Happy in Cougarville

April Op-ed for the Bridge River Lillooet News

One night in winter when my dog was still a puppy we went outside about two a.m. and while he did his business I walked to the fence to look out at the street. I inhaled the crisp, clean air and searched the sky for the Big Dipper and then from the darkness about ten feet away something uttered a warning growl. My abdomen muscles clenched. The hairs on my neck stood up. My puppy also heard it and we both dashed for the house. I’m not sure who made it back indoors first.

Unafraid of deer and bear, the dog stands his ground and barks loudly to keep them away. But when cougars are around he behaves much differently. If we’re out for a walk and he catches the scent his tail drops and he becomes unsure and agitated. Sometimes he freezes, crouches low and won’t budge, forcing us to retreat. Some nights he will go to the open door, take one tentative sniff and trot back to his bed.

I know that he’s reacting to the presence of cougars and not some other critter because his behavior has coincided with cautionary posts on Facebook. Over the winter months, folks on Columbia Street posted that there was a cougar walking along their fence. Two cougars were spotted cruising down Victoria Street just before midnight. And recently two were in the backyard of a neighbor down the block.

This is the sum total of what I know about cougars: they’re solitary, reclusive and seldom seen; the only time a cougar ventures into human territory is when it’s orphaned, old or sick; they avoid us like the plague. This doesn’t adequately describe the cougars here. These ones are seemingly healthy and they’re coexisting rather seamlessly in our midst. Perhaps they’re the genetic descendants of all the cougars who’ve been successfully poaching from human habitation for eons.

The two cougars who were seen together are unusual for the species, though not unheard of; according to Wikipedia they will sometimes pair up to hunt. No doubt that would make them significantly more effective, not to mention brazen. Two cougars could easily mow through the available stock of domesticated and feral cats unlucky enough to be outside at night, and then what? I’m the furthest thing from an expert, but I’m guessing that larger prey would be their next target. And though historically there have been very few human deaths caused by cougars, it has crossed my mind that my body would provide them with a few high-calorie meals.

In the absence of any reliable method of keeping myself safe from this ambush predator I shall continue to take my cues from my dog, who understands instinctively that the cougar is boss. I shall endeavor to believe that living among them, at close range, is cool and admirable in a guaranteed rugged sort of way. And it sure makes me want to install an infrared wildlife camera.

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