Eyes rolling and foam flying from its mouth, the bison fought inside the heavy metal chute, making the walls shake and rattle. My heart pounded. In my experience these steel structures didn’t always live up to the hype.
Ted Andreychuk, who raised bison for fun and profit, looked almost as upset as the animal itself. “Sorry about this, Liam. Worked himself into a right state, he has . . .” Ted shook his head. “Usually he’s an easy-going guy. Has been since he was a calf. But he’s freaked right out. Whatever came at him scared him good.”
The young bull surged against the head gate, and only the fact that he wasn’t yet full grown, and that the chute was attached to a heavy metal corral system anchored to the ground, kept it in place. Still, I swear the entire unit jumped at least an inch. I’d already given him more than sufficient sedation, but sheer adrenaline had him fighting straight through it. Every attempt to calm the animal by covering its eyes had resulted in increased mayhem and two shredded tarps.
I decided to abandon all hope and get down to it. Quick reflexes were just going to have to save the day. I moved to the other end of the chute and peered at the cause of the bison’s distress.
“Whatever attacked him did a damned good job of it,” I said. Long, parallel slashes ran from the forward ledge of the pelvic bones on both sides towards the tail. The appendage itself had been severed—bitten off? Only about five inches of it remained.
Twenty minutes and another dose of sedation later, the animal finally calmed enough that I could enter the chute from the back end. He had a go at me despite the kickbar, but I dodged the heavy hooves with the ease of experience as I examined the tail. The bone had been snapped clear through but there was sufficient skin remaining for me to tie off the major blood vessel and suture it closed. He made another bid for freedom as I finished, backing into me, and then lunging forward to hit the head gate with his shoulders. The metal floor jumped beneath my feet. I hurried to clip the hair away from the wounds on the butt.
As soon as they were revealed, I stared. Five slashes along each side. They were about an inch deep, but that wasn’t what gave me pause.
“What the hell did that?” Ted said, peering through the bars. “It must have been huge. A bear?”
I extended my own fingers over the wound. They didn’t come close to spanning the foot or so covered by those claws. “They’ve got one heck of a spread to them,” I agreed as I started to flush them out. “You’ll have to keep him confined for a while, and we’ll need him on antibiotics.”
“I’m not putting him back out there,” Ted said, and something in his voice made me glance at him. “The other two—they were mature bulls. There’s not much left of them.”
I processed that as I got busy with stitching. A fully grown male bison stood six feet at the shoulder, weighed in at 2,000 lbs, and had a massive, horned head about three feet across. Not an animal to mess with. Even a bear would have difficulty taking one down. Which begged the question—what had managed to kill two of them?
Half an hour later we released the immature bull from the chute. He staggered away on shaky legs, but he’d live. I decided I wanted to see the two that didn’t.
“They’re out back,” Ted said when I inquired. “Not far. Still had them in the winter pen, the pasture’s not kicked in yet.”
I paused long enough to fetch my copilot from the SUV. A refugee from a local border collie rescue, Keen’s heritage was best described as dubious. She looked somewhat like a big Australian Shepherd, but her real contributors were anyone’s guess.
She bounced out of the truck and around Ted’s feet, happy to be stretching her legs. I wasn’t worried that she’d stray—she never went far from me. To my surprise, when Ted rejoined us, he held a gun.
“It happened last night?” I asked, eyeing the weapon and reconsidering whether to take Keen.
“Yeah. But well, you’ll understand when you see them.”
As Ted and I picked our way through the spring puddles to the back field, I kept a now nervous eye on the dog as she trotted in a circle around us, checking out the remnants of the round bales used for winter feed.
“The adjuster’s coming sometime today,” Ted explained. “Maybe he’ll know what the heck killed them. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Livestock producers were entitled to compensation by the government if they lost animals due to predation. The adjuster would likely confirm that the deaths were predator related. Having repaired the claw marks on the survivor, I had little doubt of it, but the attacker’s identity was another matter.
As I squinted toward the far end of the field, Keen suddenly stopped dead, her nose into the wind. And then she did something I’d never seen her do before—her entire frame wilted, tail tucked. She turned and ran to me, to huddle against my leg.
Keen is a country dog, and we walk a lot through bush and across fields. We’d run into foxes and coyotes, and occasionally, bears. She’d never reacted like this. The fine hairs on my neck stood on end. When I reached down to her, she was shaking.
Ted observed her behaviour and tweaked an eyebrow. His expression, if anything, became even darker.
“Easy, girl,” I said. She stayed close to my leg as I followed Ted to what lay beyond. Movement along the fence line drew my attention to the crows. They perched on the posts and in the bare branches of the trees overhead, only just blushing green with swelling buds. I stopped counting at thirty-two. Sitting, silent. The bodies must have drawn them to the spot, but why weren’t they all over the carcasses?
“They’ve been there since this morning. But they won’t come any closer,” Ted said, watching the birds. He held the gun across his body, tightly enough that his knuckles were white.
I gave an involuntary shiver, and it was then I smelled the bodies—the stench of shredded bowels and blood. A moment later, I stood over them. Or rather, they lay around me. The bulls had been torn apart.
Keen made an odd, low whine and pushed against my leg as my heart accelerated. Everywhere I looked there were pieces of flesh. It was like a tornado had erupted inside the animals. I’d seen livestock predation before, but not anything like this.
Unnerved as I was, the scientist in me took over. My eyes scanned the ground. “Any clear tracks?”
“Everything’s been churned up pretty good,” Ted noted. “I looked this morning, couldn’t find squat.”
I pulled latex gloves out of my pocket and put them on.
“What are you doing?” Ted asked. His voice shook.
I advanced on the bodies. The ribcages of both had been ripped open, the bones broken, pointing to the sky. The organs lay spread across the ground, including great loops of torn intestine covered in mud.
“I want to see if anything’s missing.” Keen wouldn’t stay when I asked her to; she followed me—her belly hugging the terrain as I crouched beside the massive bodies. I slid my hands inside, my fingers searching for and identifying the various bits by feel as much as sight.
“How can you tell?” The note in Ted’s voice made me glance over to him. His face was white, his eyes wide as he scanned the carnage.
“It was after something,” I said. “The heart’s gone on this guy. Liver too.” I examined the head and peered closer. The side of the skull had been smashed in, and when I pushed aside the blood-soaked fur, I confirmed my suspicion. “Brain’s missing.” I moved to the second bull, and noticed it lacked something distinctive.
“Where’s the head?”
When he didn’t answer right away, I looked over again, in time to see a shudder pass through him.
“I’ll show you when you’re done.”
I frowned. The bull’s head was massive, not something easily hauled off. But after a moment I confirmed that the other body was also missing its heart, and liver. As near as I could tell by the pieces around me, everything else was present, just not intact. The claw marks were everywhere on the big bodies, much deeper than those inflicted on the younger bull. I examined the neck on the second animal. By the level of tearing, it almost looked as though the head had been wrenched off, rather than cut.
What could wrench the head off a bison? And then carry it away?
“Do you think it could have been a cougar?” Ted asked. He sounded almost hopeful.
“Why didn’t the second bull get away?” I asked, straightening to look around at the scene.
“Something leaps out and attacks one bull. The second one stands around waiting to be killed?” Nothing about this made any sense.
“Maybe there were two cougars. A mother and grown cub, or something.”
I peeled off the gloves, turned the bloody surfaces inside out and tucked them back into my pocket. Keen trembled as she pressed against my leg. Cougars weren’t unheard of in this region, but attacks on livestock were rare. And they usually tackled smaller animals, something roughly deer sized.
“Where’s the head?” I asked.
His mouth straightened and he set off through a small patch of old trees, the underbrush long since eaten away. He headed for the closest fence line, so the dog and I trailed after him.
I didn’t see it at first. Keen was distracting me, moving in front of my legs as though trying to stop me from walking. I shoved her out of the way for the eighth time, glanced up, and saw Ted had stopped.
I looked beyond him to the fence. About ten feet on the other side of the boundary was a pile of boulders. And sitting on the highest boulder like some macabre sculpture was the head.
It was missing the lower jawbone, but it sat squarely on the boulder, as though placed there. It’s eyes, fogged by death, stared straight at us.
Christ. Keen whined again, and I couldn’t tell which of us was shaking the hardest. My heart hammered, and I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Get a grip, Liam. There has to be an explanation for all this. I scanned the fence—male bison weren’t the easiest animals to contain. It took six feet of high tensile wire, several strands. None of which had been disturbed.
“Is the power on?” I asked.
“You bet. I checked it this morning. My fence has enough juice to stop a rhino. Nothing came through that wire. Can’t find a spot where they went under, either. Whatever it was, jumped over.”
Not a bear, then. Bears went through things because their jumping abilities were limited. Cougars and wolves could do it. Wolves had frequented the Beausejour area as of late, and I knew the farmers worried about their livestock. Could this be the work of a pack? But six feet was pushing it for a wolf, unless they touched down at the top. And the big canids didn’t use their claws to bring down prey.
Not to mention that last I checked, none of them—bears, wolves, or cougar—displayed the heads of their kills like a trophy.
“Has to be a chance thing,” Ted said. “It tried to carry it off and left it there. But it freaked me out to see it like that.”
“Yes,” I agreed, my mind still occupied with the fence, and what it signified. What the hell got over that wire? What can kill two mature bison almost simultaneously? Then rip the head clean off and carry it away? My thoughts raced, pulling in possibilities from everything I’d ever seen or heard of. Which included some pretty odd things, ranging from space aliens to rabid grizzlies and escaped tigers. Then my logic center focused on the one predator that could mimic others just for fun.
“Do you suppose this is someone’s sick idea of a joke?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “Who would do this?”
“I don’t know. But they could have shot them, torn them up, making it look like an animal attack.”
“But . . . why?” He seemed genuinely bewildered.
I knew from experience that people could do twisted things. Maybe someone wanted Ted scared.
Ted watched me. “But what about the claw marks on the youngster?” He shook his head. “Had to be a cougar. Or rather, two of them.”
He had a point, although I’d never heard of the big cats doing something like this. But I wasn’t an expert on predators. Well, not on animal ones, anyway. “I’d call and make sure the adjuster brings out a conservation guy,” I suggested. “Maybe he’ll have seen this kind of thing before.”
“Yeah. Good idea.” He backed from the fence, his hands still tight on his gun. I turned away with a conscious effort, ignoring my instincts to run. Keen bolted about five feet from me, returned, and then bolted again, as though barely able to stop herself from running all the way to the SUV.
I had to admit I was right there with her, but I maintained the façade of a calm pet owner despite my pounding heart. Sometimes being the leader in a relationship really sucks.
Because no matter how I crunched the data, it all boomeranged back to one thing: I had no idea what had killed those bison. Which might not be all that unusual, considering that as a vet my focus was on keeping animals alive, not studying how they died.
But as we walked—quickly—toward the safety of the farmyard, my instincts told me that the conservation guy wouldn’t have the answers Ted sought. And I wondered if the bison farmer would forever walk that pasture carrying his gun.