Woodland stream.

Cougar Country

Cougar country

It's a large and dangerous cat, a solitary predator with keen eyes and nose that stalks its prey without mercy. It relishes pouncing on unsuspecting victims, relying on the element of surprise to make its kill.

The tawny-coloured cougar, with its white muzzle and chest, can weigh from
38 to 80 kg. It is quick and is an agile climber.

It is also known to swim when necessary.

It has all the grace and playfulness of a house cat but it can be deadly and may leap up to six metres onto its prey. Their strong jaws and long canine teeth enable cougars to kill with a single bite to the nape of the neck.

Nearly three years ago, 30-year-old Frances Frost was killed by a cougar which stalked her as she was cross-country skiing on a trail near Lake Minnewanka, about 130 km west of Calgary.

Laura Frost finds comfort that if her daughter had to die, it was in the wild and not at the hands of a human.

"We understand that there's risk when you go out in mountains -- there are so many things that can happen," says Frost. "City life is not that safe, either. There are just no guarantees."

"Fran was out in the woods doing something she absolutely loved and killed by nature rather than by a stranger," her mother says.

"She wasn't murdered in some grotesque way by some psychopath or in a car accident with a drunk driver. This was fast and in a way that Fran would have found acceptable -- if she had to choose."

This elusive predator made headlines again earlier this month after an attack just outside Jasper National Park.

Chase Stepanick, 5, got away with just scratches and an experience he'll never forget after his father booted the cat until it fled.

Alberta is home to as many as 850 cougars.

Their numbers are up by about 20% over the past decade, largely due to a healthy deer population for the cats to feed on.

But despite the rising number of cougars, attacks and encounters are very rare in Alberta.

Many people venturing into the wild have unwittingly crossed paths with the cats hiding nearby.

"Cougar territory is everywhere -- people just don't see them, they are up in the trees or hidden amongst low vegetation," says Dave Ealey of Alberta Sustainable Resource and Development.

"People who go into the backcountry come close to all sorts of wildlife but don't see them because animals tend to avoid you."

Experts say most cougar attacks on people have been predatory, with cats setting their sights on children or adults low to the ground.

The problem with children is they look like cougar prey.

They are small, make high-pitched noises and move quickly.

Big-horn sheep, deer, elk, mice or children -- a cat often knows no difference when it comes to dinner.

Cougars are also no stranger to more urban locales.

Every year there are several incidents on acreages south of Calgary, with cougars preying on pets or gobbling up pet food left outside homes. Others cats have been known to attack livestock on farms.

"They are kind of cowardly around people but will attack, rather reluctantly," says biologist Eldon Bruns, head of wildlife management for the southwest region, which covers most of Alberta's cougar country from Grand Cache to Waterton Park.

"People live in amongst wildlife because they want to see wildlife but they have to be aware there are ways to do it safely."

Travel in groups, be noisy and be prepared for an encounter.

Avoid dense brush, keep the dog at home, carry pepper spray and keep children close.

If you cross paths with a cougar, do not run, pick up children, and spread your arms open to look as large as possible before slowly moving back and hopefully ensuring the encounter with the animal has a happy ending.

If the large, muscular cat attacks, fight back any way you can.

The Frosts have no intention of giving up the mountains. They harbour no hatred for the cat which took Frances from them.

"I don't blame the animal. It was just a natural reaction -- this is what cougars do. They see something that will provide a meal and go for it,"
Frances' mother says.

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* In cougar country, travel in groups and be noisy.

* Avoid dense brush, leave the family dog at home, carry pepper spray and keep children close.

* If confronted by a cougar, do not run, pick up children, and spread your arms open to look as large as possible before slowly moving back and away.

* If the cat attacks, fight back any way you can.



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