It was a morning in January, 2007 here in the Northern Rockies, a place far removed from what most folks call civilization. My wife, children, and I had lived here for thirteen years since escaping the now people-overwhelmed State of Colorado. We had searched for “The Last Best Place”, and to us, there was no difference between the State of Idaho and the State of Montana where that alluring slogan comes from. The “Last Best Place” isn’t actually defined by some line on a map; rather, it’s where you have chosen to be and living in a place that fits both your needs and dreams. We are “Northern Rockies” people.
Our youngest son had gone up to the animal sheds to feed the array of poultry, sheep and goats a few minutes earlier. He ran back into the house, and in spite of being almost breathless, yelled “Lion! Lion! A lion killed Carmen (one of the goats) and it’s still there!”
It was “Wild Card Sunday” and I didn’t need this. I was well into implementing my well-crafted plan to do nothing but watch playoff games on a snow-covered zero-degree day, and a real crisis had just been unpleasantly thrust into my life. Foremost was that our seventy five pound son had been within ten feet of an apex predator, separated from it only by a six-foot fence that had already proven its lack of worth to keep such an animal either in or out of the building or the attached pen enclosure. The second concern was our milk supply has just been compromised by at least half, given that we had two milk goats with one an already known casualty.
After a thirty-second kid debriefing, I grabbed my 870 Remington 12 gauge “Slug Gun”, threw on a coat and headed out the door while stuffing the seven round extended magazine full of shells loaded with 00 Buckshot. I also grabbed the next biggest kid, stuffed a .357 Magnum S&W revolver into his hand and told everyone else to stay in the house.
Bigger kid and I arrived at the crime scene a couple minutes later, and everything seemed totally normal. The chickens and turkeys were pecking away and the creek was cascading as usual in the background. The sheep were acting a bit agitated, but I had always been somewhat suspect of their sanity anyway. Yes-sir, “normal” seemed to be absolutely the case.
It was one of those cloudless days, with a full sun glinting off the snow. Absolutely beautiful. Squinting our eyes to sort minimize the glare, we walked around the pens towards the side of the building that houses the goats and sheep. I thought to myself, “The lion saw the kid, and now it’s gone. No big deal.” More than that, nothing could really be wrong except one dead goat, right? Beautiful day, the creek is running the same as usual, the birds are feeding, and if we lost one goat, that’s just the way it goes. And besides, where was all that ominous background music like on the Disney nature movies or those old “The Rifleman” shows when things are about to go south? Not playing. And there had yet to be the “As Heard On Television!” obligatory roars from the lion either! Just a dead goat and life goes on… heck, it might have even been a Bobcat. What does an eleven-year old kid know anyway?”
We arrived at the gate to the pen which is directly adjacent to the door of the shed. I could plainly see a dead goat lying across the entrance to the door, and being a bit snow-blind, it could not see inside the building at all. I was still convinced that the cat was gone, my mind pretty well still “Disneyfied” as I told the kid to open the gate.
Chambering a round just in case (mistake – should have done that when I walked out of the house), I stepped through the doorway into the blackness, and somehow saw movement immediately in front of me as my eyes attempted to adjust to the darkness. There was indeed a lion, and he was right in front of me. All I saw were yellow eyes and fangs backed up by a guttural growl, a big cat defending his kill and I’m blocking his only exit. Think expletives.
On pure reflex I fired a snap-shot at a range of about six feet, killing the cat. I let out a bit of a string of expletives as I backed out of the structure while rapidly chambering a second round, uncertain if the cat was actually dead. Buckshot – my favorite. But dead he was, as well as both of our milk goats. Carmen and Polly, mother and daughter lay there deader than a doornail.
According to the State game agency, a “legal but unlicensed kill” is what such an event is called. [JWR Adds: In some states it is termed a "Defense of Life and Property" (DLP) kill.] I’m talking about the cat here, not the goats. I call it something else, but such is best left unsaid. We called the State Fish and Game, and the fellow arrived at the place a couple hours later. After we loaded the dead lion into his pickup truck (The state gets the animal when it’s a “legal but unlicensed kill”), I asked him how often this happens. He looked at me and remarked, “First of all, that had to be pretty darn exciting, eh?” I shot back, “That isn’t exactly how I’d describe it, but if we’re talking about getting your blood running, yeah.” He then followed up by saying that livestock kills happen regularly even when the critters are kept near the main home. Looking up he sort of chuckled and said, “One thing’s for dang sure, 99.9% of the time the perpetrator isn’t shot dead at the scene, if at all. This deal here is kind of rare and has a whole different ending.”
No argument there…
Folks, the odds of this happening are so close to zero that it is almost not calculable. “Rare” doesn’t even suffice as descriptive. And in many ways, it was my fault. That is why I am writing this, because 99.99% of the time, predation can be prevented. It is your obligation to wholly recognize the totality of where you live, what critters live around you, and then plan and construct buildings and pens to keep out what you do not want in. And I will add this: You do not want that kind of excitement. Further, the ending could have been a tale told quite differently.
It is all up to you. I erred completely by not having the pens covered. And I did not lock them in the shed the night before. “Eat at John’s!” My mistake led to an old lion and two valuable goats dead, for he had killed both our does. Did I know there were lions about? You bet I did. We live in prime lion habitat, with wolves, black bear, an occasional grizzly around, coyotes, foxes, badgers, wolverines, raccoons, bobcats, lynx, and weasels, not to mention the occasional dog that wanders in from “neighbors” miles off. Then there are the airborne lot - the eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. Not covering the tops of the outdoor enclosures wasn’t so much a question of cost. It was a lack of paying attention to a detail I knew was important, but had generally dismissed that detail ignorantly thinking that the odds were low that anything would rally come in from the top. Turns out the odds were 100%.
The building themselves are first class because I knew what was out there as you peruse that list of predators above. Steel. Concrete floors. And even though we’re off the grid, we built our own alternative power system over the years and that little barn has electricity in it. I have seen critters both large and small tear wood off the sides of buildings to gain entry as well as dig underneath. Steel and concrete, period. And with the cost of wood nowadays, if you aren’t milling it yourself, steel is a bargain and will far outlast wood. Ingress to our livestock was at the top of the pen and nowhere else. That weakness was breached and I had failed.
Most of the male readers are probably thinking that facing down a lion at six feet is pretty cool. It isn’t. This wasn’t one run up a tree with a bunch of hounds keeping his attention, which in and of itself is exciting. But this sort of circumstance is a serious and dangerous situation that could have caused the death of one of our children or myself, animal aside. Close quarters stuff. Having the 12 gauge, the .22, a couple handguns and a medium bore rifle or two handy makes sense even though your wife probably wishes they weren’t leaning on the wall next to the front door and side door, but that’s where they have to be. But having them handy didn’t stop this a bit. The goal when you’ve homesteaded or are retreat living is to not feed the wildlife, and killing perpetrators after the fact compromises your own hard-won and self-created food chain.
Last night I was sitting on the porch adding up how many animals I have lost to predation over the years. Since a kid, I (and then “we”) have lost well over two hundred head of various poultry to critters with fangs and fur. Almost all of these were not to wild animals, but to my neighbor’s dogs or my own. Dang near all of them. I watched a hawk kill one of my birds once and on another an owl. There were other kills that I’ve blamed on wild animals, but there was no evidence to argue they weren’t killed by dogs either. I’m not saying wild predators haven’t tried. The amount of coyote, badger, coon and fox tracks I’ve seen around the poultry, sheep and goat buildings is astonishing. But predators are smart. If they can’t get in, they keep going. Killing is a calorie-consumptive activity in and of itself, and if they have to engage in too much demolition work to fill their stomach, they simply trot off looking for an easier meal.
The fact is most of your problem is going to be with dogs, and if you want to be the least popular person in the county, start shooting peoples dogs. A phone call and conversation can go a long way towards rectifying a circumstance where someone’s dog becomes a regular problem. I remember years back when living down in far Western Colorado there was a gal with a German Shorthaired Pointer that had turned chicken-killer. I had to have shot that dang dog over fifty times with a BB gun trying to discourage it, and called the woman probably ten times about him coming over. She fenced her place and he’d dig out. She would then chain him and he’d break the chain and dig out. She would buy a bigger chain and he would pull the stake out of the ground, dig out, and over he would come. He looked like a one-dog sled team, as the chain had collected weeds, grasses and brush, as well as a few small trees on his way over. He’d be dragging twenty feet of crud behind him on his way over to kill more chickens, the plus being he was awful easy to spot.
I called her up again for the hundredth time and she started begging me to kill him. I kid you not. By then, everyone for miles around wanted that dog dead. I didn’t get to kill him, but within a number of short days, I never saw him again. He had made enemies.
Now let us address that subject we most like to ignore, our own dogs. When folks finally shuck off the trappings of city or suburban life and decide to “homestead” a piece of land, they either bring Rover with them or finally get a dog - “Man’s best friend” and all that. “We need a guard dog, dear!” There isn’t a one of you reading whose lived on acreage who has poultry who can deny that your own dog killed at least one of your own chickens. Perhaps five or ten? Twenty? Maybe that pup took a year and a half to finally get it? And then there was that other one – “Remember old Duchess? That dang dog killed more chickens…”
It’s true. We are caught up in either a total fantasy or some faint semblance of reality about those “terrible” predators, when upon reflection, the worst of the lot we actually pet affectionately and then feed Alpo to. We fed it the same day it killed those two Black Australorps and that Barred Rock, right? Admit it! Even your neighbors’ dogs probably weren’t as bad as your own. We rationalize our own pet’s behaviors away, but then when we spot a coyote trotting along minding his own business and not even remotely interested in our birds, that “Where’s the ’06?” mentality takes over.
Stop! You know those mice and pack rats you hate? The garden-destroying rabbits and voles? Those coyotes will kill and eat them. So will Brer’ Fox. Leave them be unless they are being caught in the actual commission of a crime. So will Disney’s “Flower” the skunk. They are the essence of natural order, and we are surely not. Once you’re living in the sticks, it still remains more their place than ours, so the smart thing to do is to learn to cohabitate with them, not the other way around. You’ve simply got to be smarter than the fox, so to speak.
What you have to do first is employ intelligent cultural practices. Put your birds away before dark, as well as the sheep and the goats. And by that I mean securely lock the doors to the pen and the barn. If you choose to leave the doors open, when you build the run for the livestock, trench around where the fence is going to go about a foot deep. Drill the fence post-holes in the trench. Pour concrete in the entire affair or at least fill it with 8”-12” diameter rock. Run number 9 wire as tight as you can on the bottom and secure the other fencing to that wire. Cover the top with hog panels.
If you don’t, it is you rather than the predator that is the problem. Predators are by nature on offense, and the only truly viable defensive strategy is intelligent construction techniques and your own behavior. They are sort of like four-legged MZBs, and you have to out think them.
Now for the other oft-ignored problem: your garden and orchard. There stands Bambi and his Mom, gracing the yard or perhaps standing at the edge of “your” meadow. Thumper the rabbit is around as well; in fact there seem to be Thumpers everywhere. Birds chirp away, their songs being a thousand differing melodies wafting along from their voices, hidden amongst the trees. Pastoral dreams fulfilled…
You have spent countless hours picking rock, hauling and spreading manure, laboring along behind the old Troy-Bilt “Horse” model, bending over to seed and plant, and then irrigating away with dreams of an abundant harvest. Then you find out that those birds tricked you into liking them with that little springtime songfest. Turns out that they love your strawberries so much that they seemingly will eating nothing else. Those ducks you bought because your wife and kids said; “They would be so cute!” really love tomatoes. And I mean “Really Love Tomatoes.” And then there’s Bambi and his Mom - not really too cute after all as they eat your lettuce, cabbage, Swiss Chard and everything else, huh? And deer season won’t solve the problem. This is an April to Snowfly problem, and if you are going to succeed in the presence as a Homesteader or are preparing to deal with life after TEOTWAWKI, this is what you must do.
Here comes that fencing thing again. Wire mesh eight feet tall preferably, six feet minimum. And for those rabbits? String 4-foot “Chicken Wire” inside and attached to that heavy mesh fence, and sink it one foot below the ground. “Dig through that, you blanket, blank-blank!” You will have to cover plants such as strawberries with bird netting, and your fruit trees with the same.
Got a few bears around? Of course you do. If so, I cannot stress enough the importance of including at least part of your orchard inside the fencing that surrounds your garden. I’ve seen apple trees that look like a tornado hit them after one visit from a bear. And then there are those deer again. Watching them walk on two legs is entertaining until your realize that the little dance going on under the apple and cherry trees means food out of your mouth and into theirs. This is why I recommend the eight-foot fence. You can’t really stop them - you just have to make so difficult that they will seek food elsewhere. Topped with an electric current though, the odds of stopping an entry go way up, and there are solar-powered fence chargers that are pretty inexpensive.
The bear and the deer wander off educated. You eat the apples and the cherries. Your trees survive to produce for years to come. And since bears are generally nocturnal, how many nights sleep are you willing to sacrifice for the rest of your natural life to protect your fruit trees when a good fence makes a good neighbor?
Intelligent cultural practices on your part ensure a full pantry, eggs in the fridge or ice box and meat either canned or in the freezer. Sure, it is a bunch of work up front, but if you thought this was a vacation, you moved to the wrong place. Put on those gloves and get to work!
Remember how this tale began? That old lion and our then dead and now replaced milk goats? We went out and bought some hog panels, using them to cover up the top of both the chicken run and the run that houses the sheep and the goats when they’re not out grazing. Problem solved, right?
Nine months and one week to the day later, my wife did not give birth to another child. Those “so close to zero odds of this ever happening again” statement got shot to pieces, both figuratively and literally speaking. Youngest son had gone out about six a.m. and staked out one of our sheep in a place where we wanted the grass and shrubs eaten down in case of a wildfire. He set a bucket of water out for old muttonhead, figuring he would have to check it a couple times during the day because that sheep had a penchant for knocking over water pails with great regularity pretty well regardless of where you put them.
It turned out that refilling the water bucket wasn’t going to stay on the day’s agenda after all. I was twisting a wrench on a rototiller about ten o’clock that morning and youngest son ran up yelling, “Dad! The sheep is dead! He’s dead”! The kid had dutifully gone to check the water bucket and found the recently deceased sheep with a big old starting to get stinky gut pile strewn about, and the old fella had been partially consumed.
That critter had been sort of a pet, an initially unwelcome left-over from a county fair eight years earlier when one of the older kids couldn’t bear to see him auctioned off at the “Fat Stock Sale” at the conclusion of “Fair Week.” That’s the bad thing about “bummer lambs” and kids – the darn kids get attached to them after having to bottle-feed them from birth and all. Now the sheep purists out there are about ready to lecture me about killin’ and eatin’ the things, be they “bummer” or not, but no matter. We used that sheep to control brush and grass like there was no tomorrow, and if you want to use your goat’s milk I would surely recommend that don’t put them on fire-fuel reduction duty. The milk tastes just a bit “funny” if you do. So the arrangement we had between that sheep and the family was actually equitable. He had nobly served his purpose until an undeserved and evil fate befell him.
So the kid and I headed off to the carcass and I was thinking “Bear” the whole way over. It was heading towards mid-September, and given that we live along a creek, bears are in there hitting those berry-loaded shrubs that grow along them like there’s no tomorrow. I bent over that old sheep and looked at him, immediately noticing the telltale neck wounds characteristic of a lion kill. Unlike in January I was all legally licensed this time, a “Just in case because this happened before thing”, but still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He had to have been killed early, maybe within thirty minutes of the kid putting him out. The lion may have even watched him do it. We were all outside and busy by 7:15. Twice in nine months? Zero times in the thirteen previous years? Was this because the wolves were driving the lions off their kills? Regardless of the reason, I had a problem – again.
Around five o’clock that evening, we ate dinner and then brought the dogs into the house. I grabbed a .45-70 Marlin lever gun and headed up to take a position downwind where I had a good look at the kill. For you guys who love hunting stories, I was using 325 grain Hornady “LeveRevolution” ammunition. Remember, it was heading towards dark and there were bears about too. Add to that the fact that the nearest town is thirty miles off (population 2,700) and the nearest neighbor a mile or so and a mountain-side away, so when it gets dark here, it’s “dark.”
I sat down in the high grass and waited about seventy-five feet off, knowing that this could not be allowed to continue. The kill had happened less than sixty yards from the house. That old sheep had to weigh close to three hundred pounds, and not a one of us had a chance if this cat decided to change menu items, and we had already replaced those goats the other lion killed months back. I was done donating animals, so this flat-out had to end and end now.
I waited and waited, hoping the cat would show before it became to dark to see. It’s kind of unsettling a bit when those thoughts run through your head when you sit around a kill all by your lonesome that’s been done by a major predator. “Is he behind me?” “Is the wind right?” I kind of wished I wasn’t alone, or at least had eyes in the back of my head. You are out there doing the man thing, the right thing, what must be done, but there is that almost pre-battle uncertainty to the whole affair. And in might all be in vain because he might not even show.
As the evening progressed towards night and it started to look like he wasn’t returning for left-overs, I was ready to give up and head to the house. I figured legal shooting hours were about over if not somewhat past, and as we live in a creek bottom surrounded by mountains the light flees pretty fast anyway. I was getting kind of cramped up from two hours of motionlessness anyway, and took one more real close look over at that carcass before I was going to leave.
We had covered the old sheep with a silver-colored tarp a few hours before, and thank God we did. Out of the darkness a ghost of a shadow became barely visible in front of it, low to the ground and definitely not a bear. Thoughts were racing like “dogs in, kids in doing homework, not bear, and got to be the perp” as I ever so slowly raised the barrel.
If we hadn’t covered that sheep with that tarp I wouldn’t have been able to see the sights.
I’d already chambered a round long earlier and had lowered the hammer while I waited, so I gently drew the hammer back and squeezed off the round. I heard the round hit followed by a series of growls and such as he bolted through the darkness towards the cover of the creek fifteen yards behind him. He didn’t make it, and kudos to Hornady for a great bullet. Nose to tail he was eight feet long, weighed 188 pounds, and he missed the Boone and Crockett record book by a stinking 1/8 of an inch. I kept this one.
Sometimes in spite of all you do you will lose livestock, and there are always critters that will get into your garden. Nevertheless, if you are going to make it even in “normal times” let alone after TSHTF, construct your buildings and fenced perimeters properly or all you’ll have to show for your expense and labor is happy, well-fed and happy to return predators.