Little Sterling Borchers has learned a lesson: Don't tease a kitty with a stick, especially when the kitty is a 90-pound mountain lion with an attitude.
On Saturday, the Mesa 5-year-old waved a stick at a female lion at the Phoenix Zoo, trying to get the cat's attention.He did, and the cat lashed out through the bars of its cage, bit Sterling's right arm to the bone and raked its claws over the little boy's chest. The scratch was superficial, and the bite required stitches but will not require therapy or skin grafts.
The paw-and-claw session occurred after a church-group supervisor asked Sterling to step back from the cage and warned against antics that might irk the cat.
The incident gave Sterling a nightmare and his parents a fright.
"I don't even want to think about what could have been," said Sterling's dad, Brent Borchers.
Father and son were part of a Mormon-church volunteer group assigned to help revamp some of the zoo trails, including an area that was behind the mountain lions' exhibit.
Zoo officials said Sterling wandered away from the volunteers, who were lining rocks along the banks of a stream, and went up to the lions' cage with a 4-inch-long stick.
"Of course, that intrigued the mountain lions," said zoo spokeswoman Alice Sluga.
The exhibit housed two cats, a male and a female. As the boy waved the stick, a group supervisor approached and warned him to stand farther from the barred cage. The two were standing more than 3 feet away from the exhibit when the female lion, named Camille, reached out with one paw and ensnarled Sterling.
"I heard my boy scream and I was bookin', " Brent Borchers recalled.
The adult supervisor, known to the Borchers only as Mr. Peterson, apparently freed the boy from the lion's grasp by simultaneously grabbing Sterling with one arm and pushing away the cat's face with the other.
"He was our hero of the day," Borchers said.
Contrary to earlier reports, the lion was not crouching in tall grass and did not bite off a chunk of Sterling's arm.
Zoo officials said they will monitor the female lion for several days, but assuming everything is normal, will not treat the animal any differently.
Sluga said the incident marked the first time that an animal had injured a zoo patron. She refrained from putting too much blame on the boy.
"Through the eyes of a child, this is a big kitty," Sluga said. "It was a very unique situation. We're just thankful that it was not worse."
On Sunday, the Borchers were nursing their psyches. Brent Borchers said he wants to make sure that his son doesn't become fearful of animals, including a white, blue-eyed cat they have at home.
"Fear is not the issue. It's respect for the animals," he said. "A hundred things went wrong, but a lot of things went right too, thankfully."