Light snow descended through the leafless branches of the large maple trees, blanketing the ground and obscuring the subtle signs John Haffcut needed to locate his quarry. On any other day it might have been enough to turn him around but having walked this part of the island many times before he was fairly certain where he would end up and kept following his instincts towards a stand of Douglas fir at the edge of the maples. As he passed under the thick canopy of conifer he stopped for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the fading light.
The forest floor was a mass of dry twigs and fallen branches with very little sign he could use to continue his search. Opening the lid of the small metal box hanging from his neck he turned the small plastic knob. Straining to hear the barely audible pulsing sound he raised the H-shaped antenna over his head, rotating it slowly until he found the loudest signal. After turning the dial again until the beeping was just a light murmur, he began walking in the direction of the signal.
John placed each footstep carefully, avoiding twigs and branches that would crunch and crack under his weight, giving away his presence. At a small thicket he crouched down to get under the lowest branches, keeping the antenna out in front of him to avoid ensnaring it in the underbrush. It was awkward going and the more he labored to get through the thicket, the more he realized he had dressed too warmly for this outing. Finally he made it through and was able to stand up, sweat beading on his face and running down the back of his neck.
The receiver’s pulsing intensified and once again he swiveled the antenna in his hand until he found the loudest signal, then adjusted the knob again to turn it down. The signal was now about as low as it could go without turning the receiver off.
He was close.
Thinking he heard a noise in the trees above him John stood still, held his breath and listened intently. Slowly he turned and gazed straight into the face of the cougar suspended in the tree branches a few feet above his head. The hair bristling on the back of John’s neck sent a wave of cold air down his spine as the cat’s dark piercing eyes focused on him, as if contemplating its next move. John easily outweighed the feline by a hundred pounds or more but had the cat taken advantage of the element of surprise, it could have had him down on the ground in seconds.
Other than the morning he’d released her, it was the first time John had come face to face with the cougar, although he suspected she’d seen him and followed his movements, as he wandered the island searching for her. He liked to think of himself as a skillful tracker, his attention focussed on the subtle signs left behind as his quarry made its way through the forest. But in the back of his mind he couldn’t help thinking it was the other way around; that he was always the one looking over his shoulder.
Trying to stay calm, John slowly unzipped his fleece jacket and pulled a small pistol from an inside pocket. Reaching into his chest pack he removed a short metal cylinder with a barbless needle on one end and a feathered tailpiece at the other. He always kept his darts close to his chest, where his body heat prevented them from freezing.
Opening the breach of the pistol he shoved the dart down the barrel and pushed in the bolt. Taking careful aim, he waited for the cat to turn, giving him a clear shoulder shot before he fired. Although he was using the lowest charge possible, the impact of the dart was enough to set off a second charge in the rubber plunger at the base of the cylinder, forcing the Ketamine out through the needle and into the muscle tissue of the cat.
For its part, the cougar just flinched at the noise of the powder charge going off, seemingly oblivious as the needle penetrated and released its drug. She lay quietly in the branches for a moment then rolled slightly sideways as the drug took effect. Before she could fall from her perch John was underneath the tree and gently pulled her down. Buckling slightly with her weight, John cradled the cougar in his arms for a moment then laid her on the ground to remove the dart and retrieve the collar.
After removing the collar, John would have to rely on his own skills to continue tracking the cat’s movements and would have nothing else to help him find her when it was time to take her off the island.
Until that time, the cougar would be free to follow its instincts, searching the island for its plentiful bounty of introduced deer. John still thought it was an elegant solution to a man-made problem. He was simply assisting Nature or whatever you wanted to call it, to reverse the cascade of unwanted effects that were slowly turning the southern Gulf Islands into an ecological hodge-podge.
It was a plan he had envisioned when he first began working on the island. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a damn sight better than the alternative. At some point he knew he might get caught or word might get out, but he’d hoped before anything like that happened, he would have made a noticeable difference and perhaps be able to convince enough of the right people that what he was doing had more benefits than not. Now, with Vidar Gunvaldsson in the picture, John knew this cat’s time on the island was limited.
Hopefully there would be other opportunities to put other cats on Sidney Island in the future, or if not Sidney, some of the other islands. But for now, his main goal was to keep this cougar alive, to help do its thing for as long as possible, and stay one step ahead of Vidar Gunvaldsson.