A lot of dog owners would do just about anything for their pet, expecting only cuddles and goofy looks in return.

But earlier this week, a dog nearly gave her life to save her owner from a rare mountain lion attack on a hiking trail in remote Northern California.

Erin Wilson, 24, a waitress, had just hopped out of her truck at a roadside picnic area and was heading down a trail to the Trinity River, when she heard something in the bushes.

"I'm just walking down the slope and the dog had run ahead of me. And I turn around and there's this cat just growling at me and it reaches up and it swipes at me," she said. "At first, I was just like, Wait, what? And I think I screamed and I shouted for Eva and she came running."

Eva is Wilson's 2 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois. The breed is highly intelligent and agile. The dogs are bred for self-defense and often used as police dogs. If they don't have work and space to roam, they get neurotic.

Wilson describes the breed as "a German shepherd on steroids or crack or cocaine. They're just driven dogs, a little crazy. If they don't have something to do they will destroy their environment," by chewing or digging.

But in that desperate moment at the riverside picnic area, Eva's canine instincts kicked in. She came running to protect a member of her pack who had just been scratched by a wild animal, and tackled the cougar.

"They tussled for a couple of seconds, but he got her pretty quickly," Wilson said, in an interview from the stockroom at her restaurant.

She said the mountain lion looked thin and desperate, but she doesn't want to paint it as a villain in her story. She thinks it was hungry because drought conditions make it harder to hunt for deer, its preferred food. It was just doing what it evolved to do. She acknowledged that, at about 115 pounds, she's easy prey.

Capt. Patrick Foy, a game warden with California's Department of Fish and Wildlife, who is investigating the incident, says mountain lion attacks on people are highly unusual because the animals are so shy.

"The majority of California is mountain lion habitat. But it's really, really uncommon for this to happen. I've seen just a handful over the years, over my career of 25 years," he said. "We don't recommend that people change their plans to go out and recreate in the wild."

But once the cougar got its jaws around Eva's neck, the 55-pound dog was in trouble.

"If you take a really close look at the anatomy of a lion's skull, it is incredibly well adapted to create significant crushing power," Foy said. "That is how they kill their prey. They typically would grasp on to the head or neck and simply crush that prey animal to death. That unfortunately, was what was happening to poor Eva the dog."

After the initial shock of being scratched by a mountain lion, Wilson started throwing rocks to get the cat to drop the dog.

"My fight mode kicked in and I started picking up rocks and I was bashing in its skull as hard as I could," said Wilson, an avid outdoorswoman who once lived in Alaska. "I didn't even feel it at the time. I knew to choke it, go for its eyes, hurt it."

Then she dashed up the riverbank to her truck, grabbed a crowbar, and flagged down a passing motorist, Sharon Houston, for help. When Wilson got back, the cougar had dragged Eva several yards into the bushes.

Houston grabbed a PVC pipe from her trunk. Together she and Wilson hollered and hit the lion until it released the dog and retreated. Eva leapt up and ran into the road, and Wilson piled her into her pickup.

On the hour-long drive down a twisty mountain road to the vet, the dog started convulsing, and Wilson realized her beloved companion's injuries were serious and life-threatening.

"That's when I started really speeding," she said. "I definitely passed a bunch of people in double yellows. I did not give a f***."

Eva's skull and jaw were fractured, and her eye was swollen shut. She spent almost a week recovering at a veterinary clinic. She did not need surgery but might lose sight in her left eye.

Wilson set up a GoFundMe to cover the vet bills. The story was written up by a reporter on a local blog, then picked up by The Sacramento Bee. Soon donations started pouring in, far exceeding what Wilson and her husband needed to cover the costs of Eva's recovery.

Eva came home Thursday night to a new doggie bed and new stuffed animals, which Wilson says she'll probably rip apart as soon as her jaw is healed. The chef at Wilson's restaurant is saving a prime cut of beef for when Eva is ready to enjoy it.

"I'm kind of blaming myself a bit about all this. Because of her, I'm unharmed and because of me, she has two fractures in her skull and she might be blind," Wilson said, explaining that she's still grappling with what might have happened to her beloved companion, an animal that had her own Instagram account, even before her heroic act.

"I knew Eva was capable of being fierce and protective. I just didn't ever think that she would have to answer the call like that. Just really hug your dogs, people. Hug your pets, hug your family."

Fish and Wildlife staff swabbed Wilson and Eva's wounds for saliva samples, which confirmed that it was a mountain lion attack, Foy said. Game wardens and partners are working to trap the animal.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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