Photo by Bulletin graphics
Colt whose cuts were stitched (in white) at the Butler Veterinary Clinic in Valentine.
Badly cut shoulder of a horse that belongs to Jim Walz.
A Walz horse, cut on the belly.
Horses have reportedly been attacked by mountain lions near Mullen, Ainsworth and north of Valentine.
At least three horses were cut in separate incidents before the July 4 weekend. None were killed, but some were cut deeply – a belly was gashed open; a neck was cut deep into the muscle.
In at least one instance, the attack was near a home where small children live, raising fears for children's safety.
Officials are not certain that the cuts were from mountain lions, but the owners say it is likely.
If mountain lions are to blame, it is evident that the lions can and do present a danger to people, despite assurances that the cats restore a balance in nature and present no real danger to humans.
In one case, an employee of the Butler Veterinary Clinic in Valentine confirmed that a horse was stitched up that was badly cut in South Dakota, across the state line.
Jim Walz, who raises performance horses near Ainsworth, said something spooked his herd of eight horses in a 30-acre pasture near the yard, and two horses were injured.
Walz said it happened during the night of July 1.
“One of our dogs is very protective of the place,” he said, “and about 3 a.m., that dog was going nuts. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought maybe it was a turkey or a raccoon, something passing through. She went off for a half hour.”
The next morning, he and his wife Sonja realized two of the horses were bleeding.
“Something would have had to have spooked them,” Jim said. “When my wife went out to bring them in, they circled and wouldn’t leave the pasture. They kept the two horses that were hurt in the middle of the circle. When Sonja tried to get closer, they tried to run her away from the one that was most hurt.”
Walz lives about two miles west of Ainsworth, right on the Cowboy Trail, a hike, bike and equestrian route across northern Nebraska.
Walz said he does not want to jump to conclusions.
“One thing I’m trying to do is be thoughtful about it and figure out what really happened,” he said.
Walz thinks a lion went after the least dominant horse, and the most dominant horse intervened. But those horses were wounded.
He said a section of fence was down but the horses didn’t get out.
Sam Wilson of the Nebraska Game and Parks came out and set up some cameras. Wilson didn’t confirm or deny that it was a cougar attack, Walz said.
Walz said it’s somewhat possible that the horses got tangled in barbed wire, but it’s not likely. He said they are mature calm horses that have been to rodeos. They are used to dogs, coyotes, thunder, lightning and even fireworks.
The grass is the pasture is nearly waist high. No tracks could be seen there. Nor could tracks be found in a windbreak of cedar trees nearby, but it is also overgrown with vegetation, Walz said.
When he finally got the horses in, they lined up against a corral fence and stared at the trees. It was three days before they’d go back out. They ate hay instead of the green grass in the pasture.
Walz took the horse that was cut the worst to a veterinarian in Sturgis, who said the wounds resembled other horses he’s seen.
Walz said in the next pasture, a group of brood mares refused to come out, even two days later.
“I couldn’t get them out,” he said. “These are tame horses. My five-year-old daughter can ride them with just a halter. I tried to put a halter on one, and she ended up striking at me. She wouldn’t go out.”
Walz said neighbors have told him about similar experiences.
“It is scary with kids,” one of his neighbors said.
Walz doesn’t expect this cougar to come back.
“Once they get the taste of horsemeat, they hunt them,” he said. “If they don’t get a kill, they are not apt to come back.”
When state Sen. Al Davis learned about it, he said it is important that senators from eastern Nebraska, especially Sen. Ernie Chambers, know that cougars attack livestock and could attack people.
Chambers sponsored a bill last session that would have ended a mini-hunting season on mountain lions, and nearly succeeded. The Legislature passed the bill by a narrow margin, but Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed it, so the effort failed.
Seventeen miles northwest of Mullen, Deb Cox went out July 3 and found a big heavy gate flattened in a small pasture that held three horses and some steers.
She found the steers all “gathered up,” in a bunch and hanging close to the pasture, like they do for protection. One horse had blood on it, but no cuts. She suspects it defended another horse.
“She’s a wiley thing. I wouldn’t want to mess with her,” Cox said.
A mare had marks on its rear and a mark right under her tail. Cox said the cut near the tail resembled a bite mark.
She said another horse in a different pasture jumped a fence and got all cut up. There was no apparent reason for it to want to get out.
“There is plenty of grass,” she said.
This report was first published in the Bulletin's July 9 print edition.