When the news that two of Gerry Binney’s animals, a horse and a mini-donkey, had died of a suspected cougar attack, Facebook “went wild” with similar stories and accusations, something that Binney said he wants to see stop.
After the escalation of comments on Facebook, plus a story in the Independent’s sister publication, the Castor Advance, Todd Ponich from Alberta Fish and Wildlife went to the property Binney and his family rent to investigate the animal deaths a second time.
After the hours-long investigation was conducted in the company of Binney and his family, the Botha-area family was in agreement that their animals hadn’t died of a predator attack.
Ponich, who has worked with Fish and Wildlife for 28 years, now specializes in problem wildlife. While he doesn’t believe it’s impossible for a cougar, or cougars, to be hunting in Stettler and Paintearth counties, in his 14 years in the central region, he’s never had definitive proof that without question confirms the feline predator’s presence.
Binney noted the original story in the Castor Advance had the dates of discovery wrong, but only because the first animal had been found days before by him and his son, and he “had no clue how to go home and break the news.” When the second animal was found in the same position by Binney’s wife and daughter, he was out of town and unable to say that the other animal had been found days before.
The date confusion was “a simple case of a father and husband lacking the words and strength (to share news of the death),” Binney said, and didn’t change the fact the death of the animals was unusual.
When the Binneys discovered their mini-donkey, and then their horse, dead, they were certain the animals had been killed by a predator due to the unusual positions the bodies were found in as well as suspected animal prints around the carcasses. They phoned Fish and Wildlife and the officer on call, based out of Ponoka, came to the property to investigate. Due to Binney’s request that he be there for the investigation, it wasn’t entirely completed, a task that was finished when Ponich came out days later.
“There’s no evidence on either carcass of any attack at all,” Ponich told the Independent. “How they died, I don’t know. I’ve never seen an animal that has been attacked by a predator die in that posture. Usually, they’re on their side.”
He said both the mini-donkey and horse were found in a “sternally recumbent” position, meaning the two animals were found lying on their chests – the sternum.
The two animals were inspected for wounds before being skinned. The removal of the hide is necessary, Ponich explained, because it can hide important wound evidence, such as gouges and bruising.
“I can definitely say, 100 per cent, it’s not a predator,” Ponich said.
Binney said both animals had wintered well and the feed was without question not the cause, as the other animals had been eating the same feed and hadn’t shown any signs of illness. He is reaching out to experts for further investigation into the cause in the meantime.
Based on the food sources and habitat available in the area, there’s no “problem thinking (cougars) can exist here,” Ponich said. With two major river systems – the Battle River and the Red Deer River – in close proximity, wildlife has a nature-based highway that helps it travel throughout the region.
When the news of what was believed to be the cougar attack on his animals made it to Facebook, Binney said he was overwhelmed by the number of people reporting similar cougar attacks and sightings. After talking to Ponich, though, and watching him work, Binney can only wonder why Fish and Wildlife aren’t hearing these stories.
“If people’ve seen cougars, they need to report them,” he said.
Ponich said that if people see a cougar, or cougar tracks, or have their livestock savaged or killed, they can call Fish and Wildlife and someone will come to investigate.
Ponich said he’ll accept emailed photos, though the easily available selection of photographs online means he won’t make a judgement based off a photo alone.
“You can send photos and we’ll come out and investigate,” he said.
When investigating, Fish and Wildlife officers take a look at any dead animals to determine if they died from a predator attack or not. Determining the cause of death is limited to predator or not predator; if it isn’t a predator, the owner will have to contact a veterinarian or other expert to determine what killed the animals. If the animals were killed by a predator, the officer will look to see if there’s any evidence of feeding, and whether it happened before the animal was killed, immediately after, or if it was an opportunistic scavenging of a carcass.
In some circumstances, reporting to Fish and Wildlife can be a benefit to livestock owners. There are programs to compensate for the loss of livestock – cattle, sheep and swine – if killed by bears, wolves, cougars or eagles. Horses aren’t included in that since they are considered recreational animals.
One of the reasons why Ponich said he is doubtful there’s significant cougar activity in the area is because people in the region are very active in the outdoors, snowmobiling or quadding, walking and hiking and generally being out-of-doors.
He used the story of a bear as an example. He had set the trap for the bear and even before the end of day came, the animal had been shot and killed.
“If there was a cougar, someone would have killed it by now,” he said.
Binney, on the other hand, is still sure the predators are in the area.
“The community does need to remain alert as there are cougars in this area, and all over the province,” he said in a written statement. “(They) are all over the province following their food source – deer.”
Problem wildlife? Concerned residents can phone Fish and Wildlife’s Stettler office at 403-724-7510. If there’s no answer, Fish and Wildlife can be reached through its Report a Poacher line at 1-800-642-3800. If wildlife is an immediate threat to the safety of life or property, phone 911.