Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Latest on the Bell County Cougar Attack

I received a couple of emails from the Fisher family who owned one of the two mares that had to be euthanized after being attacked by what is believed to be a cougar in a rural area of north Temple in Bell County, Texas. Mrs. Fisher also included photos of the wounds suffered by the horses. Be warned some of the photos are graphic.

Below is Mrs. Fisher’s description of what she found the morning they went looking for their missing horses:

“My husband and I are the owners of one of the horses who had to be euthanized. We also own the 3-month filly who was orphaned after Chris Johnsen's registered paint mare, Kiki, who was also attacked had to be euthanized.

It was the most horrifying thing I ever encountered in my life. These poor mares struggling to remain standing, their skin, muscle and tendons on their front legs tore to the bone. Cola, our 6 yr. old mare, had punctures in her neck and air accumulating throughout her body. Blood drained from their body. Claw marks on their chests, their bellies on their hindquarters.

when my husband and I walked up the hill to where we could see a few of the horses, we first saw Cola standing in the distance. Our gelding, Flash, standing near her trying to comfort her, blood splatter on his hindquarters. We saw muscle and tissue and then her leg bones exposed, blood so thick on her legs it was horrifying. She couldn't walk but she continued to fight to stand.

We then saw Kiki in the distance and noticed she also had the same leg injuries. Our other gelding, Freckles, by her side. Her baby pacing, not knowing what was wrong with her mama. Freckles also had blood splatter on his left hind leg and left front leg. La'Kota, the baby, also had blood splatter on her. She had claw marks on her chest, belly and hind legs; signs showing a terrible and lengthy fight. She also continued to struggle to stand.

A third mare, Billy, was injured. She was limping on both her front legs. It was originally thought that she may injured herself running away, but further investigation into her wounds several days later, after her bandages were removed, showed deep claw lacerations below her fetlock on both front legs. Her baby, Hay Boy, also had lacerations on his chest.

What confuses us...are these several questions....can one cougar continue to fight and attack and mortally wound 2 one thousand pound horses and wound a third?

These horses were approximately 200 to 400 feet apart from each other. The attacks were in these two areas. Why attack and disable one horse and go after the other?

Most important question: What ever attacked these horses never completed one kill. These horses couldn't move, couldn't walk, couldn't run away....why wasn't the kill completed?”






There are only a handful of animals capable of inflicting this sort of damage on full-grown horses. Initially, I considered coyotes (Canis latrans) and/or a pack of wild dogs. Most of the wounds suffered by the horses are on the lower part of their body and legs; certainly, areas within reach of coyotes or dogs. The long claw marks on the backs and higher up on the animal caused me to rethink this and once I saw the deep claw wounds in the photo above I realized there is no way a canid of any kind was involved in this particular attack.

One of the animals native to Texas that has the power to inflict this kind of damage to an animal the size of a horse is a black bear (Ursus americanus). This would be highly unusual on several fronts. Bears are making a strong comeback in east Texas and have always maintained good numbers in far west and south Texas but it would truly be something if one were present here in central Texas. They have been creeping in from the west, however, and one was killed in Menard County not too long ago. Menard is only 175 miles away. That being said, a bear is highly unlikely. This just isn't their style.

This attack screams “big cat” to me. This sheer depth of the claw marks visible in the picture above is really impressive. This would have had to have been a very big cat. That being the case, a jaguar (Panthera onca) is a possibility. Jags were once native to Texas and have been creeping back northward from Mexico in recent years. They have been documented several times in Arizona via camera traps over the last few years. There are anecdotal reports of jags being spotted in Texas as well. While most of the sightings and incidents have been far south of us I’ve heard of one notable exception. In the interest of full disclosure, this incident was related to me second hand after-the-fact; however, the person who shared it with me is a man of impeccable character and I have absolutely no doubt he told me the truth. He told me a rancher in the Panhandle reported losing large livestock on a regular basis to TPWD several years ago. After losing his second alpaca the game warden came out. They found the hind-quarters of the alpaca 20 feet up in a tree. The game warden told the rancher that this was not a cougar and that he likely had a jaguar on the property. The cat was never seen and eventually must have moved on as the killings stopped. There is speculation that the large "black panthers" often reported through out the state are actually melanistic jaguars. Still, a jaguar is the longest of long shots here.



Having said all that, a cougar (Puma concolor) is, by far, the most likely culprit. These big cats, while not common in the area, have been seen here before. I just wanted to cover all the bases by mentioning other possibilities. One thing I've learned over the years is that you never know what you might come across when you get into something like this. Personally, I do believe a cougar to be the predator in this particular case.



I am no expert; however, so I sought a second opinion from a friend of mine. Tod Pinkerton has a degree in Wildlife Biology from Texas A&M and worked for many years as a coyote and nuisance animal trapper in SE Texas. I sent him the photos and asked for his input. His reply mirrored my own thoughts and read as follows:

“While I'm certainly no expert on cougar attacks, I can think of no other native Texas animal that could have pulled this off. If what I'm seeing in some of the photos are claw marks and not folds of skin, etc. then the work has to be that of cat.

Coyotes, dogs, and wolves don't use claws in any appreciable manner to disable prey that I'm aware of. This should rule them out (again if those images represent claw marks, and not some other factor like thorns, wire, etc.).

There isn't a coyote or bobcat within this state tough enough to even think about taking on a full grown horse. Nor one that could inflict that level of damage on a living full grown animal. Small colts/foals are another matter, but this occurred to multiple full grown ones as well.

IMHO it is likely the work of a cougar. The only other known Texas critter even physically able to try to do this would be a black bear, but I've never heard of one trying to take down a horse.

I'll try to look up some information on this tonight. In the meantime you might advise them to contact their local wildlife/animal damage control specialist (trapper) if they haven't already. They can usually get in touch with one through the local county agriculture extension office. These folks are professionals and have probably investigated this sort of thing before.”




Why did the predator not finish the kills? That is hard to say but it was stated by Mrs. Fisher that it was clear these horses fought hard for their lives. It is very possible that the predator decided this particular meal was not worth the trouble or was kicked and injured itself. If so, it might have had to retreat. Wildlife biologist Tod Pinkerton added:

“It's likely the cat bit off more than it could chew. It may have gotten mixed up in all the confusion as to which animal it was attacking. Perhaps the horses came to each others aide? We'll likely never know the answer here.

I do know they (cougars) are quite capable of killing/wounding multiple animals in a single encounter. I've heard stories of them taking out 15-25 sheep or goats at a time. It might be that they get 'intoxicated' with the killing of prey?”


The drought we are suffering is making life very difficult on wildlife and forcing them closer to populated areas in order to find food and water. This, in my mind, is the scenario that led to the attacks on these horses. Our wildlife is starting to get a bit desperate and that desperation is beginning to manifest itself in some atypical behaviors.

It is quite possible, if we don’t get rain soon, that we will see more of this sort of thing in central Texas.

9 comments:

  1. Pack of dogs did it.

    "Claw" marks on chest and belly are not consistent with mountain lion kills, but are most likely the result of horses attempting to flee from the dogs and tangling with barbed wire.

    Lions kill horses but jumping on their backs and crushing neck vertebrae with their jaws.

    These attacks occurred from underneath, an attack posture never used by mountain lions.

    Former mountain lion trapper and depredation troubleshooter.

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  2. Anonymous...

    A pack of dogs did not do this attack. The picture above showing the damage to my bay mares right leg doesn't show the claw marks on the upper part of the leg.

    There are clear claw marks on the upper portion of her leg leading to the tear. The injuries on the belly were most likely caused by the mares rearing.

    There were punctures in my mares neck from teeth near the throat which was causing her to pull air into her body cavities. The white paint mare had claw marks on her back and hindquarters also.

    We located the area where the attacks took place on the trail. There were numerous piles of blood and blood splatters ranging over a large area.

    We believe the cat may have given up when the geldings had shown up to possibly aid the mares. one of our geldings had blood on his front leg and splatters on his rear. our other gelding had blood on his hindquarters. they are both shod and may have caused injury to the attacker.

    Horses when attacked by anything will rear, kick, bite, a horse will either flee or fight.

    The third mare Billy has two deep claw tears on her 2 front legs below the fetlock. They had been identified as a large cat like claw.

    One thing I had learned living in the Coarsegold California area years ago, when a wild animal is hungry, it doesn't have a certain way to attack. When i lived in the hills in Coarsegold we had a mountain lion come in close to our home at dusk and go after my arabian. I ran out and went after it with the dogs and it fled. I wasn't thinking about my safety at the time, I just reacted.

    A trapper came out and located the den where it had been living on our property. They eventually located the cat and it was destroyed, it weighed 157 lbs.

    As I said before, can we predict the way an animal will react every time. No. If you have a cat attacking several mares because they are protecting their foals, its going to claw, bite anyway and anywhere it can. If you are in a fist fight, your not going to just stand there and hit each other in the face with every blow. You may end up rolling on the ground and defending yourself and hitting parts of the body other then the face. Using your legs, fists, teeth, whatever you have to do to protect yourself.

    You know those mares got a few good blows in. So if the cat gets knocked to the ground and rolls, wouldn't it make sense that the cat just might reach up and try to disable the animal.

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  3. Wow, Mike. You kicked a hornet's nest with these posts! lol

    While it is exciting to know the cougar still has a place in Texas, I hate to hear of this attack. Those poor horses certainly didn't deserve this, and my heart goes out to the owners and the animals, themselves. God be with you both.

    And if I may.... I'm certainly no expert on cougars. I have seen them, but never come across one of their kills... that I know of. I have, however seen plenty of animals killed by coyotes and wild dogs, and these injuries are just far too severe. And if a single donkey can ward off an entire pack of coyotes from killed smaller livestock within it's fence, I just can't imagine that multiple horses couldn't fight off and destroy even a large pack of wild dogs.

    -Justin

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  4. My dads horse was attacked a couple of years ago by a suspected big cat, she had a chunk of flesh ripped out of her neck, and claw marks on her chest and half way down the length of her body where the cat had I guess tried to hang on the cat had jumped on her from above, in the pictures the claw marks look similar to her injuries. As for where the injuries were located on the animals bodies Texas is going through a major drought and weak and desperate cats are willing to take down any prey any way they can.

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  5. Our horse had wombs about 2 weeks ago and are finally healing, we just thought she was caught up in barbwire. Had a guy come by and check to see how she was doing since this is our first horse, he wanted to give us some pointers. After talking with him we found out these were actually claw marks located on and below her left front fetlock as well as on her back hind leg.. She has a few minor ones on her chest, he also pointed out markings on her hind quarters. We never really paid much attention to her hind quarters because they weren't deep. We treated the wounds there but our concern was the left leg and chest. He explained to me a few weeks to a few months ago before her injurys, one of their horses was attacked and they thought it was due to wire. He has talked with a rancher up the road and sheep are coming up missing, my concern is will it attack again? We first noticed a change in her behavior a few months after relocating her to this property. She was very jumpy and always passing only infront of us while looking out in the back pasture. She would eat and stop to look out in that area. The more we came out to check up on her the more she would do it, we just thought someone was picking with her while we were gone. Then the beginning of this month it took her almost 30 minutes to walk from the back of the pasture to use. Who sould I call to invesitgate this, we're located in Killeen?

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  6. I would be glad to come out and take a look around. You can contact me directly at texascryptidhunter@yahoo.com.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    Mike

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  7. The young man who has horses in the same area hunts. He looked at the photos I took and said they were big cat tracks, and thinks it has a cub. Also your email doesn't work, I tried sending you the pictures as well.

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  8. My email seems to be working. Please try to resend the photos. I'd like to see them. The address is Texascryptidhunter@yahoo.com.

    Thanks.

    Mike

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  9. Very interesting post! I am a consistent reader of your blog, but what drew me to comment on this one was because of a story I have heard about something similar. My grandparents live just 15 minutes west of Palestine, TX in Anderson County. My grandmother told me a story of when a couple of horses were mauled similarly to what was in your blog post. They were injured so badly that they all had to be euthanized. This was never reported in any of the local newspapers because the owner of the horses and the police department didn't want to scare anyone. However, a group of men did get together to hunt the attacker that they all suspected was a "panther", but they never did find it. I don't have any more info on this, but I hope some research on my part could reveal more.

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