Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rider's Wednesday -- Story of the Hour

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! Five fluffy inches of powder fell today, with more predicted and on the way. Thank God for a house and a barn!

Shortly after Thanksgiving, a horse at a farm about a mile from my house was attacked by something. Something horrible got the poor creature and mauled it so severely that though it lived through the night, it had to be destroyed the next day.

(Photos on the news showed -- among other things -- an animal that could have used a few more groceries on a more regular basis over the past year or so. Evidently the owners were away, and "the caretaker" made the gruesome discovery. ::Bleah::)

The story was nowhere to be found for a week. The attack happened near a county line, but calls to both counties' Animal Control revealed no reports of anything unusual.

Then, suddenly, on Monday of this week, it made the news. And, true to form, speculation masquerading as fact ran rampant. Local radio stations carried interviews with Animal Control officers who postulated that a "big cat" was responsible for the attack.

Here's the lead from WSBT television out of South Bend, Indiana:

(WSBT) Some investigators believe a mountain lion could be to blame for a vicious attack on a horse in southwest Michigan.

Pretty sensational stuff, huh? "Some investigators." "Mountain lion." "Vicious attack." No need to read any further, because that sounds like an official permission slip to be scared spitless.

Since scare tactics work so well, they play the "cougar" card again and again:

It happened on a farm along Hagar Shore Road in Coloma. The horse suffered more than 100 bite marks and had to be put down.

Berrien County Animal Control is looking into whether a mountain lion attacked the horse. The office has received several reports of mountain lion sightings in northern Berrien County in the past year.

“We’re thinking large cat attacks, just because of what we’ve seen -- comparing what we’ve seen with a coyote attack versus a mountain lion attack,” Val Grimes of Berrien County Animal Control.

Now notice where they put Mike McGee -- an officer with the DNR who actually has experience with mountain lions, and who says a sentence that includes the word "definitely" in it:

But the Department of Natural Resources suspects a coyote or a pack of dogs is responsible for the attack.

“It was small bite marks more consistent with dog or coyote,” DNR officer Michael McGee told NEWS22. “It definitely wasn’t a cougar.”

There are no confirmed reports of a mountain lion in Berrien County. Animal Control has contacted Michigan’s Wildlife Conservatory to investigate.

Yep. They bury the boring old Voice of Reason at the end. Long after the people who started watching the segment have left the room and are screaming at their kids to "Get inside! Now! Don't you give me any lip, young man. There's a killer cat out there!"

A few radio sound bites and a TV news spot, and that's all it took for cougar fever to hit. It's the Story of the Hour.

You think there will ever be a follow-up story when they actually find the animals responsible? If it's not a 9 foot long, 200 pound tom, or an escaped, illegal pet tiger, we'll never hear about it. Wild dogs just aren't that interesting.

Actually, though, a pack of dogs that would attack a horse, bring him down and rip him to shreds is as worrisome to me as a big cat. Dog packs have no intrinsic fear of humans or farm animals.

The experts are telling us to not go outside at dusk, to keep small children nearby, and to not leave our livestock out at night. Yeesh! What do they think this is? The COUNTRY!? Why -- everywhere you look, Chicago people are buying cookie cutter houses in little mini-burbs on once fertile and productive farmland. You think they want to deal with a bunch of feral dogs? No, no, no... This will NOT look good on the realtor's report...

The moral of the story, I suppose, is to regularly check on the animals in your care. I can't imagine that the horse got as mutilated as the pictures indicate in total silence. Yet, evidently, no one was around to hear the commotion.

Another lesson to be learned is to bring your livestock indoors in inclement weather. Or at least give them a place of shelter and safety. If you must leave them out in the elements, do so in a herd, so that they can band together and try to ward off any predators that might be lurking. Where prey animals are concerned, there is safety in numbers.

The final lesson, I suppose, would be to start hunting for a pack of really hungry dogs who are looking for their next meal...