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Opinion
Text: The editorial voice of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

7/17/2014

Why Won't ODFW Face Reality and Stop Killing Innocent Cougars?

The killing of a captured cougar by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) on the 4th of July was inexcusable behavior on the part of a state agency tasked with managing Oregon's wildlife for the public trust. But what may be even worse, are the outdated and scientifically disproven excuses Department officials made justifying that action.

Let's consider how this tragic situation came about.

There's plenty of evidence from similar incidents throughout the West that it's fairly common for cougars to accidentally wander into human areas. It usually happens at night. Sometimes the cougar is following a creek bed or other natural corridor that peters out in the middle of town. When that happens the cougar is often stuck miles from where it should be when daylight arrives and people start showing up. At that point the cougar's normal behavior is to hide from encroaching humans by climbing a tree or crouching deep in the bushes in someone's backyard while waiting for the sun to set and the people to go away.

That's probably how this particular cougar ended up stuck high up on a tree branch in the backyard of a Portland home.

If this incident had happened in California, chances are that cougar would have been captured, moved a short distance outside of town, and released back into the wild. In Washington state, the practice known as "hard release," where the cougar is traumatized by yelling humans, shot with rubber bullets and chased out of town by a trained Karelian bear dog, would have been added to the release process in an attempt to train that cougar to avoid humans.

But that is not what happened in Oregon.
Photo of sedated cougar under tree.
Instead, ODFW wardens tranquilized the frightened cougar and removed it from the public's view, and then they killed it. One can only assume the reason they bothered with tranquilizing and caging the cougar rather than just shooting it out of the tree was to avoid the public condemnation they knew would occur if they'd been honest in their intentions. At the very least this was a cowardly action ordered by some faceless ODFW bureaucrat. One might even argue that this duplicitous action was a conscious decision to purposely lie to Oregon's citizenry.

After killing the non-threatening cougar, ODFW officials offered up the same tired excuses they have used over and over again to justify their action.

  • The cougar was killed to keep the public safe.

  • The cougar was killed because it was used to the city.

  • The cougar was killed because it had lost its fear of people.

  • The cougar was killed because it had possibly been seen on several occasions.

  • The cougar was killed because it was too old to be sent to a zoo or wildlife care facility.

  • The cougar was killed because it might have got into a territorial fight with another cougar if released back into the wild.

  • And, oh yeah, it might also, possibly, have eaten a pet. Maybe.


Those excuses are a lot of bunk! Let's evaluate each of them one by one.

Keeping the Public Safe


Before officials from ODFW ordered its death, the Department's wardens spent over three hours watching the cougar sitting peacefully up in a tree, and then tranquilized it and stuck it in a cage. How is a drugged and caged animal a threat to the public safety?

Habituated to Human Development


Study after study has shown that cougars interact with and move through human space on a regular basis. Cougars born near the suburban edges grow up seeing human development (houses etc.) as part of the "natural" landscape. They use our roads and trails to cover great distances and hide in our shrubbery waiting for dark so they can move on about their business. Cougars spend most of their lives on the move and undetected by neighboring humans.

Lost its Fear of Humans


It's hubris on the part of some humans to believe that all creatures must fear us. There is no scientific basis to believe that cougars are born with an inherent or instinctual fear of humans. Fear is conditioned through experience, and a dead cougar can't learn anything. Cougars do not see humans as a food source. Based on experiences gained from the more prevalent nonviolent human/cougar encounters, many now believe that most cougars view humans with indifference, or even sometimes with feline curiosity. Fear isn't a factor unless the humans act in a manner the cougar believes to be threatening--in which case the cougar usually runs away. Why else do all the official brochures tell you to raise your arms, look big and yell when confronted with a cougar?

Multiple Sightings


There are consistently reported sightings everywhere cougars live. What proof does ODFW have that these sightings were of this particular cougar, or even that they were actual cougar sightings? In most cases reported cougar sightings turn out to be something else. When investigating such reports, state wildlife officials from throughout the country have found everything from a large house cat to a monkey. California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens once even found the reported cougar to actually be a stone lawn ornament. By far, the animals most commonly mistaken for a cougar by a frightened public appear to be large dogs such as yellow Labrador retrievers, or house cats vaguely seen in the distance.

Too Old to Acclimate to Life in a Zoo or Wildlife Care Center


The ability to adapt to captivity is typically easier for younger cougars, and successful acclimation will of course depend upon the individual cougar's temperament. In addition, biologists have found that temporarily holding a cougar in captivity does not cause habituation. In the case of the "Portland cougar," there's some question as to whether it was in fact "too old" for acclimation to captivity. Obviously, the best option would have been releasing the cougar back into the wild, but at the very least it could have been held for a few days while ODFW officials deliberated on what would be best for the animal.

If Released Back into the Wild it Might Fight and Kill Another Cougar


Yes, if ODFW moved this cougar hundreds of miles away from where it was captured it might come into conflict with the resident cougar already living there. But long-distance relocation is not how other state wildlife agencies handle their wayward cougars. In those cases, the captured cougar is released back into the wild close to where it was captured. This procedure usually places the cougar back into its own territory. In the case of young dispersing cougars, if they are released into another cougar's territory they will usually move out of it as fast as they can.

Puma concolor is a fluid, self-regulating species. Territories shift in size and change ownership all the time. This is normal cougar behavior. The natural selection process helps ensure that the strongest cougars survive to pass on their genes. Claiming that a released cougar supplanting a resident one is a bad thing and should be avoided at all costs because it will upset the balance of nature is ridiculous. Especially in Oregon where a decade of bad cougar management policies have decimated the local cougar population--no matter what ODFW claims.

Maybe it ate a Pet


The claim of depredation is always a good fallback when state game officials need an excuse to kill a cougar. But what proof do they have that this particular cougar ate someone's cat? All they have is a pet owner's statement that their cat was killed and eaten by "some" animal. I guess it's just easier to pin that crime on the already condemned cougar than to accept the fact that there's a lot of wildlife (coyotes in particular) that rarely pass up the opportunity to feast on domestic pets left outdoors overnight.

In the end what do we have? A non-threatening cougar, killed by a faceless state agency which doesn't have the courage to carry out its own zero-tolerance policy in full view of the public. And Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spin doctors trying to claim that they are the "Good Guys," really!

Hopefully the Portland cougar won't have died in vain. If meaningful legislation can arise from its death, putting an end to ODFW's 19th Century hunting-based wildlife management practices, then some good will have come from this all too common Oregon tragedy.