Cougar killed in rare Minnesota sighting.

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Cougar killed in rare Minnesota sighting.

BY BILL GARDNER, Pioneer Press

Jim Bennett had seen enough.
The cougar had already attacked his dog, ripped up a doghouse and now was on the porch, sniffing the doorknob, ignoring Bennett's shouts, looking at Bennett right through the glass on the door.

"I figured I had no choice," Bennett said. "I had to kill it."

Bennett got his handgun, a .357 Magnum. The cougar was still at the door, two feet away.

"I opened the door a little bit and stuck the gun out the door and shot it," Bennett said. "I didn't open the door very much, just enough to get the pistol out the door."

The shooting took place at Bennett's home in rural Jacobson, a few miles north of Big Sandy Lake in northern Minnesota's Aitkin County.

Cougars are very rare in Minnesota, but the state Department of Natural Resources receives about 50 reports a year of sightings. The DNR captured a cougar in the Worthington area of southwestern Minnesota in the early 1990s, and good photos have also been made of some sightings.

Bill Berg, recently retired DNR wildlife research biologist, has kept the cougar sighting records since 1974 and said most of the animals are merely passing through the state.

"There are times when the state has no wild cougars at all," Berg said. "There is no indication that they have set up a home range in the state."

Biologists plan to examine the dead cougar to try to determine whether it was a wild or domestic cougar and perhaps tell why it approached so close to humans. Cougars normally avoid humans.

"Of the hundreds of cougar sightings we've had in the state, we've never had a case of a cougar coming onto a person's porch,'' Berg said. "It's abnormal behavior for cougars to even come near people."

Berg said he believes the cougar shot by Bennett was a wild animal.

"It's got all of its claws, and all the domestic cougars I know of are declawed, at least on the front," Berg said.

Cougars are the biggest wildcats seen in Minnesota and can measure around 10 feet from their nose to the end of their long, rope-like tail.

Bennett, 56, said he measured the dead cougar at about 5 1/2 feet long.

Tony Arhart, the DNR conservation officer who investigated the incident, said it was the first time he had ever been called to deal with a cougar.

"It's almost unheard of for a cougar to come into contact with a human," Arhart said. "There was no enticement I saw to attract a nuisance animal. There's no livestock.''

The encounter with the cougar began about 11:30 p.m. Monday when Bennett returned to his home on 120 acres of woods and swampland about 55 miles west of Duluth. He parked the truck and let Shadow, his 2-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, out of the kennel.

"We started walking toward the house, and she just shot by me for the house, and I looked up and this cougar was coming down the porch steps," Bennett said.

The two animals went after each other, growling and barking, a tangle of fur and tails.

"The dog was doing good for a while, and the cougar finally got her down on her back and was biting her neck," Bennett said. "I ran over and kicked the cougar in the head a couple of times."

The cougar took off.

"The dog and I went in the house," Bennett said. "I thought that was the end of it."

A couple of hours later, Bennett had fallen asleep in a chair while watching television, and he was wakened by Shadow's barking.

"The dog about went crazy,'' Bennett said. "I said, "Just relax.' I went and turned the porch light on, and there the cougar was, tearing the bedding out of the doghouse."

Then the cougar left the porch and went behind the garage.

"Ten minutes later, it was back up sniffing the doorknob," Bennett said. "I couldn't get it away. I was beating on the door and yelling. I figured it would turn tail and run. But it didn't. It stood right there and looked at me through the glass on the door."

That's when Bennett got the gun.

"I got a round off and that was the end of that. I hit it in the head."

Bennett, a self-employed stump grinder, said he had plenty of wildlife on his property and even saw a cougar about a month ago along his driveway but figured it was just passing through. His closest neighbor lives more than a mile away.

He believes Shadow saved him from an unpleasant encounter with the cougar.

"The dog basically saved my butt," he said. "I don't want to think about what would have happened without the dog. I don't think it (the cougar) would have been too happy with me. It was not afraid of me."

Bill Gardner can be reached at wgardner@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5461.
 
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