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Posts Tagged ‘cougar’

feral horses

I make no bones about my view that the horses that roam the American West are feral and should not be regarded as native wildlife. This view shouldn’t controversial, but it is.

Lots of romanticism exist about horses and the West, including that brief time when Native cultures used horses as their greatest asset in hunting bison.

But the truth is that the horses one might see roaming the ranges of the American West are all derived from domestic horses that went wild on the range. The initial ones were all derived from Iberian/North African horses that Spanish colonizers brought into the New World, but these were later augmented with horses brought over from the rest of Europe.

If one were to say that the various forms of freely breeding swine in North America were feral, it would be easy to get agreement. Suids are not native to the Americas, though a sister lineage, the Tayassuidae, are native to North America. The tayassuids, better known as peccaries or javelinas, once ranged as far north as the Yukon, but since the Pleistocene, they have not ranged north of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Feral swine, though, exist over large sections of the country, and wildlife and agricultural departments spend lots of time, money, and manpower on controlling their numbers.

Feral horses, though, get special privileges, as do feral donkeys.  They receive a certain amount of protection not afforded to other feral livestock in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The horses and donkeys are not controlled in the same way feral pigs are. There is no continuous open season on them in the way that most states manage feral pigs.  Indeed, it is actually a crime to kill or harass feral horses or burros on federal land.  Excess horses and burros are managed through roundups, where some of them are deemed adoptable and sold to the general public.

For those of us with a modern ecological mindset, which has a deep disdain for making allowances for feral livestock, this law makes little sense.

But there is a sort of argument for this act. It goes something like this:

The modern horse species evolved in its current form in North America. Some taxonomists contend that there was once a Holarctic distribution of this species during the Pleistocene, and with the latest ancient DNA studies, I tend to agree with this assertion.

The North American population of horses became extirpated at the end of the Pleistocene, and when European horses went feral on the Western ranges, this constitutes a rewilding event.

Now, I don’t buy this argument very much, but I can say that there are some things we might consider. North America’s original population of cougars became extinct at the same time. The cougars that live in North America are derived from South American cougars that recolonized the continent about 2,000 years later.

Further, conservationists and sporting groups spend lots of resources on restoring and protecting elk populations. Elk have a much shorter history on this continent than horses ever did. Different experts have estimated when elk have first arrived. 40,000 years ago has been suggested, but more recent data points to them colonizing North America only 15, 200 years ago.

If elk arrived in North America only that recently, their status as native wildlife exists only as a weird  accident of geography. Elk are the on Cervinae or “plesiometacarpal deer” in the Americas. All the other deer in the Americas are Capreolinae or “telemetacarpal deer.”  Sika, axis, red deer, and fallow deer are also Cervinae, but they were introduced after colonization.

Elk don’t live in far northeast of Russia anymore. The elk of North America are the genetic legacy of this ghost population.

So the feral horse advocates could at least through the recent arrival of elk in North America as something to consider when we say their favorite animal is not native. Horses have a long evolutionary history in North America, and we just happen to be at an odd point of the history of horses that no native horses exist here. The earliest horse, Eohippus, first appeared in North America 52 million years ago.

So the feral horse advocates could say that we have a species that derived from a lineage that was here for over 50 million years that has now been restored through feral livestock and thus deserves these protections.  And this animal has at least as much rights to be free and roaming in North America as a large deer that had no connection to this continent until the latest Pleistocene.

However, the extinction of the horse in North America likely stemmed from natural climate change at the end of the Pleistocene.  Horses became extinct because they were poorly adapted to the new ecosystems, and as we have seen, horses really don’t do that well out in the deserts and semi-arid ranges of the West. They require water tanks to get them through long droughts, and they eat lots of forage. Not as much as domestic cattle, of course, but on ranges that are heavily catered toward livestock grazing, the horses are just an extra set of grazers that are taking away forage from native wildlife.

And even if we were to accept that horses were restored native wildlife, why on earth would we ever extend these protections to donkeys? Donkeys, though of ancient North American origin, evolved in their current form in Africa.

So although I do think of horses as no longer being native to North America, I do think questions of them being native or introduced are complicated, much more so than the question of feral pigs or cats. And yes, there is something like an argument that can be made for the native status of horses, even though I think it’s mostly in error.

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Miracinonyx

It is now widely accepted through ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis that North America’s Pleistocene “cheetahs” were actually offshoots of the modern cougar lineage and were not directly ancestral to the cheetah of the Old World.

However, these mitochondrial DNA studies did not reveal the full picture.  A full genome sequence was recently mapped from a specimen of Miracinonyx trumani, and this full genome has been compared to similar genomes of North American and South American cougars.

The researchers found something quite amazing.  We thought that the original population of North American cougars went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene as did the two “cheetahs.” About 8,000 years ago, cougars from South America recolonized North America, and these cougars that came into North America are the ancestors of the living cougars on this continent.

And because of the limited genetic diversity of the North American cougar, this 8,000 year point of origin is most likely.

However, what is particularly interesting is that between 8-12 percent of the North American cougar’s genome apparently comes from Miracinonyx trumani.  Estimates of when this introgression happened based upon the molecular clock suggest an entrance into the ancestral North American cougar 7,700-8,100 years ago.

So Miracinonyx trumani apparently lasted a few thousand years after the end of the Pleistocene, and when South American cougars recolonized North America, they mated with the now extinct “cheetah” species. This hybridization could have conferred upon these newly colonizing cougars some important alleles for surviving at temperate latitudes, which tropical cougars may have lacked.

Humans certainly were aware of the existence of the North American “cheetahs,” and if they survived to this late date, stories of their existence could have existed throughout indigenous American cultures.

Perhaps these cats lasted even longer, maybe even giving credence to the legendary Mexican onza.

Update  3 April 2019:

Hehe: April Fool!!!!!!

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Not so long ago, in terms of the history of our species and certainly not long ago in the history of the world, two “cheetahs” roamed North America, probably running the pronghorn and Odocoileus deer. They were fast and svelte like that cat of Africa and Asia, but they did not make it into the present fauna guild of this continent. 

The great extinction of the megafauna eventually wiped out the dire wolf and these running cats, which were replaced by the gray wolf sweeping down out of Eurasia and from the cougar recolonizing from South America.

Humans probably saw these cats and maybe stole their kills, maybe not though. They were running cats in the era when North America was like frigid Africa, where the faunal guilds of Eurasia and South America ran long and hard into each other. That of Eurasia eventually dominated in the end, but the opossum and the North American porcupine still made it, even though they were part of that austral losing team.

And where there were scores of fake antelope running about with our swift deer, there were two species of coursing cat to put them to flight.  
Miracinonyx was their genus, and M. trumani and M. inexpectus were the two species.  Trumani was more like a cheetah, and inexpectus was more like a very svelte cougar.

For much of my life, these animals were classified as American cheetahs, and there was a whole mythos about cheetahs first evolving in North America. And yes, it’s true that the cheetah’s closest relatives that still live today are the cougar and the jaguarundi, both of which are truly cats of the Americas.

But a few enterprising researchers were able to get some ancient mitochondrial DNA from trumani, and with careful comparison, they found that trumani was most closely related to the cougar. 

So we now think that the cheetah evolved in the Old World from an ancient cougar-like ancestor, but in North America, one form of ancient cougar begat two species with cheetah-like adaptations.

We call this sort of evolution “parallel evolution” in which two descendants evolve similar characters that are not shared by the common ancestor. It is similar to convergent evolution, which is the same sort of evolution without a direct relationship, but in convergent evolution, the common ancestor is so distant that it almost isn’t worth considering, such as the common ancestor of aardvarks and anteaters.

So North America never had any kind of cheetah. What we had instead were “coursing cougars.”

A piece of me longs to have seen one in the flesh, and for a time, cryptozoologists traveled around Mexico looking for such an animal. There were always references to “onzas” in the colonial literature of Mexico, and even today, onza is the term used for a particular cat in the countryside.  Onza means cheetah in Spanish, and there was always a hope that it referred to these old coursing cougars. 

But every lead led to a jaguarundi, which looks like an oddly-colored cheetah-cougar hybrid in miniature, or to really thin specimens of the cougar species.

So the coursing cougars went the way of the Smilodon and the dire wolf and the woolly mammoth.

But when you realize what was here some 12,000 years ago, it’s hard to not to be caught in flights of fancy. Our current wildlife seem picayune by comparison, but we once had all the majesty of the beasts of Africa south of the Sahara.

We’ve lost all these animals during that great extinction, and now we are looming into another one, this one definitely caused by our own actions.

And the cheetahs of Africa hold on by a thread. Those of Asia have almost gone entirely. They exist only in a narrow range in the north of Iran.  There may not be 50 of them left.

Extinction looms. We know it, and yet we feel so paralyzed by its inevitability, we wonder if we can act, if we can change, before it is too late.

To be a running cat is become a true specialist. To be a courser in a world already full of long-distance running dogs is to flirt with near extinction all the time.

But twice this form of cat evolved and ran long and hard across three continents.

Not a bad gamble in the terms of evolution’s blind whims.

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coyotes tree cougars

This scene happened at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge. Five coyotes sent these two cougar kittens up on a fence, and the entire ordeal lasted over an hour.

Check out the photos of the encounter here.

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From The Hur Herald:

Nat Depue of Creston, who carries the mail between that place and Grantsville had a thrilling experience with a huge wild cat or some other animal of a like nature one day last week.

He had been delayed until late in the afternoon, waiting for the mail sacks which were on the Harry W. (a riverboat. It was dark when he crossed the Annamoriah flats, and he noticed something following him which he took to be a dog, but paid little attention to it until it darted past the horse and ran up a tree that leaned over the road.

From there the cat sprang, landing on the horse’s neck clawing and biting fiercely.

It hung on for a considerable distance until Nattie was enabled to kick it off. The horse became frightened and ran away, but was soon checked up and the game little mail carrier got a light and went back to look for his hat and the mail sacks which he had lost.

Nattie is still carrying the mail but it is a safe bet that he will always try to get across Annamoriah flats before dark.

Transcribed by Norma Knotts Shaffer from microfilm of the Calhoun Chronicle dated 1/24/1911.

It’s not really clear when the native cougar subspecies went extinct in West Virginia, but the state DNR mentions that cougar tracks were spotted in Pocahontas County– in the far reaches of the High Alleghenies– in 1936.

Now, this story may or may not be true, but if it is true, the culprit cannot be a bobcat.

I would be shocked if a bobcat would have the courage to attack a mounted rider in this fashion. Bobcats can kill deer. They don’t kill horses.

Cougars can kill horses, and it would make sense for a cougar to attack one, even if it happened to have a person riding it.

This animal would have been among the last of its kind in this part of the United States.

The true Eastern cougar has officially been declared extinct, but cougars from Western subspecies are definitely working their way into the East.

If any of the cougar sightings are true, then these animals have to be of one of the Western subspecies. The cougar is beginning to expand its range once again. In North America, its numbers are pretty secure, and in many areas, it’s on the rebound.

Maybe we will confirm the presence of the cougar in West Virginia once again.

Many people claim to have seen them.

But what they are seeing–if it’s a cougar at all– can’t be the old Eastern catamount.

It’s the Western variant working its way in the East.

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This dog-killing cougar was the first killed in Ontario since 1884.

Police in Ontario have killed the first cougar in the province since 1884. The cat was killed in near the town of Utterson, which is in the District of Muskoka.

The Ottawa Sun reports:

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources have confirmed that an animal killed by police on the weekend is a cougar, long believed extinct in the province.

Police were called after the large cat killed a family dog in the Muskoka area.

There have been thousands of believed sightings of cougars in Ontario over the past few years, but this marks the first confirmed cougar killed in the province since 1884.

North of the Rio Grande, Puma concolor is doing fine.

It’s starting to work its way back into its former territory in the eastern half the continent.

Once they start to recolonize the Great Lakes region– as they clearly are– it will not be very long before they are able to set up shop in the St. Lawrence Valley and then work their way south and east into New England.  And from there, it’s not very long before they are in the Middle Atlantic states, especially the more remote mountainous parts of those states (which is where I am.)

Western cougars may be using the same paths to colonize the East that coyotes used.

The terrain is fairly flat from Lakes Superior and Michigan the eastern shore of Lake Eire and into Lake Ontario.  And the St. Lawrence also cuts a nice pathway to the east beyond the lakes.

It would make sense that lots of animals would use roughly the same path to travel from the Midwest into the Northeast.

***

Update: It looks like this cat is an escapee from a big cat collection just across the road.

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This "jaguar" was photographed via camera trap near Guelph, Ontario. No scale is given to figure out how big this cat is, and if it is cougar-sized, the dismissal of this animal's identity as black cougar "because no black cougar has been spotted in North America" is one of the dumbest things I've ever read. It doesn't matter that no one has never seen a black cougar in North America before. No one has ever seen a jaguar in Canada!

Cougars have re-established themselves in Ontario, which means that cougars are recolonizing the Eastern parts of North America using the same path through the Great Lakes region that Western coyotes used decades before. Western coyotes crossed with the few remaining wolves in the region became the modern Eastern coyote.

The evidence for cougars in Ontario comes from this recent paper by Rick Rosatte that was based upon camera trap images.  Cougars are in Ontario.

However, the camera traps also caught images of a black cat, which Rosate claims are jaguars or some exotic species. His reasoning behind calling these animals exotic is that no black cougar has been seen in North America.

The image above was captured near the city of Guelph. Guelph is a mid-sized city, roughly halfway between Michigan and New York State in that part of Southern Ontario that bridges the two states.

No scale is given in the photograph to give us any idea of the size of the cat.  I don’t know how we know this animal is large. It could be a  black domestic cat. One cannot even get a good  look at the ears of the cat, which do appear to be rounded, but that rounded shape could just be how the cat is holding its ears in the photo.

But if the animal is the size of a cougar, then it is much more likely that it is a black cougar than some exotic species.

Why?

Because jaguars don’t live in Canada. Their range in the United States is horribly truncated. One wanders up into Arizona or New Mexico every couple of years, but they once ranged up to the Grand Canyon and as far east as western Louisiana. Incidentally, those places are nowhere near Canada.

Further, no black jaguar has been spotted in North America– ever.  All North American jaguars, which live in Mexico and Central America, are spotted.

They are not well-adapted to living in frigid climates. Although they were wide-ranging in North America during the Pleistocene, modern jaguars have never been found in places where the winters are as harsh as they are in Ontario.

Now, someone will say “What about a leopard? Don’t leopards live in the Russian Far East, Manchuria, and North Korea?”  They do, but that’s only one subspecies. The Amur leopard is a specialized subspecies of leopard that has evolved to live in very cold conditions, and there are leopards in Central Asia that have adapted to colder climates.

All of these leopards are from subspecies in which only spotted individuals exist.

Black leopards are found only in certain tropical subspecies. Leopards on the southern end of the Malay Peninsula are always black. A huge percentage of the isolated leopards in Java are black, too. And most captive black leopards derive from these southeast Asian populations. There are some black leopards in Africa, especially in the Kenyan Highlands, which are about the only temperate place where black leopards can be found.

It is theoretically possible for a black leopard to survive in the marine temperate climate of Great Britain, but it is a stretch to think that leopard from tropical population could survive in Southern Ontario.

The greatest likelihood is that this cat is a domestic cat, but the second greatest likelihood is that it is a black cougar, the first of its kind documented on this continent. There have always been reports of black cougars.  The skin of one was described in 1960.  The cat was killed in Colorado, but the skin has been lost to time. A black cougar was supposedly killed in Costa Rica, which is also in North America, but it may have been a misidentified jaguarundi, which are the cougar’s closest relatives but are much smaller.

I think there is almost no chance of this animal being a jaguar or a leopard.

And until someone gives me some scale for this image, the best assumption is that it is a domestic cat.

And if it’s big, it’s very likely a black cougar, a phase that hasn’t been fully documented in North America before.

I think Rosatte’s assumptions are way off here.  A cougar can survive in Ontario. A tropical leopard or a South American jaguar would have a very hard time surviving there. The only black leopards that are found in temperate areas are not the primary source for captive black leopards, and no black jaguar has been confirmed outside of South America.

So if this is a big cat, it has to be a black cougar, regardless of whether one has been spotted in North America before or not.

But my money is on it being a domestic cat.

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From Outdoor News:

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) has received photographic evidence of the presence of a cougar in Vernon Parish.

A private citizen sent LDWF a trail camera picture taken Aug. 13, 2011. LDWF Large Carnivore Program Manager Maria Davidson and biologist Brandon Wear conducted a site investigation that confirmed the authenticity of the photograph.

“It is quite possible for this animal to be captured on other trail cameras placed at deer bait sites,” Davidson said. “Deer are the primary prey item for cougars; therefore, they are drawn to areas where deer congregate.”

It is unlikely this cougar will remain in any one area longer than it would take to consume a kill. Cougars do not prefer to eat spoiled meat and will move on as soon as the Louisiana heat and humidity take its toll on the kill.

“It is impossible to determine if the animal in the photograph is a wild, free-ranging cougar, or an escaped captive,” Davidson added. “Although it is illegal to own a cougar in Louisiana, it is possible that there are some illegally held ‘pets’ in the state.”

LDWF has documented several occurrences since 2002. The first cougar sighting was in 2002 by an employee at Lake Fausse Point State Park. That sighting was later confirmed with DNA analysis from scat found at the site. Three trail camera photos were taken of a cougar in Winn, Vernon and Allen parishes in 2008. Subsequently on Nov. 30, 2008, a cougar was shot and killed in a neighborhood by Bossier City Police Department.

The mountain lion, cougar, panther or puma are names that all refer to the same animal. Their color ranges from lighter tan to brownish grey. The only species of big cats that occur as black are the jaguar and leopard. Jaguars are native to South America and leopards are native to Africa. Both species can occur as spotted or black, although in both cases the spotted variety is much more common. Although LDWF receives numerous calls about black panthers, there has never been a documented case of a black cougar anywhere in North America.

The vast majority of these reports received by LDWF cannot be verified due to the very nature of a sighting. Many of the calls are determined to be cases of mistaken identity, with dog tracks making up the majority of the evidence submitted by those reporting cougar sightings. Other animals commonly mistaken for cougars are bobcats and house cats, usually seen from a distance or in varying shades of light.

The significant lack of physical evidence indicates that Louisiana does not have an established, breeding population of cougars. In states that have verified small populations of cougars, physical evidence can readily be found in the form of tracks, cached deer kills, scat and road kills.

The recent sightingsof cougars in Louisiana are believed to be young animals dispersing from existing populations. An expanding population in Texas can produce dispersing individual cougars that move into suitable habitat in Louisiana. Young males are known to disperse from their birthplace and travel hundreds of miles seeking their own territories.

Cougars that occur in Louisiana are protected under state and federal law. Penalties for taking a cougar in Louisiana may include up to one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine. Anyone with any information regarding the taking of a cougar should call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-442-2511. Callers may remain anonymous and may receive a cash reward.

This really shouldn’t be surprising.

A cougar with origins in South Dakota was recently found run over in Connecticut.

West Virginia now recognizes this species as native wildlife that one might encounter, even though no wild cougars have been confirmed in the state.

This is one large cat species– which is not a true “big cat”– that is not going to become extinct.

At least north of Mexico.

South of Mexico and into Central and South America, the future is less clear.

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The jaguarundi is not widely known in the United States. However, it is a native species to this country, although it is quite rare and its official native range is limited to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southeastern Texas.

Although it is roughly the size of a large domestic cat or a small bobcat, it is most closely related to the cougar (the mountain lion, catamount, panther, puma, or whatever sobriquet one wishes to bestow upon it). I have no idea why this particular animal is called a jaguarundi. Perhaps “undi” is a diminutive, and because jaguars and jaguarundis tend to be found in the same habitat–both prefer riparian areas– they were classified together.

However, the current classification is to put the jaguarundi and the cougar within the same genus (Puma). The cougar’s current name is Puma concolor, and the jaguarundi is Puma yagouaroundi. Their next closest relative is the cheetah, and the cheetah technically should be moved into this genus to reflect the relationship. However, the classification of the extinct “American cheetahs” makes this classification tricky. The bulk of the evidence suggests that American cheetahs and the modern cheetah evolved in parallel with each other from a cougar-like ancestor, but there are still those who think that the cheetah evolved in the Americas and the modern cheetah is a descendant of those animals. Because this taxonomic issue hasn’t been settled, there is a general leeriness about putting the cheetah in the Puma genus. I don’t think it particularly matters where the modern cheetah evolved. It is very clear that these two cats are its closest relatives, and if we wish to classify things in terms of phylogeny, the cheetah belongs in the Puma genus with its two American cousins.

However, there is persistent rumor that the American cheetah still lives among us. Long-legged cougars that have been killed in Mexico have been claimed to be this cat.  Within Mexican Spanish there is an idiom known simply as “onza.” Onza is a cognate with the Portuguese word for the jaguar (onça). These words are in turn congnate with the English word “ounce,” which can refer to the lynx– or as it has been in more recent times– to the snow leopard.

In Mexican Spanish, onza refers to the jaguarundi. However, within the cryptozoological community, it is speculated that the actual onza is the long-legged cougar.

The sources that these theorists use is a some rather dubious historical references to cats that were seen by Spanish explorers. The most famous of these is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s description of two species of “lion” that were found in Montezuma’s menagerie– “one of which resembled a wolf.”  Diaz was with Cortes at the conquest of Mexico, and he wrote about all the strange creatures the Aztecs kept in their zoos. The first accounts of hairless dogs come from this time period.

Many people put a lot of stock in this account as being proof the modern existence of the Ameican cheetah. However, there is no further description of the cat.  No size is given.

Um. I think it is very possible that this reference is to a jaguarundi.

Why?

Jaguarundis do have kind of dog-like features. And what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. They are sometimes called “otter-cats,” because of their unusual head shape. They do vaguely resemble a kind of dog-cat hybrid in the face, and what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. Perhaps this is what the Diaz meant by the “lion” that resembled a wolf.

Of course, there are texts that talk of huge “onzas” attacking people and stock. These are probably jaguars or unusual cougars. As I noted before, onza and the Portuguese word for jaguar are nearly the same word. Indeed, they have the same pronunciation. Spanish and Portuguese are very closely related languages, and within Spain itself, there are regional languages that are closer to Portuguese than Castilian Spanish. The Portuguese were most likely the ones most intimately familiar with the jaguar– their main holding in the New World was Brazil, which was quite full of jaguars.  And it may be from the Portuguese accounts of these that the Spanish settlers– who largely arrived well after the conquest of Mexico–came up with their understanding of fauna of the New World.

And cougars themselves vary greatly in appearance. Those that live in the tropical parts of the Americas are smaller than those that live in the north and south of their range. This species tends to follow Bergmann’s rule almost without exception. Because much of the settlement in Spanish North America was in the tropics, where the cougars were quite small, they would likely be quite alarmed at the encountering larger cougars as they moved north. They likely would think that these larger cats, which did attack people or stock on occasion, were a different species.

These three cats very easily fit the description of any cat called an “onza.”  And because one can easily see how these animals could be called “onza,” one should realize that the evidence for an extant population of North American cheetahs is quite poor. It’s worse than the evidence for bigfoot or UFO’s.

The fact that the Mexicans call jaguarundi “onzas” should have been the first clue.

It’s a mini-cougar. Not an American cheetah.

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Angel risked her life to save an 11-year-old boy.

Call her Austin Forman’s “guardian Angel.”

Austin Forman was sent out to bring in some firewood, when a cougar launched itself at him.

Angel, the family golden retriever was at his side, and the brave dog launched a counter-offensive against the cat. The cougar and dog then fought in the backyard.

Of course, a golden retriever isn’t much match for a cougar, and Austin Forman raced into the house where he got his mother to call 9-1-1. An RCMP constable was on the scene in less than a minute. He shot the cat twice, but it still continued to chew on the dog.

A third shot dispatched the cat, but its jaws were still embedded in Angel’s face.

Angel was very lucky that the cat didn’t get a good grip on the dog’s neck. Otherwise, it would have been a very different story.

Source.

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