Category Archives: Cougars

To stay or not to stay?

About one month after I quit my job in Regina and two weeks after I arrived back home, my husband got notified his services were no longer needed where he worked. Needless to say, our stress level went up. We were lucky enough that he got offered a part-time job in the fall that quickly turned into full time work. However, the job is only a one year replacement position, so we are now faced with the potential of neither of us being gainfully employed after June 26th. Not a big deal for some, but when you live in a small, remote town where there are few, or no, job prospects, it is: we are once again faced with the dilemma of whether or not to start looking for work outside the valley.

Unfortunately, it is not just the lack of jobs that begs this question.

Yesterday, I went to talk with the neighbour who lost the three beautiful dogs to the cougar a couple of weeks ago (see Cougar capers begin again). Since this fatal attack, they too are contemplating whether to stay: “Leaving was never a topic for discussion before this.” To say the least, the loss of the dogs has put a bad taste in their mouths for the moment; he showed me where the dogs were killed, stashed and eaten–and also where the grizzly bears show up each year! He worries constantly about his animals (not to mention his children!); he told me of the myriad battles he had, last summer alone, with different wild predators trying to kill one form of livestock or other. “One night I had 5 grizzly bears in the yard…right over there.” He pointed to a fence-rail that bordered the chicken coop just 30 yards from his house. Frighteningly, this was not an uncommon theme last summer; there were several reports of 5-7 grizzlies in people’s yards at once, unwilling to move off even when shot at!

We talked about the lifestyle we were both committed to, and the pros and cons of achieving it here. Then we commiserated about the fact there is work here for only one of them, as a couple. He laughed as he told me he thought farming would save them money–it doesn’t. “It would be cheaper to go buy the stuff from the store–even the organic.” He tells me about making mozzarella cheese from the local milk that he bought, and realizing that after all that work, he could have bought a bigger block of organic mozza from the local store for the same price he paid for the milk! He has tried to make a living on the farm in a variety of ways but doesn’t see any way of making it. He even bought a saw-mill, but the price of lumber is now too cheap to make even that pay–and that’s when he has his own trees to fall!

Despite the fact he’s not ‘making a living’, he is doing amazing things on his farm. He’s raising lamb, chicken, and beef for his family, growing a vegetable garden and raising fruit trees. They buy in wheat and make their own bread. At one time they kept a dairy cow and made all sorts of milk products but when she died they didn’t bother to replace her–too much work for one man. Besides, they found another source they could access. They keep two llamas for the fibre and–he tells me, not inconsequentially–the poop! Apparently llama poop is like gold for the garden: you can put it straight on the veggies and it won’t burn them. As if that was not reason enough to recommend llamas, their poop comes weed-seed free!

On top of all that he’s doing on the farm, he managed to grow a decent crop of wheat in what is supposedly a very marginal area for wheat–something I’m quite envious of and interested in doing. I took over my two samples of wheat to compare. Beyond the ‘hard red wheat’ identification of the label on the original bag, he has no idea what kind he’s grown. It appears to be neither of the two kinds I had: the Marquis and Red Fife. I’m curious to know what kind of wheat it is, because it certainly did a lot better than my experimental plot of Marquis last year–and last summer was nothing to write home about. His wheat resembled the Red Fife most closely, but had a much deeper, richer color–it is very beautiful.

While I look out at his field of ‘wheat to be’ (this year he’s going to grow two green manure crops to enrich the soil and not plant wheat again until next year), I am envious of his space. It has always been my dream to grow a field of wheat. The way my place is laid out presently, there is no room for a field of dreams! Since we bought the place we have not taken down any of the trees in the front half of the property. We’ve worked within the space that was already cleared but have now utilized nearly every square inch. So something has to give. For one thing I want my own field of wheat, and another–the predators. I want to feel safer on my property. So we plan to clear some of the front half (about 1.5 acres) and fence it. I’m hoping it will push the predators further from the house, and encourage them to go around the property instead of through it as they do now.

I tell my neighbour about my plans to clear some trees, fence in more of my property, and generally limb up trees to provide better visibility. He nods and says he’s going to do more of that himself. He has two small children at home and no longer feels safe on his own land: “They can’t be outside without one of us.”  I ask if he’s going to get more dogs and he shakes his head. “I can’t justify the cost of getting more dogs to work like those ones did. I lost $4000 in dogs in three nights–actually much more than that, when you taken all their training into consideration.” We talk about the heartache of losing them and our love of living with dogs in general. They will get one family dog but it will come in at night, so it is safe. Sadly, this will leave his farm animals unprotected. Without saying this explicitly, he sighs as his eyes survey the paddocks with the various grazing animals, “If we have a year like last summer…”

He says he likes spending time in the wilderness, but in places where you don’t have to worry about bears and cougars; he laments the fact that he can’t take his children hiking here. As he says this he pauses to consider the towering mountains surrounding us and laughs, “Actually, we are probably safer out hiking in the mountains than we are standing right here on my land among my animals! There are probably various sets of eyes watching us right now.” I know he’s right. I’ve got those same eyes looking at my place. I’ve seen them reflect back at me when I shine my flashlight at night after the dog has alerted me to the direction of their presence.

I find contemplating these sorts of realities depressing. This is my home, my dream-life and I don’t want to leave. But I do have do consider that there may be easier–and much safer–places to live. I have to consider whether or not this place will ever satisfy the farmer in me, or if I’ll have to keep relying on my husband to earn money that supplements the food I’m producing (with the losses from predation, this place has, thus far, been impossible to make pay for its running costs). Then there is the further investment of clearing land, fencing it off, and more housing to keep the animals safe. Another friend of mine was lamenting the fact she had to spend $1000 to build a chicken coop. I wish I had those kinds of cost worries! (A grizzly bear would smack that structure apart in one swipe.)

I wax and wane in enthusiasm for this place. Mostly, I love it. After all, it was my dream for over 15 years to live here.  I do wonder about whether or not to forget growing food for others and simply homestead, as my neighbour friend is. I am not sure I can let the desire to farm go, but as we both get older and the predator question becomes more and more ridiculous, I find myself rethinking the wisdom of staying. As my neighbour agreed, the most outspoken people on the predator question often have no clue about the realities of living with these creatures. They don’t grow their own food so they don’t address all the issues; instead, the wild animal issue has become largely sentimentalized.

As I bid my farewell, my neighbour leaves me to consider the question he and his family are pondering: “With all these wild animals right at our doorstep and the general population against our right to defend ourselves, is this any way to live?”

Post Script:

I am aware that there may be economic opportunities that I’m too blind to see. Thus, I am open to suggestions as to how I could make this work; ideas, suggestions welcomed.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Cougars, Learning to Farm, Locavore, Politicking with predators, Sustainable Farming

Cougar capers begin again

This cougar has a belly full of dog.

This cougar has a belly full of dog.

Ahhhhh, spring is in the air and my garden is starting to grow. While I’m excited about all that spring and early summer offers with respect to new life and growing possibilities, there are things I am beginning to dislike about it–like the bears and the cougars. When the first signs of skunk cabbage are up, I know it’s time to brace myself for the possibility of ‘bear encounters’, because it signals that the bears are awake and heading down into the valley from their alpine boudoirs. Cougars, of course, don’t hibernate, so we can have trouble with them at any time of the year; but the longer days mean longer hours of worry.

Two Mondays ago, my neighbours’ dog went missing during the night: and not just any dog, but a Great Pyrennese guard dog. He was one of three Great Pyrennese dogs they kept to guard their sheep and llamas. The next night a second dog went missing, and by Thursday night they were no longer dog owners. I suspected there was a cougar in the area primarily because my dog had been barking her head off for several nights over the past few weeks, and in the direction where the cougars ‘hang out’.

The other behaviour that really solidified the idea was revealed last week while she and I were on our morning walk to the usual spot by the river, where I sit, have my morning coffee and enjoy the view. For the first time on our walks together, she behaved oddly. When we were about half way to the river, she suddenly came barreling back towards me, circled around behind me, sat down at my left hand side facing back from whence she came and began whining earnestly. When I walked forward and urged her to come along, she circled again in front of me, sat down at my left and whined. She made it clear to me that she would not continue on the walk. She has never done this before, so I decided to listen to her and head home. The second I turned back to head home she morphed back into the happy-go-lucky girl she usually is on our walks. That was some time last week. Three mornings ago, she repeated the drama with both my husband and me. I told him that she had done this last week. He agreed that we should listen to her, so we cut the walk short and had coffee on the safety of our porch back at home!

Two days ago, my friend Clarence went to have a look at what remained, if anything, of the neighbours’ dogs. He came by to let me know about the incident; he had ascertained it was definitely a cougar kill. The cougar had killed the first dog and dragged it into the bushes near their house. He found four visible beds around the area where the cat had bedded down to eat, or nap. He described finding the dog half buried in the bushes, “cached under some dirt and leaves, it was.” It had eaten the front half of the dog by the time Clarence found it: “From his rib cage on down to the tail was all that was left of that poor dog. That cougar’s coming back,” he told me. He emphasized that I should be on high alert (as if I am ever not!) and watch my dog carefully: “She wouldn’t last 5 minutes with a cougar.”

Cougar claw, front left paw.

Cougar claw, front left paw.

We arranged to go back the next day so I could get some photos and document this incident. We met yesterday, but the cougar had finished off the rest of the dog during the night. It took the cougar twelve days to eat three huge dogs. Since hunting season for cougar closed at the end of April and doesn’t open again until mid-September, our local hunters could not go after the cougar. Consequently, we had to wait for the Conservation Service.  As luck would have it, we got a new CO about the same day the cougar killed the first dog! How’s that for a welcome to the valley? The Conservation Officer came last night and set a snare for the cougar, and it was caught and killed today. I was invited to take a look. Whew,  now I can relax again for a minute or two! (When I started writing this post, I didn’t know what had transpired today).

Incidentally

I am told this is the 50th cougar killed in the valley since 1999–5 cats per year. There have been 5 killed by Conservation Officers, 2 by automobiles, 1 unknown death (it was found lying dead on a river bank), and the balance (42) by locals. Thirty-one of them were females, seventeen were males and two were unsexed. Some think the high number of females indicates that the Toms are killing the male kittens, and thus we have a higher population of females in the valley, which makes sense from a biological imperative point of view. This latest cougar is the biggest the valley has ever seen; a Tom, he weighed in at 146 pounds (nearly twenty pounds heavier than the last cougar I held!). The CO Service has been kind enough to let someone harvest the meat from the cat so it is not wasted. It will keep the hide and put it into a pool of such skins to be auctioned off  to interested folks like my taxidermist friend. Rumour has it that recent changes of legislation have, or are trying to, put a stop to such an auction, the argument being that wildlife should not be used as a commodity. If this argument carries, then instead of being honored in death the animals will be wasted. I wonder why many people find it acceptable that chickens, pigs, sheep, cows, steers, horses, turkeys, goats, and a host of other ‘domesticated’ animals–and their by-products, like eggs–are used as commodities (often with little regard), but not acceptable that bears, cougars, eagles and so on, are made use of upon their death, after a life of freedom?

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Cougars

Rod and Gun Club dinner and dance

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

Last weekend we held the annual Rod and Gun Club fundraiser dinner and dance. In preparation for the dinner, the members of the Rod and Gun Club prepared the meat they hunted this fall, butchered farm raised food animals, and taxidermied animals for the display. Earlier in the year, I helped Clarence butcher the turkey he planned to donate and also helped his son, David, skin and butcher out the cougar which he recently prepared for the display. The dinner provided me the opportunity to bring my duck breeding venture to a close. I butchered the last of the Muscovy ducks and took them to the dinner.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

The vast array of different foods there was surprising given the small community and was a testament to the amount of ‘industry’ the people in this valley are involved in. I could have tried every kind of meat on offer but managed to limit myself to what I could fit on the plate and still be able to remember which meat was which by the time I got from the smorgasbord back to the dinner table. On offer was nearly everything one could imagine and then some: deer, moose, caribou, elk, wild boar, duck, turkey, beaver, llama, black bear, grizzly bear, and of course, David’s cougar. He presented it freshly roasted as well as smoked sausage and hams.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

I tried everything except the caribou and beaver. I had tried caribou before and the beaver just wouldn’t fit anywhere on the plate by the time I got to it, though it did look delectable having been made up into a beautifully presented stir-fry. I was surprised to see that the dinner even catered to vegetarians, with salads of various kinds and several versions of tofu, vegetable stir-fries and bean dishes. I also took a home made loaf of bread and others had made rolls and biscuits. The meal was scrumptious and most of us ate far too much, but I did manage to save room for dessert!

What struck me most about the dinner, besides the fact that it was such a  unique example of local culture and something particular to this valley, was the fact that the vast array of meats differed little from each other. I was expecting to notice a greater difference in texture and taste between the carnivorous animals and the ruminants. My favourite meat was the elk, with the cougar and the grizzly bear roasts tied for second place. So similar in taste and texture were most meats that I’m certain I could feed my mother a grizzly bear roast and tell her it was beef! Of the options I sampled, the animal that had the most distinctive taste was the llama.

The Rod and Gun Club puts on this dinner and dance every year to raise money for the club and to raise awareness of hunting and animal conservation. Many would find it curious, if not ironic, that the hunters in this valley are some of the most aware of conservation and environmental issues and the most active people in terms of environmental conservation and preservation of animals. They are by far the most knowledgeable bunch of folks I have ever had the pleasure of learning from about the complexities of the natural world around us and the balance of nature.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Cougars, Educational, Food Security, Hunting, Locavore, Politics of Food

When in Rome: eating local

Warning: some graphic butchering photos contained on this page.

I have always loved cooking (my grandmother thought I should have become a chef), but the thought of being stuck inside for my work and at such a repetitive, yet highly competitive, job put me off. As a consumer I’ve always loved trying foods from far off places. I’m the only one I know who can go to Mexico, eat like the locals, and gain weight! When I began studying for my Masters Degree in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to do fieldwork with the Aboriginal Australians. While it would have been an amazing opportunity, I eventually dismissed the idea–based on food choices. Being a ‘When in Rome’ kind of gal, I just couldn’t see myself eating grubs (and other traditional bug-type bush food), yet I knew I might have to if I spent months in the bush with the locals of Australia. Bush meat, however, doesn’t revolt me, and while in Australia I have eaten emu, kangaroo and some other ‘bush meat’.

Throughout my ‘worldly travels’, limited as they have been, I have drawn the line in gustatory adventures at bugs. I have seen grubs, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, cockroaches and ants as edible options on different menus, but the closest I ever came to venturing into the culinary arena of bug eating was while in Mexico. Living near Tepoztlan, I came upon a street vendor who cooked amazing traditional fare. One day,he was frying up a huge wok-like pot of chulapines (grasshoppers) and, lured by my trust in his chef-like prowess coupled with my ‘when in Rome’ philosophy, I nearly went for it. He was friendly, the food was obviously relished by others, they smelled tasty,  and I stood there overcome by the wrestling match between my mind and my gag-reflex. In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to try them. Thankfully none of the families I lived with depended upon them for their food, or I might have been forced to eat out of politeness.

When the chance presented itself to come and work with the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, BC,  I jumped at it. I would kill three birds with one stone: a trip home to visit my family that I’d not seen in nearly six years, a visit to my beloved Bella Coola again, an opportunity for my thesis fieldwork, and exotic food that I could cope with. The Nuxalk traditional diet would not encompass anything that repulsed me, or so I thought. Lots of the foods here I had never tried before, but thankfully none of the traditional foods came into the insect category. Living in Bella Coola during the past five years has afforded me the chance to eat all sorts of things I would not otherwise have the opportunity to try: moose, mountain goat, salmon roe, ut, traditional smoked and barbecued salmon (the Nuxalk way), ooligan fish and grease, sopallili (Indian ice cream made from a berry).  I have liked most things, and now much of the above list forms at least part of my diet. However, I have come to discover there are things I can’t get down my gullet without gagging, like ooligan oil and ut. The former is a thick grease they make by rendering down ooligan fish, while the latter is herring roe on kelp. The people go crazy for both items, sometimes travelling for 3000 kilometers round trip to get it (the ooligan run has been wiped out on the Bella Coola River, so they trade with other First Nations people far north of here for their beloved grease).

When a cougar was killed, I offered to help the taxidermist skin and butcher the cat. I had never done that sort of thing before and was pretty excited by the opportunity to learn a new skill. He planned to mount it for the hunter who tracked the cat with him. My friend the taxidermist was exhausted by the end and very thankful I’d been there to help speed up the process. Nevertheless, the job took us several hours late into the night.

The next day, his wife called me and reiterated their thanks for the help with the work. After some pleasantries she got to the point of her phone call: “Would you like a package of the meat?” With all the passion and knowledge of a food critic, she listed off all the merits of cougar meat and lard. She told me the story of how they’d hunted the cougars for years but had never used the meat or lard, and then by economic need, they finally tried it one year and have never looked back. Like nothing else on earth, cougar lard makes the best pastry, and there is no better recipe for cougar meat than stir fried with snowpeas and water chestnuts. I had heard about folks eating cougar here, but I had always turned down the opportunity to partake. Now that I’ve been up-close-and-personal with that cougar in particular, the social qualms I harboured have withered. Once it was all gutted our and laying there, it barely looked any different from a pig–nice, clean, white flesh. With my friend nearly drooling into the phone while spouting off the recipe I reconsidered my position and answered, “Sure I’d like a package.”

Keeping in mind the immense popularity of Vancouverites Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon’s best selling book, 100 Mile Diet, who was I to turn down such an interesting example of local food as cougar, when the offer arose? Where else in the world would I get the opportunity to try this? Suddenly I could see economic development possibilities for our community. I envisioned a highly specialized tourist industry burgeoning around local foods, with high end restaurants sprouting up to cater to a tourist elite who would fly in from far off places (just as our Heli-skiers do) to try the wonders of our local cuisine: Bella Coola Beaver, Grizzly Bear Stroganoff, and the founding specialty, Stir-fried Cougar with Water-chestnuts and Snow Peas!

I have yet to pick the package up or try cooking it, but will keep you posted when I do!

Cougar ready for back cut skinning.

Cougar ready for back cut skinning.

Sorry the images are not clearer, it was late and the lighting not great!

Back splitting of cougar begins at the tail.

Back splitting of cougar begins at the tail.

When a taxidermist field dresses and butchers an animal, they use a back-split technique in order to preserve the skin’s integrity and make it easier to put back together. If you are not going to use the skin for tanning or mounting purposes, this is unnecessary.

Peeling the cougar out of his skin. This is coming around under his fore shoulder and elbow.

Peeling the cougar out of his skin. This is coming around under his fore shoulder and elbow.

Once the skin is off, then the normal butchering process begins. From this point on, it looks like any other animal ready for processing.

Opening the belly, just like you would a turkey!

Opening the belly, just like you would a turkey!

If I had not participated in this whole process, I may have been unable to think of cougar as game meat–not anymore!

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Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Cougars, Funny stories, Hunting, Locavore, Politicking with predators

Cougar capers come to an end

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

The day before yesterday, two hunters ‘let the games begin’, and came out winners. Not only have we been victimized by marauding bears this week, but also there has been a cougar, as one neighbour succinctly put it, “terrorizing the neighbourhood”. The cougars ‘games’ began several weeks back when it killed and ate several pet cats, attacked at least two dogs and killed one (that I know of). It has also been feeding on deer from the wild, and was finally spotted again two days ago.

Thankfully, cougar hunting season is open and a couple of hunters took up the challenge and started tracking the cat. The first couple of times, it led them through people’s barns, yards, and even through someone’s shop (and the people hadn’t known it was there!). In the end, the the daylight hours proved too short and the cougar too elusive.

The alarm was raised in the morning when a hatchery worker arrived at work and, spotting the tracks in the snow all around the buildings, immediately notified the hunters. It led the men on a merry chase for several hours in the worst of conditions we’ve had this winter: bitter cold, extreme slush, lousy footing, and icy streams. It led them across several streams (they broke through the ice up to their crotches), then back and forth several times until their dogs finally treed the cougar just beyond the airport, not far from my house, and they shot it; it was a healthy adult male, weighing in at 128 pounds.

I’m relieved because I have seen him around my place, prowling at night. Thanks to him and the raucous vigilance of my dog, many a sleepless night was had these past few weeks. It makes for nerve wracking animal husbandry efforts, knowing that there is a cougar on the prowl, particularly when I have to go out to the goat pen in the wee hours of the morning and again at night in the dark (4.30 pm), to fetch them out or in. With a nod to the cougars’ recent habituation to our community, many people have said about my goats, “Enjoy them while you have them.”

I worry for my animals every day, and I’ve lost lots of them to the various species of resident wildlife. When a cougar is on the prowl, I worry about my goats and dog especially. But what is a girl to do? On the one hand, it is good to leave my dog out because she is my ‘early warning system’ and, for an inexperienced cougar, possibly just enough of a deterrent to make him change his mind. However, the reality is that she is no match for a determined cougar and so she may lose her life if I let her stay outside–even during the day (dogs here are often referred to as ‘cougar bait’ because so many are taken each year).

Cougars are getting more and more bold here in the valley, and we are the worse off for it. Not only have they taken dogs from yards; they have begun taking them right in front of the people walking them, and, on at least one occasion, while one was still on the leash! To date they have killed our pets and attacked adults, severely injuring them, and I fear for our school children who walk to school and play on the school grounds during recess (two cougars were spotted on the Native school grounds last year). Is this any way to live?

When discussing our problems with cougars the other night, the Conservation Officer (who had been dispatched from Williams Lake to deal with our chicken-killing marauding bear) told me we shouldn’t fear cougars. Instead, he said, we should respect them. I felt like saying, ‘Tell that to Cindy Parolin’s family, or to her son, who was attacked first by the cougar, and whose life she was defending when she lost hers, because the cougar killed and half ate her alive before someone shot it.’ Or say that to the myriad other families who have lost loved ones to cougars (or bears), sometimes in their own backyards.

If I don’t have to fear cougars, why have there been these deaths? Why does all the literature on cougars (even from our own Ministry!) advise us to defend ourselves strenuously if attacked. It warns us not to play dead because, unlike non-predatory type bear attacks, when a cougar attacks it intends to kill and eat you. Cougar attacks are always predatory, yet this man, whose job is to serve and protect the public, believes we shouldn’t fear them? Puh-leeease.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

Most people in the valley who hear that kind of statement laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Why? Because they know what a cougar can do to you. The doctors and nurses here know what the cougar (and bear) injuries look like. They know that it only takes 4.5 mins for someone to bleed out if a jugular vein is cut by a claw or fang. Not only that; they are acutely aware of the severely limited operating capacity of our remote hospital. They know just how lucky the few who have been attacked were, to get away with their lives.

In addition, the people here know that there has been a recent change in cougar (and bear) behaviour, and that the new Ministry of Environment policies outlawing the hunting and trapping of cougars and bears as a preventative protection measure are at least partially responsible (and likely the major contributing factor) for the change in predator behaviour.

Unfortunately, the majority of our population now resides in cities, and this majority is creating the policies that us rural folk have to live with. The sad thing is, even though many people have lost their lives because of this thinking, the rules and legislative policies are still not changing. Our society is running an incredibly dangerous experiment by presuming we can ‘live in harmony’ with wildlife. We can’t, never have, never will. It’s a dangerous fallacy and a ridiculous fantasy.

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Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Cougars, Ethical farming, Food Security, Goats, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food