By Diana M. Alba Sun-News reporter
Article Launched: 06/05/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT
LAS CRUCES — State wildlife officials are monitoring Hillsboro for a cougar that has killed at least one house cat and possibly two other animals near the small town about 60 miles east of Silver City.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish officials responded Sunday to a complaint that a cougar had killed and partially eaten a house cat, said Marty Frentzel, spokesperson for the Game and Fish Department.
"The cougar was 70 to 80 pounds, probably a young lion," he said. "We're trying to determine what the best course of action would be to find this cat."
Hillsboro resident Harley Shaw, 70, a retired wildlife biologist who once studied cougars, said he caught a glimpse of the wild cat at a Hillsboro woman's home on Sunday.
"It was a mountain lion, lying in her backyard, munching on a house cat," he said. "My best estimate is it was a young, mature female, probably on the order of two years (old)."
Shaw said two animals, another house cat and a raccoon, were found dead at the same home on Saturday, possibly kills by the cougar. He said two other house cats disappeared from a different Hillsboro house about one week ago, though there's no way to tell whether the cougar was responsible.
Shaw said the cougar appeared "comfortable with people."
The cougar didn't threaten any residents, but Frentzel said a few cases of cougars attacking and killing people have occurred in Colorado and California in recent years, reasons to be cautious. He said a cougar in New Mexico killed a person in the '70s.
Cougars, also called mountain lions, are tan-colored and can be found in habitats from the Florida Everglades to the Pacific Northwest, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, www.mountainlion.org. Males typically weigh between 110 and 180 pounds, while females weigh between 80 and 130 pounds, according to the site.
Frentzel said often young bears or mountain lions must seek out new habitat, which can lead them to residential areas.
"Its mom is kicking it out of its territory, and it has got to find a place of its own," he said. "A lot of times if they're raised near communities, they'll find pets and small livestock are easy prey. If we provide them with easy meals, they'll hang around."
Frentzel said wildlife officials can't set a trap for the Hillsboro cougar because, to do that, they'd need more specific information about its whereabouts. He said the Game and Fish Department will continue to check in on the town, though residents themselves can take steps to reduce the odds of large predators taking up residence in the area.
"One of the things in Hillsboro we want to discourage is wildlife feeding," he said. "That starts a cycle: Here comes a javelina, and then here comes a lion (to eat the javelina)."
Frentzel also said residents should keep pets indoors or livestock in a barn, if possible, to ensure they're not attacked.
Cougars that are problematic to communities, either by killing livestock or pets, are euthanized by the Game and Fish Department, Frentzel said.
Shaw said some Hillsboro residents hope the cougar is killed soon, while others want it left alone.
"It will be a bit of conflict, whichever way it turns out," he said.
Last year, a bear was trapped on the west end of Las Cruces after wandering into a residential area, likely from a nearby mountain range.
Frentzel said there have been no reported sightings of bears or cougars in the Las Cruces area so far this year.
Local officials, however, said other types of wildlife have been sighted. "The most common (reports) we see are bobcats and snakes," said Doña Ana County Animal Control Supervisor Ellie Choate.
Choate said her department receives about one call per day to remove a snake from a residential area. Residents should be aware that snakes are active now, she said.
"They need to be careful where they walk," she said. "They just need to use a little more caution when doing typical things out in the yard."
Chris Newsom, naturalist for the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History, said of the 29 snake species that can be found in the area, only five — all rattlesnake species — can be deadly. Some other species have venom, but it's not life-threatening, he said.
Newsom advised against trying to handle rattlesnakes.
"Your best bet is to give it space," he said. "Most people who are bitten are bitten messing with the animal, whether trying to handle it or trying to kill it."
Diana M. Alba can be reached at email@example.com
Precautions for residents living near predator habitat
Supervise children when they're playing outdoors. Don't allow them to play outside after dark or before dawn.
Eliminate hiding places for predators near your home, including vegetation and spaces under porches.
Install outside lighting, preferably with motion sensors.
Don't feed wildlife or leave dog food or cat food outside. Small animals attracted to the food can attract predators.
Take pets indoors at night.
Store garbage securely.
Source: New Mexico Department of Game and Fish