Vancouver Island has one of if not the greatest population densities of cougars in the world. Estimates run between 600 and 800, but sighting are very rare. If you ever sight a cougar, take a photograph, as the likelihood of you ever seeing another one is very small. Many hunters, who have travelled up and down the Island over many years, have never seen one, so that gives you an idea how stealthy cougars are. Even with so few sighting problems do arise. On Vancouver Island, we have up to 40 per cent of all cougar attacks in Canada and 25 per cent of the fatalities in North America.
The prime food source for cougars is local deer. They usually attack the very young, the old or the sick. They will attack other prey, such as domestic animals and small pets. Fortunately, attacks on humans are rare. On average over the past 50 or so years, cougar attacks amount to just under one a year on Vancouver Island. Unfortunately, some of these attacks will occasionally result in a tragic death. Too often the victim is a child.
These big cats are acting on natural instinct and will often chase anything that runs from them. They are opportunists. Cougars are naturally fearful of humans, but if the cat is weak and inexperienced, or if it no longer has its natural fear of humans, attacks can occur. Since 1978, three children have been killed by cougar attacks here on the Island, a 9-year-old and two seven-year-olds. The erratic actions of children and their high pitched voices may be mistaken by the cougar as a wounded animal.
These attacks are of great concern to the public and the Conversation Officer Service, whose job is to ensure the safety of the public. When there is a conflict between a cougar and humans, their first attempt is to defuse the situation before any action is taken, such as relocation or putting down the animal. The Conservation Officer Services determine what can be done to protect the public and wherever possible save the offending animal. Protocols have been established for field officers on how to handle these conflicts, but public safety is paramount.
In the case for the need to put an animal down, it is based on the actions of the animal. It basically, boils down to whether the animal has become “human habituated,” in other words no longer fearful of humans. Once these animals feel comfortable entering human occupied space, especially where humans and especially children are likely to come into conflict, action has to be taken.
An example of this occurred earlier last month, when a young male cougar entered the backyard of one of the townhouses on top of Malone Road in Ladysmith. The cougar laid in the yard, rolled in the yard and sat a few feet away from the home, seemingly at ease with his surroundings and unafraid of people, even when property owner Allen McDermid tried to scare the big cat away. The cat showed no fear of people, prompting McDermid to be concerned for the safety of children playing in the surrounding yards. Eventually, the cougar moved out of the yard and up the hill towards the power lines before the conservation officer arrived. In an attempt to determine if the cat had truly left the area, Conservation Officer Stuart Bates tracked it. He discovered that the cat had not left the area and was laying in the rock bluffs behind the housing complex. Shortly, Bates spotted it crouched on a bluff near him. The cat showed no fear of the large man and began to demonstrate predatory behavior towards Bates. A cougar that would allow a large man to approach within 20 feet and then show predatory behavior to that person in a residential area is deemed to be a serious threat to the safety of the public.
For the safety of the public, the officer made a decision to protect the public and put the animal down. Had the cat gone back into the forests behind the town, it would have been allowed to move on into the wild, but its aggressive nature and its lack of fear of humans forced his action to put it down. In respect for the cougar, it was donated to local First Nations people, who used it for meat and ceremonial purpose. In short, nothing was wasted.
TAKE 5’s FaceBook page exploded with comments following the cougar’s shooting. Many asked, why couldn’t it have been tranquillized and relocated? I asked that very question to the conservation officer. He explained that the tranquillizing drug takes 15 to 20 minutes to take effect, and in that time the cougar could run off. Secondly, studies have shown that relocated cougars often return in a short time to their territory and food source.
What about taking them off the Island? Vancouver Island cougars are a separate subspecies, and are smaller that mainland cougars, so they can’t be taken off the Island. Another problem with relocating is the possibility that a dominate male in the new area will kill the relocated animal in order to maintain its dominance. In the rare case where the animal that has been relocated manages to stay within its new territory, there is still a possibility that it could continue its bad habits. Thereby, the problem has not been solved, but moved elsewhere.
Local sportsman Dave Judson believes we may have 20 or more cougars behind Ladysmith. They regularly spot cougar scat and find “cougar scratching trees.” Cougars have always been around here, living with humans in mainly harmony. This is because cougars have a natural fear of us and avoid us. When they lose this fear there is conflict.
These magnificent cats, the top of nature’s food chain, are predators. We not only put ourselves in harm’s way when we encourage them into what is now our space, but we are sending these beautiful animals to their death. Respect our cougar population, but also fear them — they are not a large version of your pussy cat. The last thing we should do is to allow them to become used to humans, because that is a death sentence for them.
At least that’s as I see it.
For more information on cougar awareness visit BC Conservation Office webiste or watch our Cougar Safety Tips video on how to minimize contact with cougars and what to do if you meet one. Watch the Video Here!