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Cougars too close for comfort in Crowsnest Pass last week

Wednesday, 01 November 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Cougars too close for comfort in Crowsnest Pass last week
A curious cat came calling at Bernita Van Der Veen’s Tecumseh Road home on Oct. 24. After casually wandering around the yard, it growled and peered into the basement window.   Photos by Bernita Van Der Veen

Cougars too close for comfort in Crowsnest Pass last week

By Shannon Robison

Several Crowsnest Pass residents have had run-ins with cougars lately that have left them feeling on edge.

On Oct. 22, Eleanor Favero let her cat, Marley, outside. Aware of the threat of wildlife, she normally doesn’t let him go outdoors after 10 p.m., but says he was owly after a good brushing. She let him out onto the deck of her Pineview home, west of Coleman, and turned her grooming attention to the dog.

Luckily, Eleanor was only a few steps away from the door when she heard a sound like nothing she had heard before. “It was worse than the cry of a catfight: it sounded like someone was dying,” she recalls.

A cougar had Marley cornered on the deck. When Eleanor flung the door open she saw the cougar for only a split second before it fled. “It lifted its head, saw me and was gone,” she says.

She assumes Marley “took a hit” on his left hip that is still hurting him. “He was a mess, he was so scared,” she adds.

At 28 pounds, Marley is part Norwegian forest cat and much larger than a typical house cat. The terrified animal had lost control of his bowels and was shaking in the corner.

While he is reluctant to set foot outdoors know, Eleanor is grateful she was close by to interrupt a situation that could easily have had a different ending.

“I would have been lost if something had happened to the big guy,” she says of the companion she adopted from the SPCA four years ago.

Two days later, Bernita Van Der Veen looked up from washing dishes at her home on Tecumseh Road (also west of Coleman) to see something moving in the yard. “It’s not what you expect to see at 5 p.m. when it’s still bright outside,” she says of the cougar that was nonchalantly checking out her yard.

She went to the door and peeked out, but had lost sight of it. From the bathroom window she again spotted it, casually wandering around on her patio.

Home alone, Bernita wasn’t sure what to do.

She went downstairs and found herself looking straight at the big cat through a window. “I could hear him growling and that really scared me,” she says. “If he saw me and decided to pounce he’d be right through that window!”

It crossed her mind that the growling might be due to the cougar seeing its reflection in the glass. Not wanting to provoke him, she quickly went back upstairs.

She banged on the wall, hoping to scare the cougar away. The cat sauntered across the yard, apparently not in a hurry to go anywhere. Eventually he jumped onto the fence and walked a ways on the top rail before jumping back down to the ground.

Neither Eleanor nor Bernita called Fish and Wildlife to make a report at the time of the incident. Both alerted neighbours and shared posts on social media to let others know there was a potential threat in the area.

This is not uncommon — not everyone knows who to call or where to find the contact information.

Brendan Cox, communications officer for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, concurs that many incidents go unreported. He has information on file about Bernita’s encounter, which was called in the next day, but was not aware of the situation Eleanor had just days earlier.

He notes that one of Bernita’s neighbours also called in to report a cougar sighting on Oct. 25 and mentioned that a week earlier a cougar had confronted the family dog on their deck. Fortunately, as with Marley, the dog was not harmed.

The following day a cougar was shot by a landowner in the area. “The owner or occupant of privately owned land can hunt cougars without a licence, subject to local bylaws,” Mr. Cox says. He is confident that the animal shot is the same cougar that peered into Bernita’s basement.

Cougar populations are typically tied to the number of prey animals in a given area, so it’s not unusual to hear of sightings in this area at any time of year. Mr. Cox adds that traditional boundaries are changing and the animals are expanding their range in different parts of the province. In particular, they appear to be moving eastward.

He encourages people to take preventive measures to reduce their chance of encountering dangerous wildlife, such as: not feeding any kind of wildlife because where their food goes, the cougars will go (do not use birdseed or salt licks); keeping garbage indoors and waiting until pickup morning to place it outside in a wildlife-resistant, airtight container; keeping the perimeter clear of thick and tall vegetation; closing open spaces under decks with durable wire mesh; and installing motion-activated security lights.

One shouldn’t be afraid to encourage neighbours to take the same precautions — your yard is only as wildlife proof as your neighbour’s yard.Bernita has been careful to avoid attractants and says, “Where we live, wildlife encounters can be expected.”

The morning after the cougar visited her yard, she noticed crows and magpies everywhere and knew there was a kill somewhere nearby. This concerned her as she knew it would encourage the cougar to hang around.

Eleanor is also very conscious of the risk of attractants. “We’re moving more into their territory and as humans we need to be aware of the dangers,” she says.

Mr. Cox stresses that it is rare for cougars to attack people, adding that the behaviour of the cougar shot last week was unusual. “Typically they shy away from people and leave the area quickly,” he says.

In the case of an encounter where a cougar is in the distance, he says not to run or turn your back on the animal. “If it doesn’t appear to be aware of your presence, gather people and pets in close, slowly back away and leave the area, putting obstacles between yourself and the animal,” he says.

If you are in your yard, he says to take people and pets inside and give the cougar enough space that it can leave the yard unimpeded.

If a cougar is close to you and showing aggressive behaviour or staring intently and tracking your movements, your reaction needs to be different.

“Don’t run, don’t play dead,” Mr. Cox says. “Bring everyone close together and show the cougar you are human — make yourself look big, speak loudly and look directly.”

If the animal attacks, he says to fight back. “Don’t give up. Use any and all means at your disposal and hit it in the face with anything you can — rocks, your fists — show you are not a typical prey animal and in the vast majority of cases they will give up and leave you alone.”

Bernita had never seen a cougar before, but less than two weeks before one stopped by her home, she had the misfortune of hitting a cougar on the highway, just east of Bellevue.

“I turned a corner and the cougar was right there, running toward me. It had no chance,” she says. “I looked back and he was laying on the highway, but I wasn’t getting out — it’s a cat and I wasn’t sure if it was dead.”

She didn’t know who to call, especially as it was late on a Sunday evening. The following morning she checked and saw that things had been taken care of.

Both women will be quick to pick up the phone should they have another encounter of a feline kind.

In fact, all wildlife situations should be reported to the local Fish and Wildlife office. In Blairmore, call 403-562-3289. In Pincher Creek, call 403-627-1116. It doesn’t hurt to program these numbers into your phone for easy access.

Calling 310-0000 is another way to be directed to the nearest office, or you can call the Report a Poacher line after hours at 1-800-642-3800.Reporting of all sightings will help officers have a better idea of wildlife movement and issues in the area.

Bernita says her visit from the cat was an eerie thing. “It was much scarier than having a bear in the yard,” she says. “The cougar was much more intimidating.”

The night before the sighting, she had noticed there were no deer in the yard, which was unusual. A week later, only one has returned. She looks forward to their return.

Eleanor says that while Marley is afraid to go out, it’s a good time to “grab this by the horns and change his ways.” She plans to build a cat house as a window attachment in the spring so Marley can still go outside but will never be in danger again.

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Eleanor Favero’s cat, Marley, had a close call when cornered by a cougar Oct. 22. Marley was on the deck of Eleanor’s home in Pineview.   Photo by Eleanor Favero