Former Clearwater-based conservation officer Kevin Van Damme lost a friend in late December.
One of his tracking dogs, Bust, was killed by a cougar in the Tranquille Valley near Kamloops.
According to Van Damme, they first got a call about the big cat on Dec. 23.
A 70-pound dog had been bitten and dragged away. The dog’s owner had rescued it and taken it to the vet.
“It all sounded like natural behaviour typical of a mature cat,” said the conservation officer. “The cougar attacked at night. It had the dog in its clutches but then walked away … it still had respect for people. It was a mature tom, and usually they have learned to stay away from buildings and people.”
On Christmas Day it took a house cat from a residence in the same area. Tracks showed that it was bleeding from one paw.
Two days later another resident found its bloody pawprints near his home.
He followed the tracks and found the big cat hiding under a shed.
The resident got a shot off when the cougar ran, and then called the Conservation Officer Service.
“Now I had more concerns,” said Van Damme. “It was hanging around the house. I knew I had to get out there with my dogs.”
Usually when a cougar is chased by dogs it will go up a tree – instinctive behaviour developed from generations dealing with wolves.
This time, however, the big cat circled around and ambushed the first dog chasing it.
After dispatching the first dog, Bust, it then went after the second, Boomer, biting it severely in the head.
It didn’t finish the kill, however, possibly driven away by Van Damme’s shouting.
All this happened close to the house where the resident had found the cougar under his shed.
The resident was able to direct the conservation officer to where the cat was and Van Damme fatally shot it.
When they later examined the cougar they found that its paw had been caught in a wire snare. The injury meant it was unable to climb, which in turn caused it to circle back on the dogs chasing it rather than go up a tree.
“It was a pretty signficant loss to us,” the conservation officer said of the death of the dog.
Up until recently, all the cougar hounds used by the Conservation Officer Service have been trained by the COs themselves in their spare time. Van Damme trained a number of them himself while he lived in Clearwater.
Bust, on the other hand, was one of two highly trained cougar hounds purchased last March from Arizona.
One went to a CO in Cranbrook, the second to Van Damme.
Both dogs have proven themselves during the year, successfully assisting in serious conflice situations in the Lower Mainland, Okanagan, Cariboo, Thompson, Fraser and Kamloops regions.
The injured dog, Boomer, is one of about 25 Van Damme has trained himself. He seems to be doing well at the veterinary hospital, the conservation officer said, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to get over the trauma of the incident and be able to hunt again.
Despite the setback, Van Damme was confident that the Conservation Officer Service will continue to sponsor the canine program, with its specially-trained imported dogs.
After many years of working in Clearwater, Van Damme was transferred to Kamloops about a year ago. He and his family continue to live in this community but plan to move in August, he said.
Conservation officer Warren Chayer still is based and lives in Clearwater.