Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nature, red in tooth and claw

I note that some visitors to the Banff National Park in Canada got an unexpected eyeful recently.

Shawn Geniole, Kayla Pronger, Tahni Phillips, Paige Baker and Chris Phillips were bobbing along in a 12-foot aluminum boat, enjoying a pleasant day on Lake Minnewanka. Their gas gauge running low, they stopped the boat to get a proper reading.

What they saw next was a sight very few ever get the chance to see.

“We were about 10 to 20 feet from shore when one of the girls shouted ‘What’s that?’ ” said Geniole. “I thought maybe they saw an elk, but when we saw it was a cougar, everybody was freaking out. We were almost tipping the boat.”

The animal was about six feet in length, excluding the tail and in good health – about 200 lbs. It was obviously stalking something, its paw poised, its body close to the ground. Ravens were already circling overhead, Geniole said, anticipating the attack.

A little farther down the lake, the crew spotted two bighorn sheep rutting, another fascinating sight.

“We were watching them and thought, where did the cougar go?” said Geniole. “And then we saw him, perched right above the rams.”

The cougar was a mere five feet above the first ram, who was licking some salt on the rocky shore.

Just as the cougar prepared to pounce, the first ram detected danger and fled down the beach. The cougar still didn’t move, Geniole said.

The second ram, which had moved to the water to get a drink, put his head up but stayed in the area. It sniffed the air and moved over to where the first ram had been standing – five metres away from the cougar.

“It’s muscles tensed, and the cougar took him down,” said Geniole. “It dragged the cougar for a little ways, but he pinched the ram’s neck and suffocated it.”

The crew was struggling to photograph the entire attack, as its batteries died. The bloodied cougar then spotted the boat only 10 feet from the shore.

“The cougar looks at us, covered in blood and is panting,” Geniole said. “It then went into a cliff and waited into the shade. We knew what an amazing thing we saw – protocol went out the window.”

“As he got on top of the sheep, he kept looking and staring at us and panting. It was pretty scary,” Phillips said.

One of the crew mates sent a message on the radio that there had been a cougar kill. One of the Brewster boats in the area radioed back, calling if anyone had been hurt. Geniole said the radio batteries went dead, and all of the boats on Lake Minnewanka that had been listening to the radio immediately sped towards the small aluminium boat. A Brewsters tour boat arrived, and the crew saw the cougar, still waiting in the shade for the chaos on the water to settle down. About 15 tourists on the boat also caught a glimpse of the cougar.

“We were freaking out when the whole thing was happening,” Geniole said. “Now, we’ll be a little more cautions when we’re out there.

Banff National Park human-wildlife conflict specialist Steve Michel said he was amazed at this particular attack.

I'm a bit puzzled why this should 'freak them out'. I mean, they know that cougars are predators, right? And sheep are prey? Why should it surprise them when, in the cougar's own back yard, they see something like that? I mean, surely they know that it's the animal's territory, not theirs?

I guess maybe I'm too much of an African. Over there, we grew up with the knowledge that there was such a thing as the 'food chain' - and that for all our pretensions, we were not, repeat, not in the topmost place on it! In fact, without firearms, we were well down the list. We grew up realizing - and often seeing - the reality of the 'food chain' in operation, and weren't bothered by it.

Perhaps people in more civilized climes have lost that awareness. Certainly, the young Ukrainian man who jumped into the bear enclosure at the Mykolaev city zoo seemed to have lost it. Of course, he'll never have the opportunity to regain it - the bears ripped him limb from limb.

Painful way to learn, that . . .



Phillip said...

You are correct, a very large portion of America has a severe disconnect regarding what actually happens in nature. People don't understand that animals are dangerous, even the ones that you don't think of that way, such as deer. A large buck with a full rack of antlers is more than a match for an unarmed grown man, and they can be aggressive during mating season.

I don't know if it's just because we get all our food from the supermarket now, or if we've conquered so much of our wilderness in the areas we live in, but I've noticed a lot of people simply don't understand the fact that we're soft and yummy to animals that normally hunt other animals that have hooves, horns, claws, or other means to fight back. Look at the picture of that ram, and tell me that you'd like to get hit with those horns. Now look at your average human, and tell me if you see anything other than a waiting meal. Tools are the only things that keep us on top.

Murphy said...

Re: the zoo attack, maybe if there were just more 'no people killin' signs/zones for the animals...

Harrison said...

Ah, the Disney-fication of the animal world. You humans have forgotten even the most domesticated of animals have teeth and claws.