On the Trail of the Killer Cougar
When he was nine, Adam Bisby survived being mauled by a cougar. More than three decades later, he’s stalking the big cat in search of answers.
The first question is usually the same: “Do you have any scars?” Thankfully, the puncture wounds are gone, as is the primal terror and strange exhilaration I felt as the cougar sank its claws into my nine-year-old legs and back.
My 1982 mauling in Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park is an unusual childhood anecdote, one I’ve recounted many times. It’s such a good story, in fact, that for more than three decades it overshadowed my own nagging questions: Why was I attacked? Why was I spared? How was the animal caught? Why did it have to be destroyed?
To truly comprehend the assault, I would have to relive it somehow, ideally in the company of someone who could fill in the blanks.
Wildlife viewing generates hundreds of millions of dollars in British Columbia each year. Grizzly bears, killer whales, bald eagles, sockeye salmon-all of these creatures, and many more, can be spotted with a professional guide at your side.
Cougars, however, are another story. The province is home to more than 85 per cent of Canada’s 7,000-odd cats, yet try as I might, I can’t find a tour company or outfitter to show me one in the wild. Fact is, most people steer clear of them.
The feeling is mutual. Cougars are lethally anti-social. The territories of adult male toms can exceed 200 square kilometres, and they want it all to themselves. Toms typically fight to the death in contested territory and will even attack young kittens.
Eventually, I seize upon the idea of embedding myself with a conservation officer. B.C.’s COs shoot plenty of cougars-99 in 2014 alone-but they do it to protect people, livestock and pets. Trouble is, no journalist has gone on a real “cougar call” before. After several emails to the B.C. Ministry of Environment, a media relations staffer replies by phone. “Why do you want to do this, anyway?”
“Well,” I reply, “I was mauled by a cougar when I was nine, and I’m looking for some answers about what happened to me.” There’s a pause on the line. Then, “Do you have any scars?”
Two months or so later, I’m sitting in Kevin Van Damme’s truck.
The attack couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but by the time the big cat let go, Sydney had been mortally wounded.
The beloved dog of Gayle and Robert Fremlin was snatched by a cougar on April 2, 2014. According to Gayle, her husband heard a loud rustling in the underbrush near the edge of their rural property on Green Lake in central B.C. The rancher searched for the source of the commotion and saw the long, distinctive tail of a cougar. “It was making a sound in its throat, like a purr,” Gayle recalls, “and it was trying to drag Sydney under a barbed-wire fence.”
Robert started shouting, then charged toward the animals. Cougars are known for their unyielding jaws, but the noisy frontal assault worked-the cat dropped Sydney and vanished into the night. The cougar’s presence, combined with the dog’s death the next day, prompted a call to the conservation office in Kamloops, a two-hour drive south.
“Your husband did a brave thing,” Van Damme tells Gayle, standing on the Fremlins’ back porch. “Being the aggressor is what got the cougar to move away.”
But how far had the big cat gone? The side arm-toting, body armour-clad COs follow bloody paw prints through slush-filled forests to the far side of a nearby road, where the tracks disappear into a dark thicket. The spring sun is burning off the scent and more than 40 hours have passed since the attack, so releasing the three tracking hounds from Van Damme’s pickup isn’t a viable option. It would have been a different story had there been more sightings or maulings, but as Van Damme explains, “A cougar that’s desperate and needs a dog for food would never release. If we felt this cougar was a real risk, we’d track it for as long as it takes to catch it. But by the looks of it, it’s long gone.”
My recollection of my own encounter remains vivid. Our party of seven was spread out along Waterton’s Bertha Lake trail on the sunny morning of August 20, 1982. My dad, brother and two cousins were leading the way, and my mother and sister were bringing up the rear. I was hiking alone in the middle, with approximately 20 metres separating me from each group.
Partway up a gentle rise, cries erupted behind me: “Adam, look out!” For a moment I mistook the golden animal for a Labrador retriever, but then shouts of “Cougar!” set me horribly straight. Barely an arm’s length from my incredulous eyes, it bared its fangs and emitted the distinctive snarl that, until then, I’d only heard in car commercials. ”Yell at it! Scream at it!” Not that I needed coaching. When the cougar reared up and jabbed one set of claws into my back and the other into my left leg, I shrieked as loudly as I ever had.
The cat withdrew and looked me up and down. Then it lunged again, this time reversing its grip as it tried to pull me to the ground. I screamed and kicked its exposed belly, causing it to retreat and tilt its head quizzically.
Thanks to one of my cousins and to my father, the attack ended there. David charged down the hill, waving a piece of deadfall and screaming maniacally. Dad was close behind. The animal’s eyes widened, and just before I collapsed, it darted into the surrounding foliage.
The next thing I knew, I was in my father’s arms. Red rivulets covered my bare legs, and I could feel my tattered Muppets T-shirt sticking to my bleeding back. We made it to the one-room Waterton Medical Clinic in a matter of minutes-Dad says he had never run so fast-and after being assessed, bandaged and poked with various needles, I was discharged.
Park wardens weren’t taking any chances. My attacker, a healthy adolescent tom, had already been spotted regularly in and around the town and had approached hikers several times. Two days later, it was shot dead.
In our five days together, Van Damme never once asks about my attack. He has seen and heard it all, I suppose, over more than two decades. Each year, there are thousands of reported human-cougar conflicts in B.C. alone. As if to justify my presence, I’m compelled to outline my experience a few minutes into the short drive from Kamloops to Harper Ranch.
We’re answering a call from Chad Evenson, who has lost three newborn calves to what he feels certain is a cougar. As we near the ranch, Van Damme explains cougar dispersal, which is at the root of many cattle conflicts. When young cats leave their mothers, typically between one and two years of age, they set out to establish their own territories. This is when they are most likely to tangle with people and their properties.
“So the cougar that attacked me was probably dispersing?” I ask.
“There’s a good chance,” Van Damme replies.
The way I was attacked was typical of how young cougars approach new prey. Then there’s “learned behaviour.”
“If a cougar learns that dogs represent a viable food source, it will keep killing dogs,” Van Damme says. “If it successfully hunts sheep, it will keep hunting sheep until all the sheep in its territory are dead. And if it gets comfortable around people-or worse, if it attacks someone-it can create a dangerous situation that will only get worse.”
Most cougars can’t be relocated because they will perish trying to return to their territories, he continues. “Research shows that they’ll starve to death or get killed by another cougar. It’s not humane to move them.”
We roll into Harper Ranch, and it soon becomes clear that coyotes killed Evenson’s calves. “Sorry I couldn’t supply you with a cougar,” Evenson jokes. If only it were that easy.
My days with Van Damme generate drama, tragedy and carnage-not to mention innumerable insights into cougar behaviour and conflict management-but they don’t yield an actual cat.
I’d just visited the region of the world with the largest cougar population, alongside one of the most experienced cougar trackers on Earth, at the beginning of the time of year when he fields the most cougar calls, yet I still hadn’t seen one in the wild.
Eight months later, I find myself on assignment at the Sun Peaks ski area north of Kamloops, 4,000 kilometres from my home in Toronto. I’ve alerted the enduringly accommodating Van Damme to my presence and am just about to hit the slopes when I hear my cellphone buzz: “Just got a call re: cougar,” the email reads. “‘I’m heading out now. Are you in town yet?”
I dial Van Damme’s mobile, but to no avail. “He might be out of cell range or in the field,” an office administrator at the Kamloops conservation office offers after failing to reach him by CB radio.
A few minutes later, Van Damme calls back: “The cougar’s been shot.”
I can’t believe my bad luck.
“I’ve got the animal in the back of my truck,” he adds. “Why don’t you meet me there?”
There, it turns out, is a hobby farm about 30 kilometres north of Sun Peaks. Six nights earlier, a tom killed a ewe in a pen next to the home of Debbie and Robert Fraser. The noise roused the owners, who were horrified to see blood and cougar tracks leading into the woods. Robert fired his rifle the minute he thought he saw the cat, but it was too dark to know if or where the bullet had made contact. Robert hoped the cougar had died from its injuries, but five nights later the cat came back. That’s when the COs were called in.
“Learned behaviour is so strong that this cat sustained a bullet wound yet still returned,” Van Damme says. “I’ve seen these animals kill 40 sheep in one night. People wonder, Why do they do that? They do it because they’re honing their senses and getting better at what they do. Their intent isn’t to eat 40 sheep.”
We start by examining a mangled sheep carcass. Then we follow a single set of tracks-the cats often retrace their steps precisely, Van Damme explains-to a fir near the barbed-wire fence surrounding the pasture. This was where the cougar quietly made the assessments that led to the attacks.
We backtrack toward the carcass and follow a chaotic trail of cougar and hound prints, blood and sheep parts, up the steep mountainside bordering the ranch. The slog through knee-deep snow is exhausting, and I can only imagine what it was like for Van Damme and fellow CO Warren Chayer, who more or less sprinted up the slope.
About 500 metres up, Van Damme pauses on a rocky outcrop. It was here, he explains, that he heard the distinctive baying of hounds that had treed a cat.
The tom was indeed “bayed up” in a tall fir on a cliff’s edge. Standing atop the snowy precipice, Van Damme recounts how, with a single rifle shot, he knocked the cat from its perch, five metres up. It tumbled over the cliff, forcing the COs to climb down to confirm their kill. Then the cougar’s body was tied to a leash and dragged back to Van Damme’s pickup.
We trudge down the mountainside, and the CO flips open the tailgate. There, wedged into a steel compartment, is the tom.
It doesn’t look especially fearsome at first. Then Van Damme exposes the jagged yellow fangs and pushes on a thumb-sized toe to reveal a retractable claw. “There’s quite a bit of fraying here, so it was having some challenges,” he adds. This could partly explain why, after ruling the surrounding valley for most of its six-year lifespan, this cat suddenly started hunting sheep.
“People think we’re hurting the local cougar population, but it may have the opposite effect,” Van Damme says. “Its territory is now vacant, so the chances of kitten survival are now much greater.”
The air is thick with the odour of wet fur as I rub the velvety ears, tousle the coarse coat and test the sharpness of the fangs with my fingertips. Then I reach for my camera.
Van Damme quickly intercedes. “Sorry,” he says. “No pictures of the dead animals.”
I’m taken aback. “But what about the sheep?”
“That animal died naturally. A sheep is natural prey for a cougar. But we intervened.”
That’s when I know my journey is over. The cougar wasn’t killed for doing anything wrong, but for doing what it does. It can’t be faulted for its actions any more than a young boy can be faulted for trekking up the wrong mountain trail at the wrong time.
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