Commentary: Wild week of the cougar

It’s easy to romanticize living in a remote country location, far from even a small town. It’s peaceful, beautiful and it’s great to work hard outdoors, be close to nature, and enjoy wildlife and farm animals.

But every once in a while, Mother Nature reminds us who’s really in charge and makes us feel a bit out-of-place. It happens most often with the weather, and that’s to be expected. With big snows, horrendous winds, and single digit temperatures, we have to be prepared for anything, especially because grocery stores, emergency services and law enforcement are 70 miles away.

What we didn’t expect was to have our lives shaken up by a wild animal, a big predator. 

Several days ago, my wife, Jan, went out in the early morning to do chores — feed the chickens, ducks and geese. We had a little flock of four big domestic geese and four ducks. She noticed one of the geese was missing. The dogs had been barking a lot during the night, which isn’t uncommon. We have a variety of wild animals in the area that keep the dogs alert and noisy.

The geese and ducks hang out on a small pond about 25 feet to the side of our little farm home. Our bedroom window overlooks the pond. The pond is frozen, but all winter I’ve kept a “bathtub” of water open, about six feet by six feet, by chopping the ice so the ducks and geese have water to swim in.

We enjoy watching the waterfowl, especially when they do their “synchronized water dancing.” They will all at once swim in a circle, dunking their heads in sync under the water, or going vertical in the water, their heads pointed toward the bottom and their tails sticking straight up. They literally do it in in sync, as though on signal. Ducks and geese make a wide variety of noises, ranging from cute, soft clucking to loud quacking and honking. Someone said ducks are the happiest animal on the farm, and I agree.

So I went out looking for the lost goose, walking up the creek corridor that is next to the pond and checking out the cliff area 60 yards or so beyond the creek. The vegetation is thick along the creek, but I soon found a pile of soft, down feathers and some blood, so I knew a predator had taken the goose.

Later in the morning Dutch, our big Anatolian shepherd, found a bloody goose wing several hundred yards up the creek, and a little later a backbone still connected to a webbed foot.

I didn’t know what predator got the goose, but I didn’t think it was a coyote because the dogs keep them far away. And it wasn’t a raccoon or skunk, because the goose was too big for them to quickly kill and haul away. So I thought it must be a big bobcat or maybe even a cougar, although that seemed far-fetched.

I didn’t want to lose more geese or ducks, so I rigged up a bright light shining over the pond.

I’m a light sleeper and in the middle of the next night I awakened to the ducks and geese making a lot of noise. I jumped up and looked out the window. I saw two geese flapping frantically out of the pond toward the house.

I slipped on shoes, grabbed my semi-automatic .22 rifle and a powerful flashlight, ran outside to the pond and shined the light across the creek. About 40 yards away, in some dry tall grass, I saw two bright, glowing eyes reflecting the light from the flashlight. It was creepy, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I fired a shot well above the eyes, hoping the animal would drop the goose, and the eyes instantly disappeared.

I didn’t shoot directly at the eyes for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t know what it was, or whether it would even be legal to kill whatever was out there. Second, I didn’t want to wound an animal with the little .22 bullet. Third, the dogs had run up and I didn’t know exactly where they were.

I continued sweeping the light across the area and, once again, I saw the glowing eyes, this time about halfway up the cliff. I shot twice well above the eyes, and they again disappeared. I looked at my watch — 4:30 a.m. I checked the pond and could only see two geese left. I was freezing (it was 20 degrees) so I returned to the house.

I didn’t sleep well the rest of the night, thinking about those glowing eyes across the creek.

In the morning, we found both a duck and goose were missing, so we were down to two geese and three ducks. We still didn’t know what the predator was, but I was again thinking bobcat or cougar. And maybe more than one. We decided we had to relocate the ducks and geese, but it would take a lot of work to prepare a predator-proof pen with sufficient space and water to swim in.

In addition to the light shining on the pond, we installed some battery-powered motion sensor lights on fence posts and trees, aimed so that a predator couldn’t get to the pond without setting some of them off. We thought a sudden light might scare off the animal.

I also called the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) northern office to report that something was getting my animals. The person who answered was sympathetic, but said there wasn’t much they could do without knowing what the predator was. He suggested I set up some trail cameras.

Nothing happened the next night, and I kept the bright light illuminating the pond. We hoped the predator had moved on. But the night after that, I again was awakened by geese honking and ducks quacking. It was 1:30. I jumped up, looked out the window and this time I saw it: a large cougar walking across the pond ice and up the bank. It had a goose by the neck and didn’t even seem to be in a hurry. The lights didn’t bother it at all. A big tingle shot up my spine. I shouted to my wife, “It’s a cougar!”and ran outside with the gun and flashlight. I couldn’t see anything, but confirmed that another goose was gone. Not much sleep the rest of the night.

It had snowed and the next morning I followed tracks quite a way up the creek until I lost it. The tips of the goose wings had dragged in the snow.

We spent the day turning a loafing shed into a goose/duck shelter for our remaining goose and three ducks. It features a big livestock water tank for swimming, and is hardened off so a cougar can’t penetrate. I called the DWR again, and also the state trapper, and left messages.

We also have a bunch of chickens that roost at night up high in the rafters of their large coop. It’s fairly open, but the dogs often sleep in the coop, or in a nearby shop, so the chickens have been basically safe for a number of years, although we’ve lost a few to hawks.

But two days later, I went out about 10:30 p.m. to check on the animals. I immediately saw that a predator had attacked the chickens just a short time previously and killed one or more. There were feathers all over in the coop, a lot of blood up high on the rafters and in a pool below. I found terrified chickens outside in the dark, one on a pile of logs and another a hundred yards away on a snowbank.

It had snowed earlier in the evening and the dogs had clearly interrupted the predator and chased something. There were tracks all over the place. This all happened between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. while I was sitting inside watching a late Jazz basketball game.

So we spent another day hardening off the chicken coop. We now lock them in at night. We’ve never had to do that in the past.

I actually don’t mind losing a few birds to a predator. We love our farm animals, but I’m not sentimental about them, if that makes sense. We live among predators; we’re in their territory, and they have to eat, too. 

However, I can’t have my entire flocks taken out. We can’t have a big cougar coming into the yard every few days, acting like our farm is a fast-food joint. We’re worried that because the ducks, geese and chickens are no longer available it will go after the dogs. We’d also like to get some goats and maybe raise some pigs this year. We’re worried about new-born calves in the spring. It’s impractical to keep every animal in cougar-proof cages. They need to be out on pasture. 

We also have grandchildren who love to hike on the cliffs and up the creek corridor, and ride 4-wheelers around the farm. I especially wouldn’t want a cougar to decide to den in the area. A cougar with kittens would really be dangerous.

I did eventually get calls back from the state trapper and DWR. The trapper said he would stop by. The DWR said perhaps a cougar hunter could get a permit in the area. I was also informed that because ducks, geese and chickens are not classified as “livestock,” it’s illegal for a landowner to kill a protected predator taking them.

So, life goes on. The chickens, ducks and geese are well protected. We have an overabundance of wild turkeys in the area. Perhaps Mr. Cougar could focus on them for a while. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.