POWELL — On Oct. 18, Keela Hopkin and her family arrived at their home outside Cowley around 8 p.m. As they walked up to their house, they noticed their dogs were circling around them and barking. Hopkin sensed something was wrong.
While her husband, Logan, checked on the dogs outside, Hopkin went inside the home and noticed blood all over the floor. She found her 40-pound Australian shepherd, Waco, bleeding profusely. The dog had numerous lacerations on his neck and flanks, swelling bruises and a nickel-sized hole in his chest wall.
“He was really beat up,” Hopkin recalled.
They dressed Waco’s wounds as best they could and then took him to the Red Barn Veterinary Services in Powell. The dog had numerous rib fractures, a broken sternum that was dislocated into his chest cavity, and his lungs had collapsed. The vet said his injuries were so extensive that he’d need to go to the animal hospital in Billings, Montana.
“Dr. [Heather] Austin wasn’t sure that he would survive but explained that his best chance at survival would be in Billings,” Hopkin said.
Fortunately, Waco is alive and doing well, though Hopkin said he’s traumatized. Ever since the attack, there’s some hesitation before he leaves the porch.
Hopkin has tried to get answers from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department over what attacked Waco, and she believes the response has been inadequate. Not only was Waco attacked, but a boer goat went missing and her other dogs have been carrying home remains of game animals that appear to have been torn apart by large predators.
“I have children, livestock, horses and dogs on my property. And I am very concerned with the lack of action by Game and Fish to remedy a large predator that has been attacking animals,” she said. “I can’t be here all the time. You have to leave home to go grocery shopping sooner or later.”
Other pets have been attacked in the area, and their owners are frightened about losing more.
Officials with the Game and Fish say they have been very responsive to these reports, have done thorough investigations, and all they can to identify what species were involved in these attacks. It’s not always easy to conclusively solve cases involving elusive creatures — and they want people to know large predator attacks on pets are rare and not trending upwards.
The day after the attack, Hopkin contacted Lovell Game Warden Dillon Herman. During hunting season, wardens are working extremely long days and rarely see home; Herman told Hopkin he would come over and investigate the matter the first chance he got.
Meanwhile, a few days after Waco was attacked, a woman in Byron let her three dogs out as she does every morning. Shortly after they ran off to play, she heard a loud fight that lasted 15 to 20 seconds; then the noise suddenly ceased. As the woman headed out of the house to investigate, one dog came running back with blood and scrapes on its face, nothing too serious. Another dog showed no injuries, but a third dog didn’t return. She found it “severely injured.” It died two days later.
On the evening of Oct. 22, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office warned Byron residents of potential mountain lion activity in the area.
“We are asking the public to exercise caution when out alone, especially during dark hours,” the agency said. “Consider taking routine precautions with children or small animals when outdoors.”
Herman and Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore biologist for the Game and Fish, investigated the attacks in both Byron and Cowley.
At the two sites, they checked prints in the area, hair around the fences and animal droppings to try to determine what might have attacked the dogs.
The tracks and scat they found on Hopkin’s property, five days after Waco was attacked, were related to the Canidae family — a group of animals that includes wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs.
Herman also examined the dogs’ injuries. In the Byron attack, he concluded they were most likely inflicted by another dog. There’s about a quarter-inch difference in size between dogs and mountain lions, and the bites were too large for mountain lions. More than that, the location of the injuries on the dog were not consistent with how mountain lions attack, which tend to be very precise strikes around the head and shoulders.
“Dogs are messy. Coyotes are messy,” Herman said. Mountain lions, on the other hand, are “very efficient killers,” the warden explained.
While the injuries were consistent with a dog attack, he said nothing is for certain.
“That’s not to say it can’t be a mountain lion,” he cautioned.
With Hopkin’s dog, he’s more certain it wasn’t a mountain lion. The injuries involved the kind of bone-breaking crushing that would require a much larger predator, most likely a bear.
“Mountain lions are not crushers,” he said.
Herman found no bear tracks or bear scat around Hopkin’s property, and so far the trail cameras Ellsbury and Herman set up in Cowley and Byron haven’t picked up anything.
Launie Lawson raises goats and alpacas as a hobby on her property west of Deaver. Between August and October, she’s had a number of animals killed or go missing, including two adult female alpacas, a baby alpaca called a cria, two Boer goats and one Angora goat.
The attacks began with the cria. When she found the remains, she said the body was in bad shape.
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“It was just shredded,” Lawson said.
She contacted Game and Fish, and Ellsbury investigated. He said he spent two hours at her barn and around the property, looking for tracks, scat, and other evidence of what species killed the cria.
“The only tracks I could find were canid tracks — either coyote or her dogs,” Ellsbury said.
The injuries on the cria were, as with the cases in Byron and Cowley, not likely involving mountain lions. The cria was “scalped and bit on the face,” Ellsbury said, which is typical of dog species.
Lawson said she was told the offending animal was a coyote, which she disputes could have killed the cria or her other animals. She said she has, at times, more than a dozen dogs on the property, which would go after any coyote near her place.
“There’s not a g—damned coyote on the planet that’s going to come into my yard,” she said.
Lawson also pointed out she has chickens, ducks, and geese, none of which have gone missing.
Ellsbury said the only call he’s received from Lawson was concerning the cria, and with smaller animals like that, coyotes can get pretty bold.
Lawson said one of her guardian dogs was also killed, a story she relates with tears. He began barking one evening at something she couldn’t see and ran toward it.
“He took off through the field and never came back,” she said; her neighbors found the dog’s remains.
Lawson now keeps most of her animals in her barn. She can’t let the animals graze during the day while she’s gone, so she has to buy them food, which is expensive. She’s considering ending her hobby.
“I can’t use the land I have, and I can’t afford to lose more animals,” she said.
As with Hopkin, a combination of uncertainty and feeling there are no options to protect her pets fuels a lot of Lawson’s frustration.
Officials with the Game and Fish said they’re responding to these reports and understand the losses are painful.
Dan Smith, Cody regional wildlife supervisor, said even the most thorough investigations don’t always reach definitive conclusions.
“It’s not always possible to determine exactly how [the pet] died or what killed it,” Smith said. “We do the best we can. We can’t necessarily rule something out.”
There are indicators, such as tracks, fur and scat, as well as “unique signatures on how they take their prey,” Smith said.
“If there’s a lot of the carcass left, we can usually tell, based on all the different things we look at, what the offending species may have been,” added Dan Thompson, large carnivore program supervisor with the Game and Fish.
Smith stressed that attacks on pets in the area are quite rare and have not been on the rise.
“There’s no need for people to be alarmed and think there’s these mountain lions running all over the place and their dogs aren’t safe,” he said. “We don’t see a need for a panicked response or people afraid to let their dogs out.”
Herman said to report sightings of animals immediately, rather than a week later or after a pet has been killed, as a matter of public safety. That gives Game and Fish more information with which to track large predator activity.
“They move a great deal,” Smith said. “If it was potentially a mountain lion or a bear, and we don’t hear about it for a week later, that animal could be 10 miles or 50 miles away at that point.”
In some cases, the department does locate a predator that’s hurting pets or livestock. Just recently they found a mountain lion in the North Fork area west of Cody that had to be captured and euthanized after killing pets.
While predators are wary of humans and generally don’t attack pets, Smith said it doesn’t hurt to remain vigilant.
He recommends people not feed deer on their property (as they can attract predators), use outdoor lighting at night and when possible, keep dogs behind fenced areas.
Whenever an attack is reported, he said, the Game and Fish will apply decades of knowledge and expertise to the investigation.
“We take all of these reports seriously,” he said.