« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Gun-toting cats; bird killers; plastic bottles return

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


“Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!”
exclaimed Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Recently, some Westerners unfamiliar with wild animals have been calling the police to report scary-looking critters loitering in a suspicious fashion. In Newport, Oregon, the police department discussed the utter weirdness of a photograph of a tabby cat that had gone viral (see photo, above). Weird, because the black-and-white cat seemed to be holding a semi-automatic assault rifle while perched insouciantly high in a tree, reported the tiphero.com. The cat was definitely loitering, but the “rifle” that alarmed so many people was just an angled twig that resembled a weapon. No charges were filed.

On the Boulder, Colorado, campus of the University of Colorado, college officials confirmed that an “extremely dangerous” animal was on campus and walking down some stairs. As the Boulder Daily Camera put it, the four-legged creature with the black mask and claws was “likely in search of food — and possibly an education.” The university tweeted a photo of the interloper — a badger — and warned everyone not to go near it. But badgers have no interest in cultivating humans, said Jennifer Churchill, spokeswoman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It’s not rare, and it’s not a dangerous animal.” Nervous students may have been reassured by a tweet from one of the University of Wisconsin’s diehard Badger fans: “We’re not so bad once you get to know us.”

In Helena, Montana, the suspicious creature “prowling” a backyard was not a mountain lion but a hybrid breed called a Savannah, a cross between a domestic cat and a serval, a pointy-eared wildcat from Africa. Local police said lion sightings remain rare in town, although calls about housecats looking like lions happen “quite often.”

Housecats would never be mistaken for wildcats if they just stayed indoors. But Ashley Gramza, who is getting her doctorate at Colorado State University by studying how people think about wildlife, says many cat owners in the Boulder area told her they let their pets out because they believe they are “happier outdoors.” Although cats may enjoy exercising their fierce predator instincts in the backyard, songbirds fall to their claws and teeth at a prodigious rate — up to 4 billion birds killed each year in this country, according to a 2013 Nature Communications study. Gramza realized that arguing about whether or not it’s OK to let cats outdoors may be fruitless. Meanwhile, it would help if owners kept their cats inside until the afternoon, when birds aren’t as active, or let the cats out inside an enclosure. Gramza told Colorado Outdoors that cat owners might think twice about letting their pets roam once they become aware of the issues, though that could take generations. She reminds us that unleashed dogs once enjoyed freedom on the streets of cities not so long ago, until attitudes changed: “I really want us to start working together.”

But Richard Conniff, writing in The New York Times, is a stone-cold hard-liner when it comes to subsidized predators. Allowing a housecat outdoors, he says, should “be as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes in the office, or leaving dog droppings on the sidewalk.” He’s also against the spay and neuter campaigns sponsored by animal welfare organizations, because “feral or stray cats do most of the killing (of birds).” Conniff’s cat now lives indoors after his last outdoor pet met an untimely end in 2008. The wandering outdoor housecat was snatched and eaten by a much bigger relative — a bobcat.

One of the green initiatives
the Obama administration could point to with justifiable pride was its 2011 Green Parks Plan, which changed the behavior of millions of visitors to 23 national parks. Instead of selling water to tourists in plastic bottles that were then thrown away by the hundreds of thousands every day, the plan proposed filling water bottles with tap water at free filling stations. It didn’t take long for Grand Canyon, Zion and 21 other national parks to adopt the ban on selling water, but this August, the Trump administration rescinded the ban. Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds explained that visitors could “decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park.” Perhaps there was another reason. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “the water bottle ban was opposed by the beverage industry that had long lobbied to change the policy.” Watchdog groups were outraged: “Plastic water bottles have a tremendous environmental impact,” said Lauren DeRusha Florez of the group Corporate Accountability International. And that wasn’t the last anti-green swipe that’s been taken at the Obama administration: The nine-slot Capital Bikeshare station, used routinely by White House staffers, was also removed in August. Why be green when you can be mean?

 Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.