She Just Scared Us

A small cougar was tracked by dogs, hunted down, and shot this week in the forest near our home.  Simply for being who she was – a confident, young cougar.  She scared us, so we killed her.

The forests of Oregon have a healthy cougar population. That’s nothing new.  There are bears, too, and elk and deer and turkey and squirrels and all of the other critters that call the forest home.  They are all part of Nature’s balance.  Normally they are smart and stay out of our way.

But this thin, young, 75-lb female didn’t.  The officials who took her life said she was only 1-2 years old and had not yet had kittens, so she was not protecting young.  Most likely she was just acting on her basic instincts to chase prey if hungry, or to stake out her own territory, when she chased a lone man who was out for a run.  She got close enough that he kicked her, and then he sprinted away.  She gave chase, as years of evolution instructed her to do. Luckily, two hikers with a dog showed up at just the right time and she ran off.  No one was hurt, and maybe by being kicked she would learn not to approach people again.  Certainly the runner was lucky.

But she scared us, so instead of just using the encounter to encourage people to take the proper precautions when in the forest, like carrying bear spray or not hiking alone, we stalked and killed her. The officials say she was aggressive, which is why they had to put her down rather than to relocate.  But isn’t every animal aggressive when hunger tells them it’s time to eat?  Or to protect their home? It’s how we all survive.  And she was young, so maybe she hadn’t yet learned to stay away from people.

Looking at the big picture, wasn’t it us who ended up being most aggressive?  We weren’t hungry – she just scared us.  And since we typically no longer have any natural predators (besides ourselves), we no longer feel a part of Nature. That’s more than obvious these days.  We destroy it as we please, even if it just scares us.


Sharing the Trail

It was a pleasant morning, as winter mornings go in this part of Oregon. A good day for a solo trek.  The air was cool, damp, and fresh and there was only the slightest breeze. Given it was mid-week I expected to see few other people, and though I’m usually an afternoon hiker, rain was forecast for later in the day.

Forest Peak was a new destination for me and the southeast side seemed like a decent route. The round trip should be doable in about two hours or so. The path up would be mostly single track and the return would be on forest service roads. Nearly the entire distance would be through typical northwest evergreen forest, with moss clinging to and lichen dripping from nearly every tree.

The first acquaintance I made, barely a quarter mile in, was a very sluggish rough-skinned newt who refused to budge, even with the nudge of my boot.  Too chilly, I guessed.  Still pondering the newt, I nearly stepped on a five-inch-long banana slug, lengthening my stride just in time to miss it. Gotta keep my eyes open, I mused.

I love hiking single-track. Even when it’s drizzling there’s so much to take in as the path curves, dips, and climbs through the underbrush and across creeks.  It doesn’t even feel like exercise.  Only another rare hiker or the occasional mountain biker might break the solitude.  I passed under a large tree that had fallen against its neighbors, picking up my pace just a little.  It was still propped up at a 45 degree angle and I wondered how long it had been like that, or how long it would stay.

The path got just a bit steeper and muddier and I put more attention to where my feet were going. Glancing a couple yards ahead my eyes caught something that caused an immediate chill to run up my spine. It’s funny, I’ve heard about that happening but can’t ever recall it happening to me before.  Until that moment, when my eyes scanned a very large, very distinct, and very fresh set of tracks that had passed in the opposite direction, most likely earlier that morning.

I know they live in this part of Oregon and I’ve probably even been watched by one a time or two, but seeing those tracks and realizing I had shared the trail that morning with a Cougar took that awareness to the next level of ‘Yikes!’, if you know what I mean. Picture a 150-200 pound house cat with an attitude. I took some photos for confirmation, including the one above, using the toe of my boot as reference. The prints were about 3.5 to 4 inches across.

Mustering the remainder of my manhood I did manage to finish the hike, but I admit it was not the relaxed trip intended. Way more time than usual was spent scanning the forest in all directions – and making scary noises.  Yeah, that would help.

Later in the afternoon I confirmed my suspicions with a savvy local resident regarding the maker of the tracks. I also did some online research.  There was no doubt.  It was not a very large dog, which would have been the only reasonable second guess. So there it was, my first sighting of cougar tracks in the wild.  It was certainly exciting, but it gave me a bit more perspective on how brave I actually am.  Yup.