Big Cat Confrontation

A highway mishap literally turns Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado into a zoo.

Big Cat Confrontation

Two male Nubian lions were among the big cats that escaped when a circus truck overturned on Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. Photo: Carlos fotografia

“You now have two male Nubian lions, a jaguar, a leopard, two mountain lions and a Bengal tiger loose in your district on Wolf Creek Pass! That was the last thing I expected to hear from Tom Richards, a close friend and local highway patrol officer in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where I was stationed as wildlife conservation officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, when I answered the phone at 5 a.m. A circus truck had gone off the road on one of the steepest parts of the pass and smashed against a rock wall, killing the driver, an African lion and mountain lion. The cages that held the rest of the cats were damaged and they had all escaped.  

About the time I arrived on the scene, another totally discombobulated trucker pulled up at the wreck site and informed Tom and me that he had just hit and killed a tiger on the highway, a mile up the pass. According to the guy who owned the cats, this was the most dangerous of the lot and was obviously wasting no time getting out of the area. I had picked up a lot of roadkilled critters on the highway during my 15 years as a conservation officer, but this Bengal tiger was a first!         

By the time Tom and I returned to the wreck site with the tiger carcass, one of the patrol trainees had located the leopard curled up under a downed spruce 100 yards above the wreckage, and it was not very happy with the world. I had brought the tranquilizer rifle I used for tagging elk, which wasn’t the best option for cats but would work if they didn’t get too rambunctious or spooked — although it would take five minutes or more to have any debilitating effect. As a backup I had an open sight .375-caliber Model 70 Winchester. According to the owner of the cats, they had all been born and raised in captivity and would more than likely stay calm and in the vicinity of the wrecked cages and truck but could still be dangerous if provoked, which sticking a hypodermic dart into them just might do. 

I eased in and darted the leopard in the hindquarter from 25 yards and it stood up and snarled a bit, which moved me rapidly back to 50 yards. Then it bedded down right where it had been. When the big cat had obviously lost coordination 15 minutes later, we moved in, got it loaded on a stretcher and moved it to a hastily repaired cage. While we were dealing with the leopard, one of the mountain lions appeared out of the woods on the steep slope, moved down to the wreckage and bedded down a few yards from the truck. After a brief conflab, the owner got some meat out of the freezer on the truck and with another cage we moved carefully into closer position. I tied a chunk of meat to a light rope and ran it through the cage. Then I tossed the bait near the cougar and after bit of patient waiting managed to entice it back into the confines of the cage. Now that’s sneaky cat hunting! 

That morning, I talked with our head big-game biologist in Denver, who had just returned from a month in Africa. While there, he had gotten a bacterial infection he was still recovering from and was too sick to leave Denver and join the hunt. However, he told me he would send down a tranquilizer gun and some new tranquilizers that would be ideal for the cats. It would knock them out almost immediately with no danger of overdose. He would also send a stimulant to counteract the tranquilizer and bring the critters out of their snooze at our discretion.    

One of the highway patrolmen had located one of the 400-pound Nubian black-maned lions on a bench just below the highway. When I got within 30 yards of the very imposing feline it stood up and gave me the evil eye, which didn’t help steady the scope’s crosshairs planted on its hindquarter. However, I made the shot, and the new tranquilizer put him down right where he stood.  

While we were dealing with the big lion, a lady pulled up and told a patrolman she had fed a sandwich to a mountain lion that came out of a highway culvert a half-mile down the highway. A half-hour later we spooked the cougar out of the culvert and into a net with no problem. We were discussing where the jaguar and other lion might be when coughing, grunting sounds echoed up from the canyon below, leaving no doubt where the last aggravated lion was. A half-hour later I was lining up the crosshairs on the largest of the escaped cats, hoping the tranquilizer would do its thing. It did and it took eight of us to haul the 400-pound-plus cat back to the highway above.  

We never found a sign of the jaguar and figured it was injured in the crash and had crawled into a hidey-hole on the rugged mountainside and expired. After a few days, a TV station reporter interviewed me and wanted to know how big of a search party I had looking for the cat. I told her there was me and the hunting buddy that backed me up with the .375. Kind of hard to find volunteers interested in finding an injured probably highly agitated jaguar in the Colorado mountains.   


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