By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
ARLINGTON — She was one stubborn and cantankerous cougar.
A day after being trapped by state wildlife agents after wandering too close to homes, the 100-pound mountain lion was set free in woods northeast of Arlington.
Growling and mistrustful, she was reluctant to leave the cylinder-shaped aluminum-sided cage trap that bore the warning DANGER KEEP AWAY in tall red letters.
It took agents more than a half hour to prod the predator out through the open door.
In most cases, cougars dash off when the door opens.
This feisty feline wouldn’t budge.
Agents initially banged on the back of cage. Nada.
When they tried to poke her with a pole, she chomped on the rubber handle and snarled.
Eventually, they lifted the back end of the enclosure and tried to slide her out. The cougar landed on her hind paws and leaped back inside.
A puff of pepper spray finally did the trick.
“They don’t teach you about this in warden school,” state fish and wildlife Sgt. Richard Phillips said.
Before Wednesday, officer Dave Jones had caught and released between 30 and 40 bears over the years, but just six cougars.
“Every cat has its own personality and you can’t predict what they are going to do,” Jones said.
This cougar was fortunate.
A north county property owner spotted the mountain lion. Wildlife agents investigated. There were no reports it had killed pets or livestock, which would have required it to be destroyed under state wildlife department policy.
The goal Wednesday was to try to make the cat never want to get near mankind again.
As the cougar headed away, its trot turned into a scamper when Jones pelted it with bean-bag rounds fired from a shotgun. Officer Keith Kirsch also let loose with several rounds that amounted to loud exploding firecrackers.
“We don’t want it to like us,” Phillips said. “We don’t want it to trust us.”
Wildlife agents estimate that the cougar is about 2 years old.
She could be at an age where she’s learning to hunt on her own. Her mother likely ran her off to encourage her to establish her own territory, Phillips said.
“Most of our problems are with young adults like this one,” Phillips said.
Such was the case out of Whatcom County in 2011. A cougar was caught and tagged in Bellingham, then set free northeast of Mount Baker. Within two weeks, it was spotted attacking livestock near Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County where it was shot and killed by a homeowner. Adult male cougars roam widely, covering a home range of 50 to 150 square miles, depending on the cat’s age, time of year, terrain and availability of prey.
Washington state has a healthy cougar population. In 2008, it was estimated to be 2,500 animals. Adult cougars typically prey on deer, elk, moose, mountain goats and wild sheep, with deer being the preferred and most common prey.
Cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare. In Washington, there has been one fatal attack and 15 nonfatal attacks over the past century.
However, close encounters between humans, cougars or other large predators are becoming increasingly common.
It’s inevitable when you have declining habitat and homes popping up in forested areas, Phillips said.
In June 2011, an adult male black bear weighing 250 pounds was shot and killed in a Lynnwood neighborhood after leading police on a long chase through town. Wildlife agents typically keep busy in the spring capturing wayward bears, famished after their winter hibernation. They often are lured into back yards looking for a quick and easy meal: garbage, bird seed, pet food.
Even though he has been a wildlife agent for more than three decades, releasing a cougar into the wild still seemed special to Phillips on Wednesday.
“It’s just like being a little kid again,” he said. “Rarely do we get an opportunity to give them a second chance. They are such magnificent critters. To see them up close and personal like that is still a thrill.”
What to do if you encounter a cougar:
• Stop, stand tall and don’t run.
• Pick up small children. Don’t run. A cougar’s instinct is to chase.
• Do not approach the animal, especially if it is near a kill or with its kittens.
• Try to appear larger than the cougar. Never take your eyes off the animal or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
• If the animal displays aggressive behavior, shout, wave your arms and throw rocks. The idea is to convince the cougar that you are a potential danger, not prey.
• If the cougar attacks, fight back aggressively and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back.
Tips to keep cougars away
• Don’t feed wildlife and feral cats, including deer, raccoons and other small mammals because cougars prey on those animals.
• Close off open spaces under structures. Areas beneath porches and decks can provide shelter for prey animals.
• Feed dogs and cats indoors. If you must feed your pets outside, do so in the morning or midday, and pick up food and water bowls, as well as leftovers and spilled food, well before dark. Pet food and water attract small mammals that, in turn, attract cougars.
• Keep dogs and cats indoors, especially from dusk to dawn. Left outside at night, small dogs and cats may become prey for cougars.
• Use garbage cans with tight-fitting lids. Garbage attracts small mammals that, in turn, attract cougars.
Source: State Department of Fish and Wildlife
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org