Did a cougar attack horses?

Published 9:26 am Friday, April 29, 2011

MOSCOW — When a group of rural Austin friends found their horses with gaping wounds, missing fur and a nasty limp, their only logical conclusion was a cougar attack.

Now, Glenn Ward, homeowner, and Jolene Morrison, owner of the horses, are keeping the animals locked in the barn until they think things are safe. The alleged attack happened sometime late Wednesday night northwest of Austin in eastern Freeborn County, Ward and Morrison said.

Thursday morning, Morrison noticed her 17-year-old horse, Sapphire, had a bad limp, numerous gashes and missing hair. The Mare’s 2-year-old colt also sustained injuries; but out of three horses, none were killed. And because Ward boards the horses for his friends, he’s relieved the incident wasn’t worse.

Email newsletter signup

“If it would have just been the one horse, we’d have a dead horse out here,” Ward said.

Although DNR officials and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office haven’t been able to prove what caused the horses’ wounds, Ward is certain it was a cougar. His fences are roughly five feet high, staggered with barbed wire and electricity with little room for animals to get through. He said something would have had to jump the fence to get in, of which a bear, wolf or other animal wouldn’t have been capable. There was no damage to the fence.

Yet Morrison, Ward and officials can only wonder what really happened. The DNR hears reports of about 50 cougar sightings a year in Minnesota, few of which ever materialize. According to its web page about cougars, many sightings turn out to be large house cats or yellow labs. Although Ward and Morrison are left to speculate, DNR officials and Freeborn County police aren’t jumping the gun.

“If we don’t have the proof or don’t have the basis for it, we aren’t going to alarm or arm the public with it,” Freeborn County Sheriff Bob Kindler said. Ward said a Freeborn County Deputy took a picture of paw prints on the property; however, the Sheriff’s Office won’t release the photo until the investigation is complete. Because cougars are elusive, an investigation won’t likely turn up any evidence.

A similar case happened in Fillmore County in 2009, when a man said his horses were attacked by cougars. They displayed visible signs of an attack, and the man also caught a convincing picture on a trail camera.

However, area DNR wildlife manager, Jeanine Vorland, said many trail camera shots aren’t clear enough to distinguish house cats from cougars. And local DNR, which also investigated Ward’s property on Monday, April 25, said the possibility of a cougar is unlikely.

“That’s our general feeling it wasn’t a cougar, but we couldn’t rule it out completely,” she said.

One important thing officials want to avoid is a state of panic. Vorland said if people are concerned, they should lock their livestock in barns or sheds at night. If they encounter a cougar, they should back away slowly, or (from a safe distance) bang around pots and pans if possible to scare the animal away. She said to never corner large animals or intimidate them. Also, running away from them can trigger an attack instinct.

“If it’s a situation where public safety is involved, we’ll work with law enforcement to solve the situation,” Vorland said.

Ward, on the other hand, wasn’t taking any chances. He warned his neighbors about the potential danger and is keeping a close watch on his property, along with Morrison.

“My horses are my life,” Morrison said.

Ward thinks officials should have said something about the potential for a cougar in the area.

“You just can’t have an animal like that running around,” he said. Ward added if it was a cougar, it wasn’t afraid to be near his house or people. He may not be too far off base, either. Vorland said some people captively raise cougars or buy them from game farms, which is legal. When they grow too large and expensive to keep, they sometimes get released.

But with most cougar sightings, if factual, the animal is likely passing through and won’t be spotted in the area again.

“It’s very difficult to do anything about it,” Kindler added.

And because there’s no quick way to determine a captive-raised cougar from a wild one, Vorland said shooting a cougar is illegal either way. They are fully protected in Minnesota. So people purposely searching for cougars to kill them is a concern of the DNR’s. Vorland said people should contact local law enforcement or a game warden if they see a cougar.