For the week of January 27, 1999   thru February 2, 1999  

Cougars blamed for pet disappearances

North Hailey neighborhood uneasy about lion visits

Express Staff Writer

j27couger.jpg (11708 bytes)Cougars, also known as mountain lions, such as the one pictured here, share the Wood River Valley with its human residents. According to Fish and Game estimates seven or eight of the big cats are wintering along the Big Wood River. Residents along the river are blaming the lions for the disappearance of house pets.  (Express file photo)

Residents of a north Hailey neighborhood are blaming the disappearances of between a half dozen and a dozen domestic cats on cougars roaming the area.

According to north Hailey resident Katheryn Leach, several cougars—adults and kittens—have returned to her yard and neighborhood each day for the past nine days.

"Every morning there are new tracks," she said. "There are about seven trails in my backyard."

Leach said that a domestic cat from the household next door to hers was dismembered and placed next to a tree several nights ago. The following night, she said, the cat’s fur was put on the fence that divides her yard from her neighbor’s.

According to Department of Fish and Game conservation officer Lee Frost, it is fairly normal behavior for a cougar, also called a mountain lion or puma, to make a meal of a pet if the opportunity presents itself.

The lions, estimated by Fish and Game to number seven or eight, travel the river bottom between Ketchum and Lower Bradford area during the winter looking for prey, Frost said. They primarily hunt deer and elk, he said.

"It’s 99 percent of what they go after," he said.

The mountain lions could become a problem, Frost acknowledge, if they begin to depend on domestic animals as a food source.

Another north Hailey resident, Owen Scanlon, said his domestic cat was killed on Sunday morning between 5 and 6 a.m.

Scanlon estimated by talking to other residents that 10 or 11 domestic cats may have been killed by the lions.

Scanlon said a mountain lion hunter he knows estimated the weight of one of the cougars at 200 pounds based on the size of its tracks.

What concerns him the most, Scanlon said, is that there are only a limited number of domestic cats living in that neighborhood.

"What’s next on the food chain?" he said. "It’s either dogs or our kids."

Leach said she has heard similar sentiments.

"Some of the fathers are ready to hurt the animals, because they fear for their children," she said, but pointed out that she doesn’t want to see them hurt.

"Lion attacks on humans are very, very uncommon," Frost said. "But there are documented cases."

Frost said the north Hailey cougar predicament is one of the stickiest situations he has been involved in over the course of his career.

There are three possible resolutions, he said:

  • Do nothing,

  • Tranquilize and relocated the animals,

  • Or kill them.

The solution is not as "clear-cut and easy as it might appear," he said.

Tranquilizing the cats would be a difficult solution, he said.

"To tranquilize a cat, you have to tree it with hounds," Frost said. "I’m a little concerned about going down to a residential area and having a cat-chase through yards and down the street. It would be a circus."

He said property damage could result in such a chase, or a cougar or dog might be hit by a car.

It’s not only a safety issue, Frost said, but a liability issue.

He also said that if you split up mother and kittens, it is fatal for the young.

In addition, when a cat is tranquilized, the drug, called Capturall, stays in the cat’s system for 30 days. Because it is currently cougar-hunting season in Idaho, the animals would need to be taken very far away to avoid the possibility of a hunter eating tainted meat. The hunting season ends late in March.

Frost also said that if a dart misses its target, the result would be an attractively colored, drug-filled dart hidden in the snow. When spring arrives, the dart could pose a hazard to children or adults.

Frost said he will be talking to his superiors to ascertain a solution.

"We’re not going to turn our backs on these problems," he said, "but it’s going to have to be thought through well."

If confronted by a mountain lion, Frost advises, "Raise your hands or hold your backpack above your head and back away slowly. Don’t turn and run."

The act of running away will spark the predator’s instincts to pounce.

Basically, Frost said, you don’t want to look like prey. By raising your arms or pack above your head, you will appear to be larger than you are.

"Size is a consideration to a predator," he said.


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