Jack Knox: When a cougar crashed through her window, she found refuge in a closet

Thirty-one years later, it’s not just the presence of a cougar in James Bay that amazes Denise Minin.

Nor is it the vision of the big cat crashing through her bedroom window.

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No, what still gets the New York woman is the feeling of the animal blowing right between her and the full-length mirror in front of which she was standing.

This is the stuff of Victoria folklore, one of those stories that gets dredged up whenever wildlife strays into the heart of the city, as that lone wolf did last week. Remember the time that cougar broke into that basement suite?

Yes, longtime Victorians remember. So does Denise, of course. She doesn’t bring it up much, though. People don’t believe her.

It goes back to April 28, 1989, when 24-year-old Denise Mueller, as she was then known, and her brother Gordon Mueller, 25, shared a suite in the bottom of a heritage house in the 100 block of Superior Street.

They had come to Victoria from Alberta to go to high school — she at St. Margaret’s, he at St. Michaels University School — and stayed on afterward.

Gordon, who now works at Royal Jubilee Hospital, recalls being awakened by his clock radio around 6 a.m., the broadcaster’s voice warning that a cougar, presumably the same cat spotted in Oak Bay’s Athlone Court the day before, had been tracked to their corner of James Bay.

He passed on the warning to his sister, but it didn’t really sink in as, already dressed (she had arisen early to accompany a friend to a meeting of the Victoria AM club), the office administrator did her hair and makeup in the mirror. Even when she heard the baying of the dogs outside, it didn’t really register.

That’s when the cougar crashed through her ground-level window.

In his room, Gordon heard the glass shatter. “I knew exactly what it was,” he says.

Outside, the cougar had been flushed by a pair of tracking dogs belonging to Brad Lister, a Shawnigan Lake logger who had been called in by conservation officers. With the block cordoned off by Victoria police, it hadn’t been hard to find the cat, which took off around a house. A cougar might climb a tree at this point, but this one dived for the darkness of the double-paned window, perhaps thinking it to be a hole through which to escape.

“It broke through with its head,” Denise recalled Tuesday, on the phone from upstate New York. “It had cuts on its face.”

The animal was a blur as it shot between Denise and the mirror. With the dogs on its tail, it bolted into the rest of the suite.

Denise wondered where to go. The bathroom? No, that was in the direction of the cougar. Under the bed? The animal could come under there, too. “So I went in my closet.” She pulled the bi-fold doors behind her, and hung on.

Coming around the corner of the home, Lister caught sight of the cougar through a picture window.

“I thought: ‘Oh my God, it’s in the house,’ ” he recalled Tuesday.

The father of what were then young children, Lister could only imagine who the frantic cougar might find inside. So he smashed in the living-room window with the butt of his .30-30 rifle and piled into the suite. Was he scared? “Yeah, but what else are you going to do?” he said from Powell River, where he now lives.

Inside, the cougar had run back into Denise’s room, where the dogs had it cornered. “I could hear them fighting in the bedroom,” Lister said. “I ran in there, put the gun right on its chest and pulled the trigger.”

The cougar fell, dead.

After that, the suite filled up — dogs, cops, the conservation service, all milling about.

Lister recalled hearing a voice behind him: “Is it tranquillized?”

He turned and saw Denise, who had emerged from her closet.

“I said: ‘Yeah, it’s tranquillized all right.’ ”

The way she remembers it, the gunshot was followed by silence, followed by men’s voices. Peering through the slats of the closet doors, she asked: “Can I come out?”

The cougar lay dead in a corner beside the bed. Gordon figures the whole episode was over inside a minute, but the place was a mess. Bedding was shredded, furniture overturned, plates broken. Deep claw marks raked the walls and window sills. Blood stained the light-coloured bedroom carpet.

Lister recalls seeing cougar tracks six feet up the living room wall. He wishes he had taken photos of that. The cougar was hauled away to the basement of the police station.

The media arrived. “Here’s me in my pyjamas, with bed hair, and I’ve got [Vancouver Province reporter Barb] McLintock knocking on my window,” Gordon remembers.

Denise? She still went to that Victoria AM meeting.

Later, she was flown to Seattle for a television appearance. A freelancer who identified himself as a nature writer interviewed her, then sold the story to — yeesh — the National Enquirer. The siblings had T-shirts made up featuring a newspaper cartoon based on the episode. “Mom said there’d be days like this,” it read. Frankly, Denise says, she kind of liked the after glow of the experience.

Except she felt bad about the cougar. And she knew how fortunate she was.

“It’s an extremely dangerous situation to have a cornered cougar on the ground,” conservation officer Ken Broadland was quoted as saying at the time. “Denise was lucky the cougar went past her. If anyone had come face to face with it, they probably would have been mauled.”

Today, it’s a wild memory to pull out, albeit one that’s sometimes greeted with skepticism in New York, where Denise works at Bard College in the Hudson Valley. “I usually don’t bring it up, but my husband loves to tell the story.”

No one in Victoria doubts Gordon when he tells the tale, though. “Anybody who was here at the time remembers it,” he said. We sometimes do see wild animals right in the heart of the city.

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