By JEFF KAROUB | Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — A man who pleaded guilty to killing a cougar in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in December said he was defending his father, but state wildlife officials said Friday the animal posed no threat and was poached, its heart cooked and some of it eaten by the men.
Troy Richard, 42, who spoke to The Associated Press right before reporting for his 30-day jail sentence in Bay County, angrily disputed Department of Natural Resources' version events at his father's hunting camp in northeast Schoolcraft County. He insisted they cooked the big cat's heart but didn't eat the organ because it smelled "rancid."
Richard said they observed from inside the cabin a herd of deer acting oddly and running in circles. Once the deer moved away, his father walked out to his blind to get a rifle, and Richard said he saw the cougar approaching his father, 68-year-old Theodore Richard.
The younger Richard said he yelled at the big cat and shot it when it didn't flee. The cougar walked away wounded, and the next day Troy Richard tracked the animal and killed it. Afterward, he field-dressed the animal and took its hide and skull for later mounting. He said he simply wanted to preserve it but concluded that was a "dumb decision." The Bay City Times first reported Richard's account.
He told the newspaper his only regret was concealing the death from authorities.
"The only thing I regret doing, or not doing, is reporting it to the DNR on the original date," Troy Richard said. "Other than that, there's nothing I regret. If we would have reported it on the initial day, we would have had not issues. They even told us that."
Cougars, also known as mountain lions, are classified in Michigan as an endangered species. The penalty for illegally killing one is up to 90 days in jail and restitution up to $2,500.
Officials say that since 2008 they have confirmed photos or tracks of cougars on 23 occasions in 10 Upper Peninsula counties. The last confirmed wild cougar in Michigan before 2008 was an animal killed in 1906.
DNR Lt. Skip Hagy, a department supervisor, said nothing from the extensive investigation supports that the animal was close to Theodore Richard or that the shooting was in self-defense.
Hagy said Richard told investigators later he hit a deer on his return trip, put it in his trailer with other deer that had been killed and reported it to Michigan State Police. He had the cougar hidden in his vehicle and out of view of the trooper who inspected the deer.
"He had ample opportunity to report it," Hagy said. "He ate up a lot of man time on his lies. We followed up on the stories he gave us, found they were false."
Hagy said investigators asked Richard why he killed the cougar and he said during the interview that it was an "opportunity" he would "never, ever have again."
As for the story about eating the heart, Hagy said the men definitely "ate some of it." Richard said the reason they cooked and planned to eat it was because "that's what hunters do."
"I've never heard of it in a carnivore before," Hagy said, adding it's not unusual to eat the heart of a deer or elk "because it is pretty good."
The main reason people wouldn't eat the heart of a cougar or other carnivore, Hagy said, is that the animals are "so typically loaded with parasites."
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources received a tip and arrested the men. Troy and Theodore Richard pleaded guilty this week to taking or possessing an endangered species, and the son also pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Troy Richard was sentenced to 30 days in jail, fines and community service, and Theodore Richard was sentenced to fines and community service.
Theodore Richard's other son, Todd Richard, pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy charge. The brother of Troy Richard, who owns a taxidermy business in Bay County, was not at the camp with his father and brother, Hagy said.
Troy Richard, a Marine veteran who serves as president of a nonprofit, said he's accepting his punishment despite never being in trouble with the law. Still, he added, "there's no proof or evidence&" of investigators' accusations against him.