Hjelle's neck. The cougar ripped at the left side of her face, the chunk of skin hanging by a flap. Hjelle realized that if she survived, she would be disfigured. For a split second, she wondered if she'd be better off dead.

The lion's jaws squeezed her windpipe, choking her. Before passing out, she told Nicholls, "I'm going to die."

Hjelle awoke moments later choking on her own blood and trying to figure out why three mountain bikers were standing nearby with rocks in their hands. Drawn by the screams of both women, they had thrown softball-sized rocks at the cat and driven it away.

Though they didn't yet know it, the body of mountain biker Mark Reynolds was lying just off the trail. He had been killed hours earlier by the same cougar.

Hjelle was taken by helicopter to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. After surgery, Hjelle felt helpless as the attack replayed in her mind in an endless loop.

"It was like watching a horror movie," she said. "Except it really happened to me."

Her pastor, Phil Munsey of Life Church of Mission Viejo, arrived the next morning and felt the urge to pray for her emotional health, worried that she would be plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.

"As a pastor," Munsey said. "I prayed for a miracle and received one."

Her pastor gave her a New Testament verse from 2 Timothy 4:17 to inspire her: " . . . the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength. . . . And I was delivered from the lion's mouth."

One day she got out of her hospital bed, went into the bathroom and locked the door. In the mirror, she saw a stranger staring back whose face was swollen, bruised and crisscrossed with stitches and staples.

A natural beauty with blond hair and blue eyes, Hjelle said she worried that her scars would come to define her. She left the hospital by the backdoor, wearing a hat and sunglasses.

At first she tried to hide the scars with makeup. "But then I say, 'Enough,' and stop looking in the mirror," she said.

Seven months after the attack, Hjelle underwent her first plastic surgery. It was her lowest day. "I realized that it wasn't a one-shot deal," she said. "This was going to be a long process."

And she believed her husband would never leave her, but sometimes wondered if he had gotten a "bum deal" because her looks had changed.

James Poindexter said he understands his wife's worries, but doesn't notice the scars: "I see her as a whole package."

Today, Hjelle says she is at peace with her appearance. She said her family and friends stopped noticing the damage after five minutes with her, and strangers' opinions don't matter.

As her wounds began to heal, Hjelle hopped onto her mountain bike and hit the trails, gaining more courage with each ride. Now, her fear only rises when she's alone on a narrow trail surrounded by tall vegetation.

"I didn't tell anybody about it for a long time," she said. "But then I realized I needed to get over myself and admit to other people I have some fears I need to deal with."

A devout Christian, Hjelle struggled with how God would turn the tragedy into something good. She began by forging a friendship with the parents of Reynolds, the mountain bike rider killed by the cougar.

"I think it took a remarkable person to reach out like that when she could have been resting and building up her own strength," said Mark's mother, Dona, who exchanges e-mails and phone calls with Hjelle.

Hjelle believes God wants her to share her story. An introvert with a dislike for public talks, she made a compromise by speaking when asked, but declined to join a speakers' bureau or charge much for her appearances, which average about six per year. Depending on the audience, she can weave the themes of courage, faith, friendship, overcoming fear and the importance of self-esteem and inner beauty into her story of the attack. She writes down each speech and spends hours practicing.

Hjelle still isn't comfortable with her public persona, which has occasionally made her a target of criticism. One blogger mocked her faith and her willingness to continue to ride in wilderness areas where mountain lions roam. The blog's post was titled, "Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty."

Personal attacks hurt, but Hjelle is more disappointed when people tell her that they have stopped mountain biking or trail running for fear of mountain lions.

"That's sad," said Hjelle, adding that her attack was less probable than being hit by lightning. "We don't even think twice about driving on the freeway, which is way more dangerous."

Hjelle said she was never angry at the mountain lion that tried to kill her (the 122-pound male was shot dead the day of the attack).

Recently, she placed a painting of a cougar on her bedroom wall.

"I didn't do it to get over any fear," she said. "I'm the biggest animal lover ever. After this happened, mountain lions have fascinated me."

--

william.lobdell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°