WDFW says big cat had become unafraid of human contact
By Ann McCreary
Nate Hirsch, 15, was sitting on a couch in his upper Rendezvous home before school last week when he sensed something that made him turn around and look toward a window just behind him.
Two feet away, on the other side of the windowpane, a cougar stared back at him and hissed.
The incident was the beginning of a cougar encounter that state wildlife officials said was very unusual.
Nate and his parents, Steve and Rebecca, and his sister Mira, 6, watched from inside their home as the cougar began walking around the house at about 7:30 a.m. on March 16. The big cat proceeded to peer in other windows and at one point hissed at Steve as they looked at each other through the glass.
After a while, the cat headed away from the house toward where the driveway crosses a creek. Steve Hirsch went outside and yelled at the cougar from a distance to try to frighten it away.
“It just ignored me, and sauntered off,” he said.
The Hirsches called their neighbor to warn her about the cougar because her dogs were outside and they knew she often took a walk in the morning.
When it was time to take the children to school, “we went out to the garage carefully,” watching for the cougar, Hirsch said. As they drove out their driveway, they spotted the cougar up in a dead aspen tree on their property, probably frightened up there by the dogs.
Rebecca called the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to tell them about the cougar, and enforcement officer Jason Day responded shortly after 9:30 a.m.
The cougar was still in the tree when Day arrived. He explained options for dealing with the cougar, Hirsch said, including calling a hunter with a cougar tag to shoot the cougar or trying to scare the cat away from the residence.
The Hirsches liked Day’s recommendation that an effort be made to scare the cat off the property. Working with another WDFW officer, Day shot at the cougar with rubber bullets to drive it out of the tree. It took dozens of rounds before the cat finally climbed down and ran away.
Didn’t go far
But it didn’t run far. The WDFW officers followed it as it ran through some nearby gullies, yelling and setting off cracker shells to try to drive the cougar away. The cougar, however, hunkered down in a brushy area just behind the neighbor’s house, not far from the Hirsch home.
The neighbor, who asked not to be identified, had brought her dogs in after getting the call about the cougar. When she saw the WDFW officers behind her house she opened a window and talked with them as they stood about 30-40 feet away.
“Suddenly the cougar broke out of the brush and charged at … the house,” she said. She watched from inside as the cougar began circling the house.
At one point, she said, “he pawed at a dog door and tried to get in. I was standing there with my knee against it. I had put the security door [on the dog door] up to keep my dogs inside. I felt it move.”
The cougar also jumped up on a window and swiped at it with his paws. “I could see him pushing, and he hissed at me through the window,” she said, adding that the cat’s muddy prints were still on the window.
“The officers were right behind him, probably about 50 feet. All of a sudden this cat was trying to get into a house. It would be one thing to run at my house and veer off, but he circled my house. That is what is unnerving to all of us,” the Hirsches’ neighbor said.
After pausing briefly in front of the house, the cat turned and made a run for open brush away from the house. At that point, the officers attempted to shoot and kill it. The shots injured the cougar, which ran away, and the officers called in a local resident with hounds to help track the cat.
The homeowner said the officers told her why they made the decision to kill the cougar. “They said this was not a good cat. He was not afraid. He defaulted to coming to the house. They gave him a lot of opportunity to run and he didn’t budge,” she said.
The hound owner arrived and after a few hours the cougar was tracked to underbrush near the homes and killed, said Sgt. Dan Christensen, WDFW police supervisor for Okanogan County.
“The cougar was hazed for about an hour and a half,” Christensen said. Most cougars would do their best to get as far away as possible from such harassment, he said.
“He was probably a cat that’s learned to live in the neighborhood,” Christensen said. “He made a beeline back to the house. A cat wanting to go into a house to escape is unusual,” he said.
The cougar was a healthy male, estimated to be about 100 pounds and two years old, Christensen said. This was the only incident this year in which a cougar has been killed as a result of conflict with humans or livestock, he said.
The officers returned to tell the Hirsch family and their neighbor how the incident was resolved.
“The officers gave him every chance to move on. I can’t say enough about Jason Day. He went out of his way to make it have a good outcome,” she said.
She continues to take daily walks with her dogs in the hills by her home, but stays alert to the possible presence of cougars, she said.
“We’re in their territory. This is the third one I’ve seen. I think it spooked everybody. It was a good educational thing.”