Puma panic

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July 1996:

Worthy of a film expose in the tradition of Reefer Madness,
the hyperbolic 1936 documentary that alerted the world to the perils of
marijuana, PUMA PANIC!!! could be coming soon to a suburb near you!
Causes include the possible presence of a puma within a few
dozen miles; public reminders that pumas eat pets and people; hunting
advocates blaming the problem on an alleged lack of people using
hounds and telemetry to track pumas, then blow them out of trees in
such a manner as to save intact heads for the wall; and wildlife officials
engaging in bizarre rituals to avert the threat, sometimes reminiscent of
animal sacrifice to appease an alleged dragon.
For instance, with the approval of Oregon Department of Fish
and Wildlife biologist John Thiebes, volunteer trapper Richard Stahl
circa May 13 live-trapped a purported feral cat, fed the cat for three
days, and then staked him out in a small cage as live bait for a puma
who purportedly stalked two boys near Medford on April 3, six weeks
earlier; killed several other cats; and killed a dachshund on April 29.

Animal control officer Mike Horton said the use of the cat as live bait
was apparently legal, but leaving the cat unsheltered in a rainstorm was
not. Horton confiscated the cat, but Medford shelter manager Colleen
Mucek told reporter Mark Freeman of the Medford Mail-Tribune that
since Thiebes claimed the cat, the cat would be returned to the ODFW.
Tim Moffatt, Northwest field representative for Friends of
Animals, raised public objections, eliciting a statement from the
ODFW head office in Portland that domestic cats “probably” wouldn’t
be used as live bait again. The ODFW, reportedly promoting an
attempt to repeal a voter-approved 1994 ban on recreational cougar
and/or bear hunting with hounds, and still smarting from FoA’s successful
opposition to a proposal to kill coyotes at the Antelope Mountain
National Refuge, counterattacked with a press release claiming FoA
had threatened to respond with either violence or a lawsuit––which one
local TV station read on the air and was subsequently obliged to retract.
PUMA PANIC!!! occurred all around the west during the spring,
including in Lagunitas, California, where a reported puma
who kept a 32-year-old Novato man inside an outhouse all
night at Samuel P. Taylor State Park may actually have been a
large bobcat.
In Palm Springs, California, the same day, Woody
Barrett, 77, and his son Jerry, 54, wrested their nine-yearold
terrier Taz from the jaws of a puma, a female who then
ran beneath a picnic table beside a neighbor’s swimming
pool, and remained there until police shot her. Her behavior
suggested she was not a wild puma at all, who would have
been far less likely to come near humans in broad daylight,
more likely to fight the men, and certainly less likely to hide
instead of bounding away at top speed. Indeed, she acted
much like a house cat who expected to be scolded for pouncing
on a bird.
Wild vs. pets
During the past seven years, three people have been
killed by wild pumas, who may number 25,000 nationwide:
Colorado trail runner Scott Lancaster, on January 14, 1991;
northern California trail runner Barbara Schoener, 40, on
April 23, 1994; and southern California birdwatcher Iris
Kenna, 58, on December 11, 1994. Each was alone in
remote country when attacked. Each was attacked just after
dawn. Each was apparently jumped from above and just
behind. In each case the puma dragged, partially ate, and
dusted the remains, clear evidence of predatory behavior.
Two people have been killed and seven maimed in
13 life-threatening attacks by pet exotic cats in the past seven
years, of whom there are––at a guess based on very scanty
records––perhaps 2,500.
The September 1989 death of Jake Gardipe, 5, was
ambiguous. Gardipe was pulled off his tricycle in Evaro,
Montana, by a 60-pound puma kitten, tracked and shot by
Bob Wiesner of Missoula. Noting no sign of a nearby mother,
Wiesner speculated that the kitten was raised “too close to
the city.” Evaro, barely big enough to make the RandMcNally
highway atlas but not big enough to make the index,
is 15 miles from Missoula, population 37,000, and more than
100 miles from any other city of even that size.
Many other incidents attributed to wild pumas may
actually involve animals who lack fear of people not because
they haven’t been hunted, nor because they view humans as
food, but because they have been raised as pets and were then
either released after becoming too big to handle, or escaped
without being reported, having been kept illegally.
A known instance of an unreported escape had consequences
at about 7:30 p.m. on June 2, when a puma
pounced Casey Booth, age 7, near Robin Creek, 90 miles
northeast of Boise. Two other children screamed for help as
the puma dragged Booth away by the head. Booth had been
pulled about 100 feet when his grandfather, Rick Baumar,
threw a basketball at the puma, who released Booth and ran
away. While surgeons reattached one of Booth’s ears and
saved a damaged eye, authorities tracked and shot the puma
several hours later, just 450 feet from the scene of the attack.
The puma was believed by authorities to be a female
who escaped 22 to 23 hours earlier from Randy Catalino, one
of 14 licensed private puma owners in Idaho. Catalino,
whose home is five miles from where the attack occurred,
had not reported the escape, but reportedly acknowledged a
previous escape from a facility that the Idaho Statesman indicated
was not in compliance with the state regulations.
“Catalino himself admitted to more than one neighbor
that he released the puma so she could mate with a wild
puma she attracted,” charged local pastor Gerald White.
“Gimmie a break,” Catalino responded to I d a h o
S t a t e s m a n reporter Elizabeth Ommachen. “This is a ninegeneration
domesticated cat. She cost me $800 as a cub.”
In other recent incidents definitely involving oncepet
pumas, Jerry Schiavone of Bridgeview, Illinois, on May
8 picked up a five-month-old male puma he found abandoned
in a cage beside the Stevenson Expressway, just outside
Chicago. In Wilmington, Delaware, New Castle County
Police drug education officer Butch LeFevre, 49, spent the
winter trying to catch up with a puma who escaped from a
private owner in February 1995, thrived in Pennsylvania until
driven south by the noise of deer season, and remained at
large at least into mid-February. Back in January, veterinarian
Leigh McBride of Wildwood, Florida, made headlines by
saving the life of a starving and dehydrated puma whom the
Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission confiscated
from a couple who inquired about getting a permit to keep
him, without meeting the minimum requirements of caging
and puma-handling know-how. The puma was one of a litter
sold to different people, without documentation, at an
Oklahoma wildife auction.
In another ambiguous incident, Danny Reid of
Escalante, Utah, on March 18 shot a young pumas who came
to his back porch in pursuit of his dog, scratched on the back
door, then leaped toward a tractor upon which Reid’s sevenyear-old
daughter was playing. Seven other Escalante residents
reported recent close encounters with both male and
female cougars––and cubs––who showed neither fear of
either humans or vehicles, nor aggression toward humans.
Even Reid thought the puma he shot was only after the dog,
not the little girl, but with a split second to think, he wasn’t
inclined to take chances.
Because the recordkeeping requirements vary from
state to state and tend to be underenforced, no one has firm
numbers on just how many privately owned exotic cats there
are, what their birth rate is, or how many enter the wild each
year. What is known is that among the recorded population,
believed to be just a fraction of the total, pumas are both by
far the most numerous and the species best adapted to survive
at large, being native to most parts of North America, though
extirpated from many.
Since 1990 Texas has required private owners of
potentially dangerous wildlife to obtain a “restricted wild animal”
permit. Through 1995, 165 such permits had been
issued, covering 244 animals in 84 counties. Among the animals
were 147 pumas, 42 African lions, 42 tigers, seven
leopards, two hyenas, two timber wolves, a liger (lion/tiger
hybrid), and a chimpanzee. The Texas tally may be more
indicative of population ratios than of actual number: ANIMAL
PEOPLE has seen almost as many exotic cats just at
three San Antonio-area sanctuaries as are on the permit list,
and though the sanctuary animals are registered under different
sections of law, most came from private collectors.
Around the U.S., exotic cat sanctuaries are full to
the verge of overcrowding with abandoned former pets. “At
the Feline Conservation Center where I volunteer,” Nancy
Vandermey recently posted to an Internet discussion group,
“we have 55 cats of 13 species, and only one is wild-born, a
bobcat whose mother was killed by a car.” Similar ratios
apply to the exotic cats housed by JES Exotics in Illinois, the
Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, Wildlife Rehabilitation and
Rescue, Shambala, Wildlife Waystation, and Wild Animal
Orphanage, among other facilities struggling to cope with the
numbers, and more big cats turn up needing homes almost
daily, often in huge numbers. Exotic cat breeder/collector
Catherine Twiss, for instance, had 85 big cats when her
Mississippi and Arkansas facilities were raided in April and
May. Tracing her record, Don Elroy of the Tennessee
Network for Animals found the USDA had cited her in at
least four states over the past five years for allegedly selling
big cats without permits.
Perhaps the biggest outbreak of PU M A PA N I C! ! !
ever, though not actually involving pumas, followed the
escape of an uncertain number of African lions from the
Ligertown compound near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, in
September 1995. Nineteen wandering lions were eventually
shot. Another 27 were relocated to the Wildlife Waystation
sanctuary in southern California. In May of this year,
Ligertown owners Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin served 11
days in jail, then began a 7.5-year probation. Bannock
County had in April bulldozed and burned the Ligertown
enclosures. Fieber, previously established in Oregon, had a
history of running into trouble by keeping more exotic cats
than he could manage to the satisfaction of law enforcement.
Under the circumstances, it would be stretching the
imagination to believe that many ill-fed, ill-kept exotic cats
are not getting away to live in the wild.
The best available statistics are ambiguous. Of
about 65 documented puma attacks in the U.S. since 1890, 50
have come since 1970, when wild pumas began receiving
state and federal protection in key habitats. Of the 12 fatal
attacks, eight came after 1970. But exotic pet-keeping began
booming at about the same time. The number of roadside
zoos and private breeding facilities multiplied exponentially
during the 1970s, stocked by animals deemed genetically
redundant by accredited zoos who after the 1973 passage of
the Endangered Species Act began sharply reducing collections
and organizing Species Survival Plan breeding protocols.
The American Zoo Association cracked down on sales
outside the accredited zoo community in 1986 and virtually
halted the traffic after November 1991. However, by then
the big cats were literally out of the bag, potentially at large
along with countless offspring.
What is not ambiguous is that the hunting lobby
spent $465,550 to spread PUMA PANIC!!! in California earlier
this year, in an unsuccessful bid to reopen recreational puma
hunting. The big contributors were the National Rifle
Association, $100,000; the Safari Club International,
$58,000; the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, $25,000; and
the California Rifle and Pistol Association, $10,000.
Opponents of the reopening spent $533,132, but much less of
the money came in big chunks.
The California legislature suspended sport puma
hunting in 1972, and voters in 1990 made the ban permanent
via referendum. On March 27, despite the PU M A PA N I C! ! !
outbreaks, the voters ratified their decision, 58% to 42%.
Bears too
Akin to PU M A PA N I C! ! !, though rarely involving
once-captive animals, is BEAR HYSTERIA!!! , coinciding not
so much with bear incursions into suburbs as with the introduction
of legislation seeking to restrict bear hunting.
Initiatives to ban baiting bears, spring bear hunting,
and hunting bears and pumas with dogs have recently been
approved by voters in Colorado and Oregon. Opponents of
the Oregon measure are now circulating repeal petitions.
Other campaigns to protect bears and/or pumas are underway
in New Jersey, Michigan, Washington, and the Canadian
province of Ontario. To an extent, such campaigns bring
more coverage of bear and/or puma incidents because the
political aspect gives them broader news value. But reporters
who aren’t familiar with wildlife issues, or who are on the
“outdoor” beat to serve a hunting audience, often accept
scare stories from wildlife agencies with insufficient attention
to other expert views as to just what happened.
For example, Jaclyn D’Auria of Associated Press
reported from New Jersey on June 6, “State wildlife officials
say they have been bombarded with complaints about black
bears. The hungry bears are knocking down garbage cans,
destroying bird feeders and beehives, even killing livestock
and family pets.”
Her story came in the wake of the May 21 introduction
of New Jersey assembly bill A. 2016. Stating “There
shall be no open season on black bears,” the bill is sponsored
by assembly member Kevin O’Toole.
“The ‘make-the-bears-villains’ machine is out in
force,” sighed Stuart Chaifetz of the New Jersey Animal
Rights Alliance. “In the past two days there have been front
page stories in the two biggest New Jersey newspapers about
bears. There was not a word from our side. It was all Fish
and Game and a family that had a run-in with a bear. Nothing
bad happened, but of course they are in fear for their lives.
These innocent animals, which have never hurt anyone in New
Jersey, are being made out to be brutal monsters who will one
day kill children.”
Bear problems are apparently up in New Jersey not
because there are more bears, with just 400 in the state, nor
because bears lost their fear of humans, as some claim, but
rather because a lingering winter made spring food supplies
scarce, leaving the small bear population desperate. The lingering
winter similarly affected bears in California, Arizona,
and Colorado, where three more BE A R HY S T E R I A!!! stories
originated in the next 24 hours, only one of which involved
an actual threat to human life: two campers were injured on
June 7 at Mount Lemmon, Arizona, in what attending surgeon
Jack McFarland suggested may have been the first bear
attack on people in that state in 30 years. The bear was
thought to have been displaced by a nearby forest fire.
In context, individual encounters with bears are still
frightening. Each bear incident, however, becomes more
understandable, and since black bears in particularly rarely
want either to fight us or eat us, the issue becomes ecological
adaptation, including mutual accommodation, rather than
terrified human against unpredictable slavering beast.
In Michigan, Citizens United for Bears on May 29
\filed petitions bearing 341,075 signatures with the Michigan
Bureau of Elections, needing verification of 247,127 to place
a measure barring the use of bait and dogs in bear hunting on
the November 5 ballot. On May 30, the Michigan Senate ratified
a bill to remove public authority over hunting. Under
SB 1033, “The Director of the Department of Natural
Resources shall have exclusive authority to regulate the taking
of game.” The Michigan House was to vote on the bill on
June 19, just after ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press.
In Ontario, the Animal Alliance of Canada prepared
to fight BEAR HYSTERIA!!! by commissioning a major public
opinion survey about six months before moving ahead with a
campaign to ban baiting and use of dogs, formally announced
on April 16. Interviewing 1,002 Ontarians, Insight Canada
Research found in October 1995 that 71% oppose recreational
bear hunting in any form; 77% oppose baiting; and 79%
oppose promoting hunting to non-Canadians. An urban/rural
split on spring bear hunting, however, indicated that a wellorchestrated
injection of BEAR HYSTERIA!!! could make campaigning
on this issue less viable, so that approach to saving
bears was shelved until the public can be better educated
about the fate of orphaned bears whose mothers are shot.
History of massacre
Use of innuendo to incite attitudes akin to PU M A
PANIC!!! and BEAR HYSTERIA!!! as a pretext for killing with a
hidden economic motive is nothing new––but until relatively
recently in human history, the victims were mostly other
humans who could be deprived of property with impunity, if
murder could be rationalized as a holy crusade against witches,
heretics, or an ethnic minority.
Like public access to sport hunting, which in most
of the rest of the world was traditionally accessible only to
nobility, retargeting such innuendo to attack wildlife was
largely an American innovation. When the U.S. first raised a
standing army and sent it west, the rationale was conventional:
“The only good Injun is a dead Injun.” To expedite the
purported betterment of Indians, however, the army also
massacred bison, to remove a key Native American food
source and feed the troops. When hostile tribes became so
scarce that they could no longer form a plausible threat, and
bison were all but extinct, the U.S. Army in a 1905 downsizing
mode retired from guarding Yellowstone and other federal
lands. But the best-connected horse soldiers weren’t off the
federal payroll for long. In the same year, the U.S. Forest
Service, as an act of political patronage, created work for
ex-cavalrymen, waging war on wolves from 1905 until 1928,
when the species was officially extirpated from the Lower 48.
Except for the medieval cat massacres that preceded
the Black Death, spread by fleas riding an uncontrolled
rodent population, such swift wipe-outs of species had never
before been deliberately achieved. The success was widely
admired and emulated, especially in China, where the late
Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung from 1949 on used sporadic
pogroms against domestic dogs, rats, mice, and songbirds
to divert blame for famines and plagues brought on
largely by the combination of his own economic policies with
the proliferation of insects after birds––portrayed as grainstealing
parasites––were temporarily wiped out.
Such centrally mandated animal annihilation campaigns
continue. Last year dogs were targeted in several
cities, for allegedly spreading rabies. A low-cost vaccination
program would have been more effective, but Chinese policy
continues to hold that vaccination would encourage more people
to keep dogs, thereby increasing dog-related problems.
The demise of dogs, many of whom earned a living catching
rats, helped bring a 17% increase in rat-borne disease during
1995. This year, the Year of the Rat on the Chinese calendar,
the government encouraged rat hunts with a bounty of 12
cents a tail, significant money by Chinese standards.
Residents of Shenyang in Liaoning province responded by
killing 400,000 rats in the six weeks preceding May 17. One
granary worker was said to have killed 6,000 rats; a family of
six purportedly killed 1,000 in just an evening.
ADC gets more money
In the U.S., meanwhile, exterminating wolves did
not cut livestock losses, which then as now were mostly due
to disease and the elements. Thus by 1931 coyotes became
yet another purported menace in need of extermination.
Congress obliged by creating the Animal Damage Control
program, ensuring another several generations of work for
killers. Coyotes at the time were not found north of Oregon
or east of the Mississippi River. Within 18 years, ADC hunting,
trapping, and poisoning pressure drove them into vacated
wolf habitat from southern Alaska to Florida to Maine.
Over the past 65 years the ADC has killed more
than 20 million coyotes, who have responded by breeding
bigger litters, more often, and becoming warier. The U.S.
now has more coyotes than ever. Only the recent reintroduction
of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has ever extirpated
a coyote population, as the wolves last fall and winter
reclaimed the Lamarr Valley––driving more coyotes, say disgruntled
ranchers, into neighboring cattle country.
Of course that was good for business. Although the
ADC will cheerfully kill any purported animal menace, coyotes
are still the chief reason it exists, and the species most
often killed, currently at the rate of about 100,000 a year.
The ADC weapon of preference against coyotes during the
1950s and 1960s was Compound 1080, one of the many neurotoxins
developed by the Nazi weapons program but never
actually deployed during World War II. The ADC usually
used it in baited traps. Compound 1080 was banned by the
Nixon administration in 1973, partially to protect the public,
after 13 human fatalities resulted from misuse and accidental
contact, and partially to reduce the threat to then-endangered
bald eagles, who often found the lethal bait before coyotes
did. After ranchers yelled for 12 years, the Reagan administration
reapproved Compound 1080 in 1985, this time as the
active ingredient of anti-coyote sheep collars.
In this use, Compound 1080 supposedly kills only
coyotes who actually attack sheep. Deployment has been limited,
but the ADC hopes to expand use, having recently
asked the Oregon Department of Agriculture for permission
to test the collars in coastal Curry County.
Objects Friends of Animals, “Hours pass before
the poison kills its victim. The ADC itself admits ‘most
coyotes killed by 1080 collars are not recovered,’ making
it nearly impossible to prevent secondary poisoning of
scavenging animals. Other states are waiting,” according
to FoA, “to see what happens in Oregon.” The public
comment period, initially closed on January 22, has been
reopened. [Write to Bruce Andrews, director, Oregon
Dept. of Agriculture, 635 Capitol St. NE, Salem, OR
97310-0110; fax 503-986-4747.] Voices within the ADC do occasionally object
to the coyote obsession––sort of. “A hog does more damage,
in my opinion, than a coyote,” ADC trapper Gary
Silvers told the commissioners of Bell County, Texas, on
April 29. Although domesticated hogs raised in confinement
do most of the demonstrable harm––through no choice of
their own––just by eating corn raised at huge cost to topsoil
and defecating in volume that manure management facilities
often can’t contain, Silvers wasn’t talking about the pork
industry. Rather, he sought support for feral hog trapping.
“It doesn’t cost ranchers for me to come out,”
Silvers said hopefully.
That’s because it costs taxpayers. Eyed for elimination
by eastern fiscal conservatives last winter, the ADC not
only remained within the draft USDA budget for 1997, but
got an unrequested increase of $200,000 from the House
Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee before clearing the
House Appropriations Committee on June 6. The ADC had
requested $26.6 million for 1997, the same amount it was
allocated for 1996. Congressional representatives from the
Rocky Mountain states added an extra $100,000 for wolf reintroduction
surveillance plus another $100,000 to step up
predator control––meaning coyote-killing––in the west. From
the 1996 allocation, $13.6 million, just over half, was for
predator control. A symbolic floor amendment to cut the
ADC budget by 50%, introduced by Representative Peter
DeFazio (D-Oregon), was killed 139-280 on June 13, drawing
support from 40 mostly eastern Republicans but not from
Democrats in the Rocky Mountain states.
“If previous years are any indication,” said Roger
Featherstone of Defenders of Wildlife, “97% of the 1996
ADC funds were spent in the west.”
The ADC spends $1 million a year to kill predators
in Montana, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported on May
26, but livestock losses to predators officially come to just
$900,000 a year, and many observers think that estimate is
inflated by counting animals who are scavenged after dying of
other causes. The National Agricultural Statistics Service
found in a recent survey of livestock losses that extreme
weather killed seven times more animals than predators, and
disease killed 11 times as many.
The ADC does have a mandate to seek nonlethal
alternatives to killing predators, but investigating ADC activity
in Colorado, The Durango Herald in May reported that
alternatives are actually used only 5% of the time.
“Most of the time those methods have already been
tried when we’re called,” said ADC regional supervisor Mike
The H e r a l d staff also found that the ADC didn’t
welcome the scrutiny.
“If we let critics in the field, we’ll end up with
damaging photos of dead animals that will hurt the program,”
said ADC public affairs specialist Robin Porter.
The H e r a l d expose coincided with the legislative
transfer of responsibility for predator control in Colorado
from the Division of Wildlife to the Department of
Agriculture, to circumvent the implementation
of regulations recommended by the
Colorado Wildlife Commission a year ago
that might have reduced trapping seasons.
The Colorado legislative action paralleled the
1988 transfer of the ADC from the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service to the USDA––essentially
for the same reason.
Hunters too
The preventing-a-menace pretext
worked so well for government agencies that
the hunting lobby eventually adopted it for
use in defense of recreational killing.
Missouri river otters are the latest target. As
ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in April, otters
were long ago nearly extirpated from most of
the U.S. by fur trapping and the destruction
of beaver dams, which create the otter’s preferred
habitat. After 20 years of reintroductions,
however, coinciding with a comeback
of beaver, otters have tenuously recolonized
much of the northeast and midwest. Missouri
trappers now want to kill some of the otters
painstakingly reintroduced to that state.
Their motive is obvious: in the 27 other
states that permit otter trapping, otter pelts––
due to scarcity––are among the few trapped
furs whose prices remain as high as they were
a decade ago. At that, however, recent pelt
prices of circa $45-$95 have averaged just
10% of the $1.7 million cumulative cost of
reintroduction, divided by the 3,000 otters
now officially estimated to be in Missouri.
The Missouri Department of
Conservation has nonetheless set a 59-day
river otter trapping season, with no bag limit,
and has applied for federal permission to
export otter pelts.
As a lobbyist against implementation
of the European Union trapped fur
import ban, now enforced by The
Netherlands and optionally enforceable by
other member nations, MDC furbearer project
leader David Hamilton is aware that otter
trapping won’t be popular either here or
abroad. The otter trapping proposal was
accordingly kept quiet. When it belatedly hit
the media at the end of March, Hamilton’s
staff quickly fingered otters as an alleged
threat to commercially ranched catfish.
“We’d be irresponsible,” biologist
Dave Erickson solemnly told Tom
Uhlenbrook of the St. Louis P o s t – D i s p a t c h,
“to reintroduce an animal successfully and
not provide citizens the ability to deal with
otter problems where they surface.”
MDC spokesperson Jerry Presley
warned critics with a form letter that without
a trapping season, his department had “no
mechanism to deal with possible problems.”
Exactly 15 otter-related “problems”
were reported to the MDC between 1986 and
1994, the most recent year for which statistics
are available. There were none before
the winter of 1992-1993, and only two thereafter.
The problems in between were dealt
with primarily by nonlethal relocation.
Greg Linscombe of the Louisiana
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries pioneered
the tactic of rationalizing trapping by
proclaiming furbearing species to be the
source of hitherto unrecognized menace.
Touring for nearly a decade with a slide show
of purported nutria damage to canals and bayous,
Linscombe tells credulous audiences
that, “There are some areas where you can
go out and see literally hundreds of animals.
It looks like a big pasture, except the whole
thing is floating. And as far as you can see
on the horison, you see nutria.” According
to Linscombe, these vast herds of nutria are
eating swamps into mudflats.
Nutria, beaver-like rodents imported
from South America by tabasco sauce
baron E.V. McIlhenny in a 1937 fur-ranching
scheme, escaped from their cages later that
year in a hurricane. They soon rivaled
muskrat in competition for bayou homes––
not least because alligators, their major
predator, were hunted into endangerment.
Trappers killed from a million to 1.7 million
nutria per year from 1962 until 1987, by
which time alligators were off the federal list
of “threatened” species and market demand
for nutria fell with the rest of the fur trade.
Nutria pelt demand has remained
low. But Louisiana has found in nutria a convenient
scapegoat for deteriorating habitat
and infrastructure. Instead of facing the cost
of inappropiate development, Jefferson
Parish in a widely praised sidestep of the
impact study requirements to poison nutria
calls sheriff Harry Lee.
Since November 1995, Lee’s
SWAT team has often displayed marksmanship
to the mostly Afro-American neighborhoods
along the Jefferson Parish canals,
donating dead nutria to the alligators at the
Audubon Zoo. In between, they shoot still
more nutria in Lafreniere Park. Those nutria
might harm children, Lee recently told
media, while a crack addict’s child was
stabbed 89 times a few blocks away.
The New York Times describes Lee
as “a man with a reputation for nipping problems
in the bud.”
Beavers are targeted in upstate New
York, where as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to
press, the state Department of Environmental
Conservation continued efforts to graft a bill
legalizing underwater snaring to the 1997
state budget. Beavers are also under fire in
much of the rest of their range––from
Chelmsford, Massachusetts, where they are
blamed for causing water pollution, after the
state blocked Friends of Animals’ attempt to
use nonlethal control techniques, to Arkansas,
where a bounty increased the death toll,
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission bounty
coordinator Rocky Lynch said, without
reducing beaver-related problems.
“The beaver is the largest North
American rodent and should be treated like a
rodent,” Prince William County, Maryland,
animal control administrator Gary Sprifke
told media in late April, after public opposition
halted beaver trapping along Marumsco
Creek. Earlier, trappers killed 17 beavers,
but 12 were believed to remain.
In lieu of more trapping, volunteers
were to beaver-proof trees with chickenwire.
Among the leaders of the anti-trapping campaign
was Teresa Rowley, who said her
young son was nearly caught in a beaver trap.
Beavers can cause flooding, where
people build in flood plains, but as Friends
of Beaversprite, the Fur-Bearer Defenders,
and other groups have shown for years, such
flooding can be averted by poking perforated
plastic soil pipe through dams to regulate the
water level, and by installing page wire
“beaver bafflers” at the mouths of culverts.
ANIMAL PEOPLE recently won cancellation
of a proposed beaver dam dynamiting in
Ohio by sending diagrams of the use of soil
pipe and beaver bafflers to the city council at
request of a local subscriber.
Beavers abroad
“Beavers in this part of the world,”
reported Mary Lou Atkinson of the New
Orleans Times-Picayune back on January 21
after a visit to Tierra del Fuego, Chile, “are
the equivalent of Louisiana’s nutria. Brought
from Canada in the 1940s for a proposed fur
industry that never took off, they now roam
freely without natural predators and are
destroying the forests with their dams.”
London Observer environment editor
Robin McKie described a similar situation
the same day, in Scotland, where a roadkilled
beaver found near Loch Lomond
turned out to be the Canadian kind. The
beaver apparently escaped from the remnants
of a roadside zoo, defunct a decade ago,
belonging to Patrick Telfer-Smollet, a
descendant of author Tobias Smollet. He
didn’t know if other beavers were at large,
but observers suspected some were.
“That is bad news,” wrote McKie,
“for naturalists finishing plans to reintroduce
European beavers.”
Explained Sandy Kerr, head of biodiversity
programs for Scottish Natural
Heritage, “If escaped Canadian beavers start
meeting European beavers and breeding, we
will end up with hybrids, possibly sterile.”
Something similar, Kerr said, happened several
years ago in Sweden.
But neither Kerr nor wildlife consultant
Roy Dennis seemed concerned about
Scots forests. “Beavers are little naturalists,”
said Dennis. “They cut back trees such as the
willow and poplar, which grow back bushier
and make better homes for insects and birds.”
Added Kerr, “Evidence indicates
they improve matters. Their dams reduce silt,
for example, and so help salmon spawning.”
Any species anywhere may be targeted
in the current effort to defend leghold
trapping. “Germans are learning what U.S.
suburbanites have known for years: raccoons
may be cute, but they’re major pests,”
Newsweek reported on April 29. “A passel
of the masked interlopers are living in the
town of Buckow’s hollowed trees, eating
birds’ eggs, raiding farmers’ fields, and biting
when provoked. The 1,000 or so animals
are descendants of a handful of imported U.S.
raccoons who escaped from a German fur
farm in World War II.”
Sounds ominous––but if the raccoons
live at the density in Germany that they
do in Fairfield County, Connecticut, or
Westchester County, New York, they would
appear to have colonized under four square
miles. If they achieve only the normal habitat
density for most of their U.S. kin, they may
affect 40 square miles, which if evenly distributed
from their escape point would be a
radius of about seven miles. The slow and
limited spread of a species in which contagious
disease spreads at about 50 miles per
year in the U.S. suggests that the feral
German immigrants actually have only a tenuous
hold on survival.
England and France have even had
homegrown cases of classic PU M A PA N I C.
Sightings of the British “Beast of Bodmin
Moor” apparently ceased after the skull of an
Indian black panther was found near where a
big cat apparently slew numerous sheep over
the past several years. However, the apparent
presence of a puma who mauled both a
heifer and a dog in the Foret de Chize,
France, in mid-May obliged the Prefecture
des Deux-Svres to close the 13,000-acre forest
to foot traffic. There is a zoo of about 600
animals in nearby Villiers-en-Bois, but no
zoo cats have been reported missing.

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