Hound sniffs out cougar in tree near VA hospital

Cat tranquillized and released in forest

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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The young cougar was lounging and sleeping 12 feet up a Douglas fir tree Monday morning in Vancouver, with the sun dappling her tan fur.

She didn’t seem alarmed when a hound hunter, his redbone hound and four officers with the Department of Fish & Wildlife walked up to the tree.

Seeing that the 2-year-old cat weighed only about 60 pounds, the officers mixed the proper amount of powdered tranquilizer and put it into a couple of darts. They were standing around the base of the tree, south of the Veterans Medical Center — Vancouver on Fourth Plain Boulevard, 60 to 80 yards east of Interstate 5.

A doctor from the veterans center spotted the cougar and reported it to a security officer, who called authorities.

Officer Tom Moats, using a $3,000 long-barreled rifle powered with CO2 cartridges, got off a clean shot. The dart hit the cat in the flank and injected about half of its drug, said Capt. Murray Schlenker. The officers knew it was only a half-dose by looking at the plunger.

The dart surprised the cat, but she remained calm.

Moats got off a second shot but it didn’t inject any of the drug.

As the minutes passed, even with only a half dose, the cat was getting sleepy. Still calm, the cougar held onto a branch with her front claws and, as it bent with her weight, she slid down the tree, landing rear-paws first, Schlenker said.

As she lay on her side, Moats, using a hand syringe, managed to get a half dose into the increasingly groggy cat. Now, she couldn’t move her back legs.

Schlenker, Moats and the other two officers grabbed the cat and put her into a container. By that time, she was fully asleep. Officers then took her to an undisclosed location in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The wildlife officers could have simply killed her with a rifle, but decided to save her because she hadn’t killed any livestock or pets, or menaced any people.

Once in the forest, officers released her to try her luck there. And she’ll need all the luck she has in a wilderness area, Schlenker said.

“Cats are very territorial, and if they meet up with another, they will fight to the death,” he said. “That’s their main threat, other cougars.”

As a small cougar too young to breed, she’ll have to hunt and find her own territory. Meanwhile, larger adult cougars, male and female, might attack her.

Schlenker said he doesn’t know how the cat made it to Vancouver but a good guess would be along the Burnt Bridge Creek corridor.

In the wooded urban area where she was captured, she might have had a nice life with no other cougars to worry about.

She likely hunted by night and, when morning came, she’d climb a tree, “just sleeping, getting out of the heat of the day,” Schlenker said.

“I think they can make a pretty good living on raccoon, possums, eastern gray squirrels and even pet food,” he said.

The dog that quickly sniffed out the cougar’s location Monday was Penny, a highly trained redbone hound, said her owner, Buddy Woodberry of Yacolt.

Woodberry, who was following Penny on leash, said she wagged her tail when she caught a whiff of the cougar.

Woodberry owns the website www.biggamehoundsmen.com and said he was disappointed when recent legislation removed any season for hunting cougars with dogs in Washington. Specialized dogs such as Penny need to hunt cougars to get to the skill level of Penny, Woodberry said. Dogs that aren’t trained to hunt cougars wouldn’t have found the big cat Monday, he said.

Woodberry said he’s hoping lawmakers will bring back seasons for hunting cougars with dogs.

Cougar sightings are rare in urban Vancouver, with the most recent being in 2003, when officers backed one against a fence and killed it in Fisher’s Landing.

“It came at myself and another officer,” Schlenker said.

Several years earlier, officers caught a 90-pound female in a live trap in a marshy area along Andresen Road, and later released it in the forest, Schlenker said.