Kamloops conservation officer Kevin Van Damme suffered an emotional loss over the weekend when his partner — a specially trained dog named Bust — died trying to protect a rural community from a gravely wounded cougar.
“It’s been a rough couple of days for sure,” said Van Damme. “It’s pretty tough when you lose a partner. And you know how dogs are, they’re so loyal and they’re always so happy to see you. So I definitely miss that. It’s been tough.”
The conservation officer service first received calls of a nuisance cougar in the Tranquille Valley area around the third week of December.
On Boxing Day, property owner Jamie Holloway confirmed that there was a potentially serious situation playing out.
Holloway first noticed a problem on Christmas day when he spotted bloody tracks near a woodshed.
The following day he followed more bloody paw prints and saw the cougar hunkered down in his shed. He was able to get a shot off but missed the cat as it sprinted away.
Van Damme attended the call on Saturday with Bust and a second dog named Boomer.
After 20 years of Van Damme’s own hounds serving as trackers, Bust and Boomer had formed the first official CO canine unit in B.C.
Both mixed breed scent hounds were imported from Arizona and had been with Van Damme for a year.
On Saturday, Bust and Boomer tracked the problem cougar through crusty, deep snow and thick bush.
Van Damme unclipped Bust, which allowed the hound to circle back and catch the cougar within 100 metres of the Holloway house.
The officer is second-guessing that decision today.
“When I look back in hindsight, I place some of the blame on myself for unhooking my dog,” he said.
“By the time I was able to get there with the other dog, he had been attacked.”
Unaware that Bust had been charged by the cougar, Van Damme unclipped Boomer, which was also attacked. His injuries, however, were not life-threatening.
“I’ve done that many, many, many times and not had that kind of result,” said Van Damme. “Typically they (cougars) don’t turn on dogs that pursue them.”
Normally, the cougar would have sought safety up a tree, but in this case, its paw had been snared by a trapper’s wire.
It appeared to have been in trouble for a while since it had licked its injured paw down to the bone, said Holloway.
Once the cougar was shot dead, Holloway helped an exhausted Van Damme by holding Bust while he lay dying of a severe head injury.
Tears rolled down his cheeks as he described the moment.
“I’m a dog lover,” said Holloway. “And (Van Damme) lost his best friend and his partner that day.”
The loss is a blow, said Van Damme, but it won’t deter his passion for a canine unit that he fought so hard to establish.
“Our agencies provided tremendous support in the past year with this program so I suspect that support will continue,” he said. “And we’ll certainly move forward in the very near future to try to replace Bust.”