Wildlife-viewing generates hundreds of millions of dollars in British Columbia each year. Grizzly bears, killer whales, bald eagles, sockeye salmon – all of these fascinating creatures, and many more besides, can be spotted with a professional guide at your side.
Cougars, however, are another story. The province is home to more than 85 per cent of Canada’s 7,000-odd cats, yet try as I might I can’t find a tour company or outfitter to show me one in the wild.
When I email Heather McEachen of Tourism Vancouver Island about cougar-spotting tours on the landmass with the world’s highest per capita density of the animals – about one for every 760 humans – I can almost hear her incredulity over cyberspace. “As cougars are quite dangerous and unpredictable there are no companies offering this type of package,” she replies. “It is not a tourism product we sell. Generally, most people stay away from them.”
The feeling is mutual. Cougars are lethally anti-social. The territories of adult male “toms” can exceed 200 square kilometres, but they want it all to themselves. Toms typically fight to the death in contested territory, while females (or “shes”) that aren’t in heat are attacked on sight, and often killed along with their kittens.
Then there’s the species’ incredible stealth. There’s an apocryphal saying among Vancouver Island residents that cougars are watching them 50 per cent of the time. This probably isn’t statistically accurate, but it speaks to the big cats’ abundance and secretive, solitary ways. Add to this the fact that cougars are active mainly outside daylight hours, and it’s no wonder the only reliable way to see one is to sniff it out with dogs and chase it up a tree.
I could hire a hunting guide to do this – B.C.’s one-bag-limit cougar season runs from November to February – but I’ve no intention of killing or even harrying the big cats for sport, or supporting the industry that makes this possible. Retribution is the last thing on my mind.
It’s only after reading media reports of Bust’s tragic demise that I seize upon the idea of imbedding myself with a Conservation Officer. COs shoot plenty of cougars – 118 in 2014 alone – but they do it to protect people, livestock and pets. In short, if I spot one alongside a CO, its inevitable demise won’t be for my benefit.
Trouble is, no journalist has ever gone on a real “cougar call” before. After several emails to the B.C. Ministry of Environment, a media relations staffer replies by phone. “We don’t really let journalists go out on calls,” she explains apologetically. “Why do you want to do this, anyway?”
“Well,” I reply, “I was mauled by a cougar when I was 9, and I’m looking for some answers about what happened to me.”
There’s a pause on the line. Then: “Do you have any scars?”
Two months later I’m sitting in Kevin Van Damme’s truck, about to embark on the first cougar call of the warm spring day.