(Or as Close as One Can Come)
It was the morning of January 4th, 2007, here in the Rockies of Central Idaho, a place far removed from what most folks call civilization. My wife, children, and I had lived here for thirteen years since escaping the now people-overwhelmed state of Colorado. We had searched for “The Last Best Place,” and to us, there was no difference between this part of Idaho and the state of Montana, where that alluring slogan comes from. Montana was just over the hill anyway, so who cares. The “Best Place” isn’t actually defined by some line on a map; rather, it’s where you have chosen to be and a place that fits both your needs and dreams.
Our youngest son Rob had gone up to the animal sheds to feed the array of poultry, sheep and goats a few minutes earlier. He ran into the house, and in spite of being almost breathless, yelled, “Lion! Lion! A lion killed Carmen… and it’s still there!”
Heck, it was “Wild Card Sunday” and I didn’t need this. I was already planning to do nothing on a snow-covered, ten-degree day, and a real crisis had just been unpleasantly thrust into my life. Foremost was our seventy-five-pound son had been within ten feet of an apex predator, separated from it only by a six-foot fence that had already proven its lack of worth to keep such an animal either in or out of the building, or the attached pen enclosure. The second concern was our milk supply has just been compromised by at least half, given that we had two milk goats and one was already a known casualty.
After a thirty-second kid debriefing, I grabbed my 870 Remington 12-gauge “Slug Gun” and headed out the door while stuffing the seven-round magazine full of shells loaded with 00 Buckshot. I also grabbed the next biggest kid and told everyone else to stay in the house.
Joseph and I arrived at the crime scene a couple minutes later, and everything seemed totally normal. The chickens and turkeys were pecking away, and the creek was cascading away in the background. The sheep were acting agitated, but I had always been somewhat suspect of their sanity anyway. Yes-sir, normal seemed to be the case.
It was a “Bluebird Day” with bright, full sun glinting off the snow. Absolutely beautiful. Squinting our eyes to compensate, we walked around the pens towards the side of the building that houses the goats and sheep. I then thought to myself, “The lion saw the kid, and now it’s gone.” More than that, nothing could really be wrong. Beautiful day, the creek is running the same as usual, birds are feeding, and if we lost one goat, that’s just the way it goes, right? And besides, where was all that background music like on the Disney movies when things are about to go south? And there had yet to be the obligatory roar from the lion either! Just a dead goat and life goes on… heck, it might have been a Bobcat. What does an eleven-year old kid know anyway?
We arrived at the gate to the pen, which is directly adjacent to the door of the shed. I could plainly see a dead goat lying across the entrance to the door, and being a bit snow-blind, it could not see inside the building at all. I was still convinced the cat was gone, my mind pretty well still “Disney-fied” as I told Joe to open the gate.
Chambering around, I stepped through the doorway into the blackness, and somehow saw movement immediately in front of me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. LION!
I fired instantaneously at a range of about six feet, killing the cat. I let out a bit of a string of expletives as I backed out of the structure while chambering a second round, uncertain if the cat was actually dead. But dead he was, as well as both our milk goats.
A “legal but unlicensed kill” is what such an event is called. I call it something else, but such is best left unsaid. We called Idaho Fish and Game, whose agent arrived a few hours later and hauled the old cat away, remarking that, “Such things happen, but the perpetrator is rarely caught at the scene”. Yeah. Agreed.
Folks, the odds of this happening are so close to zero that it is almost not calculable. “Rare” doesn’t even suffice as descriptive. And in many ways, it is my fault. That is why I am writing this, because 99.9999% of the time, predation can be prevented. It is your obligation to wholly recognize the totality of where you live, what critters live around you, and then plan and construct structures and pens to keep out what you do not want in. And I will add this: you do not want that kind of excitement. Furthermore, the ending could have been a tale quite different.
It is all up to you. I erred completely by not having the pens COVERED. And I did not lock the goats in the shed the night before. “Eat at John’s!” My mistake led to an old lion and two valuable goats dead. Did I know there were lions about? You bet I did. We live in prime lion habitat, with wolves, black bear, an occasional grizzly likely, coyotes, foxes, badgers, wolverines, raccoons, bobcats, lynx, and weasels, not to mention the occasional dog that wanders in from “neighbors” miles off. Then there are the airborne lot – the eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. Not covering the tops of the outdoor enclosures wasn’t so much a question of cost. It was a lack of paying attention to a detail I knew was important, but dismissed its importance.
The building themselves are first class. Steel. Concrete floors. Electricity. I have seen critters tear wood off the sides of buildings to gain entry, as well as dig underneath. Steel. Concrete. And with the cost of wood nowadays, if you aren’t milling it yourself, steel is a bargain and will far outlast wood. Ingress was at the top of the pen and nowhere else. That weakness was breached. I failed.
Most of the male readers are probably thinking that facing down a lion at six feet is pretty cool. It isn’t. Having the 12 gauge, the .22, and a medium bore rifle handy makes sense, but your wife probably wishes they weren’t leaning next to the front door or right inside that closet everybody grabs their coat from. The goal here is not to have to use them, except for hunting or self-defense.
I was sitting on the porch last night, adding up how many animals I have lost to predation over the years. Since a kid, I (and then, we) have lost well over two hundred poultry to critters with fangs and fur. Almost all of these were not to wild animals, but to my neighbor’s dogs, or my own. Dang near all of them. I saw a hawk kill one of my birds once. The non-confirmed I blamed on wild animals, but there was no evidence to argue they weren’t killed by dogs either. I’m not saying the others haven’t tried. The amount of coyote and fox tracks I’ve seen around the poultry, sheep and goat buildings is astonishing. But predators are smart. If they can’t get in, they keep going. Killing is a calorie-consumptive activity in and of itself, and if they have to engage in too much demolition work, they simply trot off looking for an easier meal.
If you want to be the least popular person in the county, start shooting peoples’ dogs. A phone call and conversation can go a long way towards rectifying a circumstance where someone’s dog becomes a regular problem.
I remember years back there was a gal with a German Shorthaired Pointer that had turned chicken-killer. I shot that dog fifty times with a BB gun, and called the woman probably ten times about him coming over. She fenced her place and he’d dig out. She would then chain him and he’d break the chain and dig out. She would buy a bigger chain and he would pull the stake out of the ground, dig out, and over he would come. He looked like a one-dog sled team, as the chain had collected weeds, grasses and brush, as well as a few small trees on his way over.
She finally begged me to kill him. By then, everyone for miles around wanted that dog dead. I didn’t kill him, but within a number of short days, I never saw him again.
Now, let us address that subject we most like to ignore: our own dogs. When we finally shuck off the trappings of city or suburban life and decide to homestead a piece of land, we either bring Rover with us or get a new one. “Man’s best friend” and all that. “We need a guard dog, dear!” There isn’t a one of you reading this who can deny that your dog killed at least one of your own chickens. Perhaps five or ten? Twenty? Maybe that pup took a year and a half to finally get it? And then the other one… “Remember old Duchess? That dang dog…”
It’s true. We are caught up in either a total fantasy or some faint semblance of reality about those “terrible” predators, when upon reflection, the worst of the lot we actually pet affectionately and then feed Alpo to. The same day it killed those two Black Australorps, right? Admit it! Even your neighbors’ dogs probably weren’t as bad as your own. We rationalize our own pet’s behaviors away, but when one spots a coyote trotting along, minding his own business and not even remotely interested in our birds, that “Where’s the 30-30” mentality takes over.