I’m almost sure that I have a cougar visiting my property. The prints in the snow are about 3½ by 3½ inches, and there are tail drag marks with them. The conservation officer seems to think it’s a dog dragging a leash. But I have kids and small dogs. Should I be concerned?—Tara Berical, via email
Based on the size of the paw prints, it sounds like it could be a cougar, says Nick de Ruyter with WildSmart in Canmore, Alta. No claw marks indicates a cat. “When they walk around, they keep their claws retracted,” says de Ruyter. In deep snow, sure, you could see tail drag marks. Or, he says, “it could have been a cougar dragging something that it killed.”
Or it could have been a dog dragging a leash. Or some other boring animal dragging…something boring. “We don’t have enough information to confirm that it really is a cougar,” says de Ruyter.
If it is, rest assured, the cougar will make it its business to avoid you. “I hike and mountain bike all the time, and I’ve never seen a cougar,” says de Ruyter. And that’s in Western Canada. Cougars are far less common in the East. In Ontario, for example, there are only “small amounts of physical evidence” to even confirm the existence of wild cougars, says Jolanta Kowalski of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Still, better safe than uninformed. Cougars may see small dogs and children as prey because both are prone to sudden, erratic movements. If you head out for walks in the woods, travel in adult-heavy groups, make noise, and keep dogs leashed. Don’t leave kids or pets unattended, especially at dusk or dawn. And if you happen to encounter a cougar, make yourself appear large, keep eye contact, and back away. Never make the animal feel trapped, or turn and run.
Having bear spray—and knowing how to use it correctly—certainly can’t hurt, says de Ruyter. “It’s called ‘bear spray.’ But it’ll work on anything with eyes, a nose, and a mouth.”
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