There is a way for people and cougars to co-exist.
So says conservation officer Peter Pauwels, following a cougar sighting by a jogger on the trails at Thetis Lake Park.
“We get several (cougar sightings) a week … Some are cases of mistaken identity, but a lot are (accurate) and our first response is to let it coexist unless it is dangerous to human safety,” Pauwels said. “If we think it poses a threat we will take action, but the fact it is there does not mean it’s dangerous.”
The jogger, Dewain Emrich of View Royal, came face to face with the large cat on Sunday morning.
“I first saw what I thought was a dog, it was maybe 100 metres away. I was running full speed at it and it was walking towards me,” he said. “By the time I stopped and realized it was a cougar, it was 20 metres away.”
Emrich met the cougar near the bridge between upper and lower Thetis Lake and estimates the animal was six feet long and more than 100 pounds. He picked up a rock and a big chunk of tree bark, but said he managed to remain calm and warn others as they passed.
“It didn’t make any threatening moves, it just watched me. I didn’t make any threatening moves either,” he said. “It could be a young cougar looking for its own territory so just moving through the area.”
Emrich, who runs, walks and bikes the trail three times a week, has been traversing the trail for eight years and said this was the first time he’s seen a cougar.
As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, Pauwels said, sightings will increase. It’s not because the normally nocturnal cats are more active, but because more people are out and about for longer. Trail sightings will increase, he said, but he urged the public not to panic if they encounter a cougar.
“Our advice is to give the animal a lot of space; we don’t suggest anyone follow them. Keep an eye on it, don’t turn away and run away. Most likely they will run away when they see someone,” he said. “But sometimes they will follow for a short distance. It doesn’t mean they will attack – it could just be curious.”
Given that Thetis Lake is right next to wilderness in the Highlands and not far from other large parks and undeveloped pieces of property, a cougar can be on a parcel of territory or passing through at any given time, he added. There are currently no plans to investigate Thetis Lake unless more sightings happen on the popular trail or unless the cougar does something alarming or aggressive. Otherwise, they hope to let the cat be.
“There are lots of deer, lots for it to eat. We don’t consider a cougar being there an automatic cause to do something about it. Any of these large parks like Thetis Lake, Gowlland Park or Mount Work, there are cougars who live in these places, so people should expect they may encounter them,” he said.
“If they are not willing to assume the risk they should hike in more urban places. The risk is (still) low and generally more of a risk to livestock and animals.”
He said there were no cougar attacks last year and hasn’t been one in the CRD for 30 years since1985 when a young girl was attacked at Glinz Lake, suffering bites to her head and neck. She survived when the cougar was scared off.
However common sense is the best precaution and he said risk can be reduced by ensuring children stay with adults and not running out into the forest ahead on their own. Cougars are more likely to attack children than adults, based on size.
Approximately 800 cougars live on Vancouver Island, the cats typically prey on mammals including deer, rabbits, racoons, mice and squirrels, not on humans.
Pauwels said if one is aggressive they will contract someone to go in with cougar hounds to chase the animals up a tree, sometimes having to destroy it.”
“Cougars occasionally get killed and people aren’t happy about that and I don’t blame them. We don’t like that either, we like to let them live, unless they pose a threat,” he said.
“We are not in the business of moving them around that doesn’t work either. We are on a tip of an island there is nowhere I can put it where it isn’t in someone else’s back yard.”
He said relocated animals are often confused and sometimes wake up on the territory of another cougar and end up being killed by another cougar anyway. He said the public can call in sightings to help them track their whereabouts and encouraged the public to keep them in the loop, but not to panic.
“Co-existence is possible,” he said.
Anyone who spots a cougar can call 1-800-663-9453. For more information visit wildsafebc.com