News & Updates
Brinkman Planter Rescues Wife from Cougar: Full Story and Interview
By Baba Brinkman
“The man wasn’t going to let the cougar have the woman without a fight.” This isn’t from an Ernest Hemingway short story and it isn’t a passage from Clan of the Cave Bear. It’s from a September 2013 Canadian Press news story, reporting on a remarkable incident involving a Brinkman tree planter and his wife. The planter in question is Rick Coutts, who lives with his wife Sandy on remote Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound. Rick has worked with Brinkman every season for more than 30 years, one of the longest-tenured field workers with the company, and one of our most impressive highballers. On September 8th a cougar attacked and mauled Sandy while she was working in their garden, and Rick fought the animal off with a spear. Sandy was severely hurt, but with the help of the Coast Guard they got her to surgery in Victoria a matter of hours later and she is now on her way to a full recovery. The cougar was later found in the woods nearby, dead from its wounds.
This story has been amply reported in the international press and in the Globe and Mail, for instance here, and here, and here, so I won’t recount the whole saga, but I spoke to Rick on the phone earlier today and he filled in some of the details for the Brinkman community. The cougar had made several appearances over the summer, approaching Sandy three separate times, and the third time she chased it away by slashing at it with a machete. They reported the stalking behaviour to animal conservation officers, who came to Flores and searched for the cougar with tracking dogs but couldn’t find it. Rick looked into buying a rifle for protection, but the process to get a license and complete the safety course might have taken weeks or months from their remote location, so he settled on a Cold Steel boar spear, which he bought over the counter on a trip into town and leaned against the house for quick access.
On September 8th, Sandy was working in the garden and Rick was a short distance away cutting cedar shakes with his chainsaw. The cougar crept up on Sandy and leapt to attack, knocking her to the ground and biting into her head and neck. Its claws ripped a gash down her cheek and another the length of her forehead, luckily missing her eye, and its teeth tore her scalp mostly off, the skin connected only by a few inches at the back of her neck. It was trying to flip her over to get at her neck from the front, but she kept herself huddled face down. At one point she tried to put a hand in its mouth to pry it off and it bit down, breaking several of her fingers. It tried to drag her into the woods and she dug into the ground with her broken hands, and screamed.
Rick had heard nothing over the sound of the chainsaw until this point. For no reason he can remember, he shut the saw off and listened, and heard Sandy’s scream, and he immediately knew what had happened. Yelling her name at the top of his lungs, he sprinted to the cabin to grab the boar spear, and then to the garden where he saw the big cat hunched over Sandy, still biting at her head. It had now torn her left bicep almost completely off as well. The cat knew Rick was coming because he had been shouting Sandy’s name at full volume during his run, hoping to scare it off, but it wasn’t intimidated. When Rick approach, the cougar hunkered down, guarding its prey, staring at him threateningly. Rick circled around and drove the spear with his full strength into the animal’s chest just behind its front legs. The wing tips on the spear prevented it from penetrating deeper than the length of the 18.5” blade, but that was enough. The cougar wriggled and thrashed, and when Rick pulled the spear out it dashed into the woods.
At that point they didn’t know if the animal was badly wounded or just spooked, so Rick set off a bear banger, keeping a watchful eye on the woods. Sandy was fully conscious and lucid, and he supported her as they walked back to the house and phoned for an emergency coast guard rescue. She was in shock and feeling hardly any pain as Rick did his best to wrap her wounds and stop the bleeding. She reminded him to turn off the stove, where food was still on cooking, and directed him to collect clothes and things they would need in case they were away for a while. Rick had steadied himself, suppressing his instinctive panic at the obvious severity of her wounds, her scalp and face the worst of all, and he provided nothing but calm reassurance and steady support. The coast guard took an hour to arrive.
The rest of the story is a testament to the quality of local community and government support. The coast guard arrived, running the boat directly up onto the beach, and helped with emergency first aid. They got Sandy to Tofino in record time, and a helicopter medevaced them to Victoria, where a surgeon was waiting, a specialist in animal attack lacerations. Sandy needed pins in her broken hand, and ended up with more than 300 staples in her head and neck. They returned home to Flores Island just three weeks after “the accident” as Rick now refers to it, but have returned to Victoria several times to deal with infections and skin grafts. Their friend Cosy set up a Facebook page with bank information and is accepting donations to help them cover the travel and recovery costs. And throughout they received overwhelming love and support from the Tofino community, as friends visited and brought them food and gifts. Sandy didn’t eat a bite of hospital food during her entire stay.
Animal control went to Flores the next day with tracking dogs to look for the cougar, but they didn’t have to look far. It was lying dead 60 feet from the garden, and a necropsy later showed that Rick’s spear thrust punctured both of its lungs and its heart. This is the first incident of a cougar killed with a spear in modern history, and I only say “modern” because I’d be surprised if there isn’t a paleolithic cave painting somewhere out there depicting the scene. Rick told me: “A lot of people have been throwing the word “hero” around but come on, anyone would have done the same thing. Imagine it was your sister or your daughter or your wife being attacked, you just act on instinct.” Despite his protests, there’s no deflecting the flood of universal admiration that follows when you save someone’s life under extreme duress. We salute you Rick, and we wish Sandy a speedy recover to health and wholeness.
But for anyone tempted to try to salute either of them in person, if you don’t know them, don’t do it! Rick and Sandy are private people who don’t in any way seek the spotlight. Sandy wasn’t even out of surgery before Rick was ducking reporters looking for a scoop at the hospital, which he felt was the ultimate disrespect, and they even came to his house on Flores to try to take pictures; conservation officers had to put up “crime scene” tape all around the area to keep them out. The last thing Rick and Sandy want is for their home to become a tourist destination. “Lion-Killer’s House 100m.” Rick hasn’t seen the international news stories yet, but said he might check them out next time he’s in town and at a computer. He might be surprised to find that the manufacturer of the boar spear is even using the incident as a marketing tool for their product.
The irony is, within the tree planting community Rick Coutts is already something of a legend for another reason entirely. He’s the only planter on record to have personally put in more than 3 million trees. I planted with Rick for eight years in the 1990s and early 2000s and he’s the best guy to work with, cheerful with great stories and unlimited positivity, but impossible to keep up with. Too many times on the block he’d have to cut a conversation short with “Let’s continue this later, I’m out of bullets!” And with a smile he’d start jogging back to the cache to bag up again.