Two weeks ago I learned that cougar tracks don’t show claws. Think of your cat’s muddy paw prints on the windshield. No claw marks. Seems cats walk on the soft pads as they stalk their prey. Everything I learned about cougars reminded me of Bubba’s killing techniques for the local small fauna around our house, except cougars go after larger prey, like lambs. Four lambs to be exact.
If you have ever tried to count lambs, it takes two people and about five tries each until the numbers jibe. I hadn’t been in the habit of counting our 23 lambs because I didn’t realize we had a problem. I had thought the biggest problem was going to be the birthing part this year. Were the lambs coming out forward, or backward, or stuck, too big, too small, rejected by their mothers? …problems like that.
On reflection, the lambs were probably picked off one at a time. On further reflection, the ewe, as wide as a house one day and seemly not pregnant the next, probably had her lambs snatched as soon as she gave birth under the old cedar in the back field. These lambs weren’t even part of the count of four.
I’m not sure I would have noticed the trouble we were in, even with four missing, except for the lamb hobbling in from the field as we came back from our walk. Allen saw him first. Just a week earlier we had had another injured lamb, but I had chalked that up to playground antics with her siblings twice her size. We had actually named Bambi at birth because she stood out from her coal black brother and sister. She was small, but fiesty, having to scavenge milk from unsuspecting ewes because her brother and sister hogged all the teats at her own table, so to speak. And, then one day, she couldn’t put any weight on her back leg and she lived in the barn for a week until she could, and she took the place of Snickers for awhile.
Now we had a large, white lamb hopping on three legs, following behind his mom. Again, Karen and Allen were there to help me. Always seems they are around when I most need them. Even so, it took all three of us to catch the injured lamb. Amazing how nimble he was on just three legs! We made a soft bed of hay for him and his mother in the same stall Bambi had left just days ago.
I couldn’t tell what was wrong with the leg, except it was horribly swollen, especially around the knee. Lambs don’t wince or cry out so I could only guess. Broken? Sprained? Was I even looking at the right place? It was when I checked the chart, I realized there should have been two lambs with this ewe, not one. Allen was looking out at the sheep herded around the mangers. He asked how many babies I was supposed to have because I seemed short. That’s when we started counting and counting and re-counting.
We spent several hours hiking the property looking for signs of lost lambs, maybe caught in a culvert or lost up a trail. There was absolutely no sign of them. I think I was still hopeful when I went out again in the afternoon. Maybe we had just missed them. Annie and I saddled the horses for a different view of the woods. The trails were slick, the leaves filling in the forest and making it hard to see ahead. Our dogs came with us and, at one point, Cisco disappeared into a dense thicket. Not a place we could follow on the horses, or really even on foot. Full of blackberries, thimbleberries and snags hidden under years of leaves and rotten brush. In hindsight, we might have had an answer sooner if we had followed him. In hindsight, we should have been carrying a gun.
It took me several days to figure out which lambs were gone. Mostly, I looked for ewes with singles, tried to get a look at the number on the ear tags, tried to figure if there were lambs with identifying markings that were gone. I tallied my sheet: two females and two males; two were woolies, two were Katahdins. I closed the gates and kept the sheep near the house day and night, until the grass was short and we hadn’t lost any more lambs. Then I started to let them out in the daylight, hoping the cougar only worked at night.
Several days ago, while walking in the woods looking for downed trees to bring in for wood next winter, our neighbor Dave lost his dog Tyke into the very thicket where Cisco had disappeared. Dave dove in after his dog and soon called to Annie, “You better get over here.” She crawled in far enough to see patches of wool and a leg bone. It was enough. She’s a tender-hearted girl when it comes to the lambs.
As cougars don’t usually eat their prey all at once,this was a perfect spot, with dense foliage above and a den-like understory below, protected from the visual and olfactory senses of our resident vultures. For lambs and humans it was spooky and hard to get to. Also hard to get away, if one needed. My lesson on cougars had included their technique of killing – taking the quarry by surprise from behind, snapping the neck for an instant kill, dragging it out of the open and into the woods. Maybe Annie wasn’t just being tender-hearted. She knew when to back out of a lion’s den.
It’s happened again. After two weeks of counting lambs morning and night, I came up one short yesterday. I counted and re-counted; I walked around the barn and looked in all the lamb hiding places; I made the sheep walk single file past me at the gate. Always the number was 19, not 20. Today, I finally tallied the lambs I had and the lambs I was missing. This last was a Katahdin again, a male. Funnily enough he was white, just like the others. Are the white ones easier to see and, therefore, easier to catch?
I can’t rest easy now until we have a solution, since we can’t sit around and let the lambs get picked off one by one. Will it be dogs or traps or snares? Does anyone even care to trap this cat alive? What a waste of a beautiful animal. For now, the radio will play rap music at the barn (because I can’t get the classical station to tune in) and we will keep a light on at night. I’ve rounded the sheep up as close to humankind as possible. Our neighbor’s llama has been suggested as a defender. Another friend has a Great Pyrenees, but the dog is 10 years old and past her prime.
None of the solutions seem ideal. But, I can’t keep losing lambs. We are at that point where the ‘rubber hits the road’, or in this instance, where the cougar needs to hit the road, because the alternative is sad and gruesome for either the lambs or the cat, and there can be no happy ending to this farm story.
…to be continued…
These two lambs were born after the first cougar attack in the loafing shed. We kept them in the barn for two weeks just to be safe. Lucky for them, they are brown!
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
“A War Horse.” That’s what the vet called him after the last visit. Chaco, the War Horse. However, rather than the stately Nez Pierce Appaloosa, bred for fierceness in battle, then all but annihilated by the US Cavalary in the 19th Century, Chaco is a homely distant cousin from Arizona. But, boy, can that horse jump! Either over fences in an arena with me clinging to his back or straight up in the air as a bucking bronco at a rodeo, Chaco is a supreme athlete.
Maybe he did have a little bit of the war horse in him after all; although, I don’t think that is what the vet was refering to at the time. More likely the vet was wondering how the same horse, out of our three, always seemed to be placed in harms way, while the other two remained relatively untouched. Of course there was that one time when our Arabian cut herself on a rusty car part buried in the undergrowth, as only an old farm can have. The vein blew blood all over us until the vet was able to close it off.
But that’s Moralecia’s story, and this is the story of the war horse, Chaco. Chaco, who tripped through a barbed wire fence in search of greener grass; who fell in a trench in the middle of the night, after jumping out of the paddock and sliding down an incredibly steep hill; who stood in the loafing shed with his leg hanging loose from the hip and us with no idea what had caused it. And Chaco didn’t say and it didn’t seem to faze him and we never knew. Except, looking back, I now know Chaco was going blind long before we realized.
It began at the beginning. I know that sounds like a funny sentence. Maybe I should say, “the beginning of the second half of our lives when we moved to a rural farm in the Coast Range of Oregon.” Phew. Arriving in Oregon from Arizona, our horses were stressed and nervous and cold. The trip had taken two days in an unfamiliar trailer, with other horses and stops along the way. I hadn’t thought to send blankets along because we hadn’t used blankets in months in Arizona. The horses had shed their winter coats long ago and now we were changing everything. The temperatures had gone from 95 degrees to 35 degrees in the morning, the fields from one acre to 40, the landscape from dry and deserty to lush and green, the stabling from open air stalls to a dark, scarey barn. Who wouldn’t be freaked out. We certainly were!
Our first summer was filled with more vet visits than we had had in all our horse years in Arizona. Farm visits took on an entirely new meaning since we were 25 miles out of town now and privileged to pay not only for the visit but for the mileage. Accidents only happened on weekends so there was that weekend charge as well. I had to explain to vets I didn’t even know they couldn’t wear cowboy hats or my war horse would be too hard to handle for any of us. Not sure this was a cowboy hat crowd anyway since most of the vets that summer were female and the guys wore baseball hats, if they wore any hats at all. Why cowboy hats turn Chaco from a war horse into a mule, we will never know, but this muley behavior wins him no favors either with vets, their assistants, or me, as he would as soon run over you as stand still.
It’s been almost three years now since we saw the vet who called Chaco the “War horse”. Chaco’s black coloring has been replaced with grey. He is skinnier and a little less muscled than before, because, as I have come to realize, farmers don’t often have time to ride for pleasure and, if they do, they feel guilty about all the projects remaining unfinished. (Note to self: start riding the horses…there will always be weeds!)
When Dr. Bergen showed up last week for some preventative health care on the animals, I asked him to take a look at Chaco’s eyes. They seemed to be growing more cloudy. Since you can’t ask which way the E is pointing, it’s hard to say what a horse can and cannot see, but Dr. Bergen was not encouraging. The small, subtle signs I had started to notice: startle responses, hitting his head on the fencing and the stalls, night blindness, all added up to loss of vision.
Dr. Bergen’s advice: Best to keep Chaco on solid trails. Best to keep him on familiar ground. Best to keep him locked in at night. But, as I said in the beginning, Chaco is an old war horse and still game for a ride here and there. He and I have worked long enough and hard enough together over the years, he will do whatever I ask.
We shouldn’t take that kind of trust for granted. It has something to do with time and familiarity and maybe, just maybe, the reward Chaco gets when he comes trotting into the barn at night to the banging of the feed cans on the side of the stalls. “It’s time for dinner; it’s time to eat! Wait, lady, that’s not enough for a donkey! I am a war horse. I am the son of a son of a son in a long line of war horses. I am Chaco!”
As I close the barn door for the night, Chaco will often add some emphasis to his point by picking up his feed bucket between his teeth and hurling it against the side of the stall, as if to say, “Nobody mess with the war horse or you will be next!” I say, “Cougars beware!”
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones