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Housecats, lynx, cougars, jaguars – I’ve got some sort of cat karma going on. Bear with me briefly while I elucidate.
Firstly, my spouse, Mistress Betty is a cat person. That’s cool by me. I like cats, although I’m deathly allergic to them courtesy of severe childhood asthma. So we’ve got outdoor cats. My rule was always “two cats, no more,” but rules are a one-way street in the Howe household and Betty’s a sucker for charity cases, so we soon had three.
When you feed pets outside in a rural setting, other things often show up for dinner. Skunks and racoons roll through occasionally, and several years ago a cougar nailed two peacocks from the yard next door (for which I’m eternally grateful, since they shrieked non-stop like roosters on crack). But often as not, the uninvited guests are feline ronin, masterless cats looking to sell their dubious loyalty in return for Tasty Vittles and a warm lap on which to sharpen their claws. So suddenly we became the orbital center for seven freelance cats.
Then last week, several of the new recruits started looking very fat. Alarming factoid time: America’s domestic cat -and dog- populations double roughly every 5 to 10 years. Your average city of a million people euthanizes about 50,000 a year. Most towns are, in fact, surrounded by colonies of feral animals. Here in ranching country, abandoned kittens and puppies (almost always blue heeler cattle dogs) are constantly limping in out of the wild. RV tourists regularly dump their pets too, which is how we got cat No. 3.
It looked like we might soon become a de facto organic cat ranch. Given the economic forecasts, I considered this business model briefly, but things haven’t gotten that bad yet, so it’s spayin’ time here at Rancho Elvis. Last night was the first phase of the round-up. Since all cats are basically fanged psychosis covered by a thin veneer of sloth, it was an impressive rodeo. Then Betty drove 70 miles each way to the vet. Two down, five to go.
Cat Omen 2: Several weeks ago biologists in Capitol Reef found a dead lynx in Capitol Gorge, a narrow sandstone canyon that is definitely not normal lynx habitat. In fact, these long-legged relatives of the bobcat are more likely to be found in northern or high-elevation boreal forest, chasing down snowshoe hares and ptarmigan. The dead male still had a satellite tracking collar from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, so it was from their reintroduction efforts.
Uploaded data showed that the lynx, which was released near Meeker in western Colorado about 4 years ago, spent considerable time in the High Uintas of northeastern Utah before wandering through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. When the batteries died last year it was near Lolo Pass in the Bitteroot Mountains along the Idaho border northwest of Missoula, Montana. Nothing more is known between there and Canyon Country. Too bad. Must be one hell of a story.
Omen 3: Not long after that I received a call from a former spouse I hadn’t talked to in years, a lovely and accomplished woman who’s also a prominent wildlife geneticist specializing in bears and (drum roll please) big cats. She did pioneering mitochondrial DNA studies on cheetahs, and her PhD thesis was genotyping subpspecies of cougars from Alaska to Patagonia. She was just looking for permission to run a photo I’d taken years ago.
We had a great talk, and looking through those pictures brought back memories of a cougar tracking trip I did north of Yellowstone with her and Kerry Murphy, a field researcher for noted cougarologist Maurice Hornocker. Murphy had tracked, treed and examined over 300 cougars by that time, so the foray was a streamlined affair; three people, one redbone hound, no fancy beacons, two-way radios or multiple dog teams sicked on the same cat…all common tactics these days for ‘sport’ hunters.
We cruised the snow-dusted backroads for several hours, finding nothing. Then we started walking and scared up a cat within 20 minutes. For an hour we chased it, unseen, across ice-cloaked ravines and frozen rivers, following the baying of the lone hound. After trying to scrape us off by climbing several cliff bands, felis concolor finally treed in a tall lodgepole. The cat sat velcroed around the featureless trunk like a pipecleaner on a pencil, staring down with quiet, affronted dignity as we coughed and gasped, trying to get our breath back.
Murphy estimated she was a 95-pound, two-year-old female, what he called ‘yer basic cat.’ Miss Kitty was huuuuuge, with thick fur and paws the size of ping pong paddles. Big males can hit 160 pounds. Eventually she bolted to another, shorter tree. I shot some photos (below), then we backed off and let her go.
Here’s a bit of advice for all you readers who get a mule deer twinge in the back of your neck when running or hiking in country inhabited by ambush predators with four-inch fangs that are specifically designed to slip between your vertebrae and sever your spine at the cervical bump: The next time you succumb to trail heebie jeebies and look up to see if a cougar is about to pounce, look a lot higher than you thought.
This cat launched from well above power-pole height and hit the ground running. In seconds she’d flown over the cliff brink in a whirl of flying snow clods. The entire stunt was virtually silent. Clearly, we humans survive in cougar country only through the disinterest of our hosts. Guns wouldn’t help; You’d never know what hit you.
I’m joking of course. Well, kinda. Cougars virtually never jump humans, although when they do, they tend to target children, small women, and the elderly. I remember an interview years ago with wildlife trainers Doug and Lynne Seuss, who are most famous for Bart, their Ocar-winning 1,400-pound Kodiak bear. They also trained deer, wolves, bobcats, and cougars. Whenever they worked cougars on a movie set, all children under the age of about 12 had to be in a trailer, with a guard on the door to make sure they didn’t get curious and come out. “They’ll sit on your lap and purr,” said Lynne. “But when they see those juvenile coordination patterns they can’t help it. They’re like a guided missile locking on.” So daycare centers probably shouldn’t do field trips in dense cougar habitat.
I’m not so good at taking my own advice, however, since I trail run all the time here in quite dense cougar habitat. This corner of Utah is known for big pumas, and I see tracks often. Still, I’m not worried, even though I usually jog right around dusk with my iPod on red-line volume. Yeah, it’s a risk, but I generally skip the meteorite protection gear too.
Omen 4: Two days after that call, by total coincidence, I got an invitation to accompany jaguar researchers in northern Mexico, which would be ultra-cool. I’m shopping the story. (There is no separation between life and work for subsistence journalists.). If the trigger gets pulled it’ll probably be a long-term project.
So cat karma is pouring over me in waves, and that means you gotta listen to it. As an apology, I’ve posted several big cat pics from my former incarnation as a wildlife photographer. Enjoy. And remember; The next time you go hiking, leave the catnip at home. –Steve Howe