Wild felines seek refuge in Merritt
A report of two cougars roaming close to the Nicola River near Merritt Central Elementary School is the latest in a series of wildlife encounters within city limits.
A woman walking along the trail by the river spotted the animals running away as she approached. Reports that the animals were cougars weren’t confirmed by press time, though City of Merritt Bylaw Services Officer Bob Davis said he was almost certain they were cougars by the way the woman described their run.
The report of the cougar comes on the heels of a bobcat attacking a house cat on Greig Street Monday night.
Davis is warning Merrittonians to be aware of their small pets’ whereabouts while they’re outside.
“People don’t need to be afraid. They just need to be a little bit more vigilant about where they walk and where their pets are, especially small pets like cats and small dogs,” Davis said.
Bobcats prey on small animals, such as rabbits, but high snow loads in the mountains have driven them into valley bottoms in search of prey.
“They’re looking for other prey they can easily take down without being hurt, and a domestic cat is on the menu,” Davis said.
Although bobcats aren’t considered a threat to humans, Davis added it’s always wise to keep an eye on small children while they’re outside.
The owner of the injured house cat, who asked not to be named, said he was surprised the bobcat came so close to his house to try to snag its prey.
The man said his pet is very timid and doesn’t usually leave the steps, so when his wife let the cat out the back door around 8:30 p.m., she didn’t expect it to be involved in the cat fight she could hear from inside. The man said his wife opened the door to break up the fight when she saw the pet pinned down by a bobcat about three times its size — and about three feet from the door.
The bobcat then dragged the cat around the house to the front door.
“When that was going on out there, my daughter was in the living room,” the man said. “She’s 3. She heard the whole thing going on.”
The man’s wife immediately called 911 and within minutes RCMP officers were on the scene.
“One of the members actually saw the bobcat holding the cat by the head,” Merritt RCMP Staff Sgt. Sheila White said. “The member approached the bobcat and tried to scare him.”
White said the officers tried to scare the bobcat off by yelling, throwing snowballs, using a baton, and eventually pepper spraying it. It wasn’t an option to shoot the bobcat because the incident occurred in a residential area.
The man said it took nearly 45 minutes for the three RCMP officers to separate the two felines.
Conservation Officer Jeff Hanratty arrived after the cats had been separated, and located the bobcat under a bench in the yard. From what he saw in the dark, Hanratty said the bobcat appeared on the smaller side of full grown.
“It appeared to be skinny or gaunt,” Hanratty said. “I would estimate that particular bobcat was somewhere in the ballpark of 15 and 20 pounds.”
The bobcat made its escape when it leapt from one garage to another, then onto a porch extension. Hanratty lost track of it when it disappeared into a large pile of debris in a nearby property with two old, inaccessible garages. He suspects the bobcat took shelter in one of the garages to recover from the pepper spray.
Meanwhile, an RCMP officer wrapped the house cat in a blanket and took her to veterinarian Anne Flemming for treatment of the puncture wounds to her head. The cat’s owner said she may lose an eye, but her wounds didn’t appear to be slowing her down too much.
“She’s a little banged up but she’s OK,” the cat’s owner said. “She’s back at home with us now. She purrs for us, she walks around, and she’s eating and drinking.”
Although the bobcat escaped, the man commended officials for their handling of the encounter.
“The law enforcement and conservation handled it extremely professionally,” he said. “They didn’t use lethal force on the bobcat. They were doing everything from throwing snowballs to using pepper spray as opposed to killing it. Their main concern was to save my cat.”
The man said he wants to make people aware that bobcats are coming into the city now to look for prey and that bigger predators may be next. It was a concern Davis echoed.
“The bobcats are just the first of the predators that are looking to make a living right now,” Davis said. “The next one is coyotes, then the big one will be the big cats: the cougars.”
Davis suspects the bobcats are following the river as a corridor through the valley in search of food, and he noted all of the bobcat sightings were reported within 100 metres of a feeding station set up for the city’s feral cat population. And, he said, there were reports of at least two of the wild cats in the city at the same time.
“I had just finished looking at the bobcat in the alley behind the Douglas Street row housing when I got a call from a lady who saw one at the middle school,” he said. “There was too much distance between the two [sightings] for it to be the same cat.”
Earlier this month, Davis assisted RCMP in capturing a small bobcat in Diamond Vale that was reported to have killed up to 10 chickens in the city.
Hanratty advised people not to approach wild animals, and to report sightings to the Conservation Officer Service by calling 1-877-952-7277.