Letter from Birdland: Trying to get a good look at large cat

Letter from Birdland: Trying to get a good look at large cat

In Birdland, we had a short warm snap. It was balmy in the 30s, and we took advantage of the gentle weather to take a trip to the woods. I had talked to my dad the night before. He had bought a trail camera, and we were going out to put it up.

Dad and Linda arrived just after Ellis woke up, but my youngest moves slowly in the morning, so we had to wait a little.

"Hurry up," I called. "Your grandparents are here."

A couple weeks earlier, a neighbor had caught an image of something surprising, and Dad wanted to see if he could find out what might be checking out the deer trail in our woods. The photo we saw was a clear picture of a large cat. The snow is deep, up to her haunches, and trackless, except for the straight lines behind her, as she makes her way through the deep snow. The bare trees cast blue shadows.

The digital display tells us the photo was taken just past noon in early February. She is walking away from the camera, almost out of the frame. Her coat is full and thick. Her ears are back, as if she's annoyed with the snow. She lifts one paw, ready to step forward. She's moving in a straight line, like she has someplace to go. She is a beautiful, solitary creature.

When Ellis was finally dressed, we were on our way. We took the short ride to the timber, and climbed out of the car. We followed a deer trail into the woods and strapped the camera to a tree. It was pretty simple. We'll go back in a week and see what we have captured.

I wasn't at all surprised that our neighbor caught a catamount (cougar, puma, mountain lion, panther or whatever you want to call it) on film. I saw one myself one night coming home very late about 25 years ago.

We were driving through White Heath, and suddenly a dog-sized cat crossed the road a few car lengths ahead of us. It was gone before we could react. It didn't stand quite as tall as a German shepherd, but it was unmistakably a cat: pointed ears on a round head; long, full tail straight back behind the body.

I told my grandma about it later, but she wasn't surprised. She said, "Oh yes, there's been a cat following that herd of deer for years, but don't tell anybody — or we'll have people from all over coming to organize a hunt."

I didn't tell too many people, either, for that very reason. But now that this image is making the email and facebook rounds, I figure people would be talking about it, and I wanted to add my voice to the conversation.

I know big cats can be dangerous, and I did some quick research. I was hoping to find that big cats don't ever attack people, but that was wishful thinking of course. I did find, however, that attacks on people are extremely rare and occur mostly in the Western states or Canada, and usually when people are out hiking alone.

Wikipedia has a list of North American deaths from cougar attacks, and it's sad reading. There are some particularly tragic cases of children being killed. Compare the 25 fatalities Wikipedia's statistics from gun deaths in Illinois for one year: 364 in 2010 alone. So, wait: 25 fatal cougar attacks in more than 100 years from all of North America versus 364 gun deaths in one state in one year? I know which dangerous animal frightens me more.

My quick Google search led me to some interesting sources. I plan to do some more serious library research soon. I'll let you know what I find.

After we put up our camera, we drove into town for lunch. We chatted and shared stories and memories, but our conversation kept coming back to our elusive cat. That cougar, or her kin (cougars live about five years in the wild), has been around these parts for at least 30 years, and most of us didn't even notice. I hope we can continue to live in peace with this beautiful animal.

Walk in beauty; work in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. You can read more about cougars and safety at mountainlion.org and env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/cougsf.htm.

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