Cougars such as this one photographed in Metchosin in 2007 are rarely seen by people

A cougar, a deer or a house cat?

Cougar sightings on the rise, but it's most often a case of mistaken identity

Cougar sightings on the rise, but it’s most often a case of mistaken identity

More often than not it’s just a deer, but growls and the rustle of brown fur moving in the bush has prompted scores of cougar calls to conservation officers this year.

The Ministry of Environment conservation office has seen a spike in calls of potential cougar sightings, said conservation officer Peter Pauwels, which goes hand-in-hand with a rising cougar population on Vancouver Island.

“Now we are starting to get more (cougar) calls,” Pauwels said. “We know there are a lot of cougars out here, but they are behaving themselves.”

The majority of cougar sightings in Greater Victoria are called in from Metchosin, Highlands and Sooke. Bear Mountain has a few cougar dens, but due to the housing construction and golf courses, it’s not likely cougars still live there.

Once a sighting is reported, conservation officers try to verify it’s actually a cougar –– two to three independent sightings help solidify a claim. Since April conservation officers have received 68 cougar calls from the south Island area and verified about 10.

Occasionally, cougars sightings are reported at Royal Roads University and West Shore Parks and Recreation, both in Colwood. In early June, someone reported a cougar growling in the bushes at the recreation centre.

“There are a lot of animals that growl. We don’t consider that a sighting,” Pauwels said. “Cougars don’t like busy places like West Shore parks and rec.”

The rec centre and Royal Roads err on the side of caution. Even if a cougar sighting can’t be proven, they post warnings around the facilities.

Every reported sighting is treated as serious and investigated, even though almost 80 to 90 per cent are mistaken identity, Pauwels said.

“The biggest thing mistaken for a cougar is deer,” he said. “People see deer moving in the bush and see the brown body and think it’s a cougar.”

Even Pauwels was mistaken when he saw a dead deer on the side of the road and thought it was cougar. Raccoons in trees and even house cats seen from a distance have been reported as cougars.

“We haven’t been out searching for a cougar this year,” Pauwels said.

In most situations conservation officers allow the cougars to the leave the area on their own accord. They might try to catch the cougar if it exhibits unusual behavior such as being aggressive, approaching people, or killing livestock or pets.

“People don’t know how difficult it is to catch a cougar,” Pauwels noted.

The conservation officers sometimes hire a contractor and his cougar hounds to help track down a cougar’s location. Hounds set out to sniff out a cougar, but there are challenges in finding big cats in a residential area – the dogs are trained to smell “cat.”

“Cougar hounds can’t differentiate between a house cat and a cougar. How many people have house cats?”

For this reason, Pauwels said the success of tracking cougars in urban settings is quite low, but once the cougar is spotted it always ends up in the same place. “When we are (tracking) them, they’ll end up a tree,” he said. “They are more scared than ever.”

Conservation officers commonly shoot the cougar with a tranquilizer and then relocate it away from urban areas.

“It’s a pretty traumatic experience to be tranquilized, fall out of tree and wake up somewhere new,” Pauwels said, noting that cougars are territorial and could be in danger if they are moved into another’s domain. “It’s not like the movies. It’s not always a happy experience.”

In 18 years on the job, Pauwels has caught about 60 cougars. He stresses that if someone does see a cougar, do not approach it, give it plenty of space and move away slowly.

“Never try to run away because that could trigger an attack,” Pauwels said. “Humans are not a known food source to cougars, but if you run, they may then think of you as prey.”

reporter@goldstreamgazette.com