Sunday, August 3, 2008

Punkin's Story

The photo above was taken about 1965 as Punkin reclined on Orvel's suit jacket at their home in Carnuel Canyon, between Albuquerque and Tijeras. More photos follow the story.

All of us Fletcher kids; my old brother, myself and younger sister have spent part of our lives hunting with my Dad and his hounds. Even my sister’s two grown children hunted mountain lion with their Grandpa from the time they were old enough to sit a horse and follow the pack.

We have always had hounds. My niece can rattle off the pedigree to the fifth generation of every hound my Dad has hunted since the day she was born. Dad never raised many puppies, but the best prospect from a litter got named after a good dog that had died. Some of the more unusual mealtime arguments have been which Dan or Bull or Duke was alive when you were a kid. Having been raised with hounds has taught us a great deal about following the pack.

I will always remember the time I was hunting with my Dad in the San Mateo Mountains and he had walked off and left me (again) with the admonition that the trail was too dangerous and he needed to catch up with the hounds. After thirty minutes or so of waiting I decided that being left behind was much worse than climbing rocks.

I tracked him for several miles through the ascending terrain. It was a hot, dry summer afternoon with a shimmer of heat dancing in the air. After what seemed an endless scramble over rough going I reached a high point on the side of a ridge overlooking the deep canyon below. I could hear the faint sound of the hounds trailing. So I sat down on the edge of a jumble of rock to catch my breath.

Within a few minutes all sound stopped, except for an occasional bird call. I sat wondering if I should get up and move on or wait a few minutes more for the dogs to pick up the scent again. Suddenly, in the canyon below I could hear the dogs running a hot track. It was intermittent, as if they were having difficulty working their way up the mountainside. They were moving the track and they were climbing in my direction. So I sat, listened and enjoyed the chase.

I felt more than heard the noise behind me as the shadow past overhead. A whisper in the air as the cat landed a few feet from where I sat. We looked at each other warily, somewhat surprised by the few yards of rocky ground that separated us. He was not a huge tom cat, but long and finely muscled. His tail twitched. I sat quite still as the hounds ran toward us as the seconds slipped by. Finally, the cat blinked and frowned with ears twitching. He turned his head and studied the ridge below us before gliding away on silent paws.

Hounds boiled over the ledge above my head, landing pell-mell around me, confused by my sudden appearance. They stared at me as if I had the cat in my pocket. Duke was checking out the limbs of the nearby juniper tree to see if the cat had taken refuge there. It took a determined effort to make them pick up the trail and go on.

As the hound ran on from view my Dad came striding up the hill, out of breath and looking a little surprised too to find me already there. We walked out onto the cliff’s edge together where the dogs stood baying out over the slanting rocks, screaming their frustration that the cat had found a way down that they could not follow.

We never hunted that particular cat again, but I still remember the color of his eyes. I suppose given the recent attacks and fatality here in New Mexico that I should have been afraid. I wasn’t particularly concerned because by the time we chased this lion in the San Mateos we had already lived with a pet lion for a number of years. His name was Punkin and this is his story.

Punkin’s tale began during a hunt with Dr. Frank Hibben, famed anthropologist and winner of the 1964 Weatherby Award. Doctor Hibben often hunted with my father through the years between his work on excavations and trips with his wife, Brownie, to all continents of the world. He enjoyed taking photographs, writing stories for sports magazines, and was the author of many books about his studies and travels. He documented not only many of my dad’s hunts, but other hunters who hunted with dogs in the southwest.

On this particular hunt my father was out with Dr. Hibben and Larry Eastman. Larry was riding one of our first quarter horse purchases, Working Cowboy. Cowboy was a smallish, lazy chestnut with a tiny star on his forehead. He also had very small, pointed pin ears to match his heart. He was a strong horse for his size, fairly agile, but could wear out the best of riders by simply not cooperating about anything. That day Larry was in trouble because his mount was balking on the downhill slide toward the dead juniper tree where the hounds had treed a young female cougar.

My dad was already at the tree with Dr. Hibben when Larry hallooed loud enough to get his attention. So he left Frank taking photos and went back to get Larry. He and Larry returned to the tree to find the cat had been killed by the hounds. A big black and white hound named Duke had figured out a way to climb the dead branches high enough to get a grip on the cat and pull her down. My dad was not happy this had occurred. On principle, my dad rarely killed a female lion and never one that obviously had kittens.

They searched for two days, back-tracking the cat through the mountains, hoping that they would find the kittens traveling with her. The sign in the patchy snow was that one yearling and two small kittens had been with the female and were now hiding somewhere in the vast, rocky landscape.

On the third day Duke struck a trail and began baying a rabbit hole. Down the rabbit hole was a small, spotted kitten. My dad plucked him out of the hole and stuffed him inside his jacket. The dogs could find no sign of the other kitten. Calling off the dogs, they rode for camp.

Concerned that they had nothing to feed the kitten they stopped at the Kelly Ranch and asked Mrs. Kelly if she could spare a little milk. Forty-four years later my father would knock on the same ranch house door and when Mrs. Kelly opened it, she took one look at him and said, “I remember you. You and Hibben stopped by and asked for milk to feed a baby lion.”

Unfortunately, the baby lion did not want the dairy product and refused to suck it off my dad’s finger.
Finally, the kitten went to sleep and the hunters stopped for a bite to eat at a restaurant in Socorro. When they got back inside the cab of the truck my dad belched. The kitten woke up and let out a squeaky mew making sucking noises. Dad tried the milk again, belching repeatedly to get the kitten to take it a few drips at a time.

We did not keep pets in the house, so at first the kitten went home with Larry whose wife had housecats. The housecats did not take to the new addition and a few weeks later the kitten ended up in a basket in front of the fireplace in our house. He was wobbly, short legged and his spotted fur stuck out at odd angles as he waddled across the kitchen linoleum. Dr. Hibben dug up a baby formula recipe from the local zoo and Punkin started putting on weight.

By the time he was six months old and the spots were fading he was ransacking the house. It was not a big home, built with a central circular hallway that connected all the rooms of the house and the cat knew every inch of it. He was good at sports, both handball and hockey. He could play hide and seek, pounding down the hallway at break neck speed sounding like a train, then pulling sneak attacks on silent paws. Clever, he never tangled his chain when put out of doors in the front yard for a little fresh air while my mother rescued our scattered belongings.

We took home movies over the years as we grew older and Punkin developed from a young lion into a mature cat. When he was a kitten his eyes were a shade of violet, then blue and finally a light gray as he grew to maturity. Some people can live with claws, but Punkin had a quick, nasty temper and his claws were removed. He liked visiting the hounds, hugging around the neck any dog that he got close enough to play with. Some minded and some ignored it. He irritated a small mule named Festus by grabbing him by the tail and holding him in place. No matter how hard the mule pulled the lion could hold him in a feline tug of war. Punkin lost interest in this game rather quickly and the mule soon learned to stay out of reach.

The growing cat finally outgrew the house with a series of incidents that increasingly destroyed my mother’s furniture and finally ended up with him leaping into my dad’s lounge chair with dad in it. The cat’s momentum knocked the big chair over backwards into the wall. The whole side of the chair came off. After that day Punkin started spending his free time outside in a renovated stone building next to the barn. We had nicknamed the old stone building the chicken house, but hound puppies and chickens don’t coexist. We had litters of puppies alternating with flocks of laying hens throughout the years. The puppies won every round with my mother’s attempts to have chickens. So we converted the building into a nice, dry camp for the cat.

As we moved from Carnuel Canyon to Reserve to Monticello in search of new hunting grounds Punkin came with us. He hated cars and riding in them, so his trips were based on necessity. He once made the El Paso Times edition and spent a few minutes on live public television. He didn’t mind having his picture taken but never liked the sound of cameras rolling.

He was smart and funny and endlessly inventive. He impressed on me at an early age. I was the chief cage cleaner, scrubber and bone collector. We kept a freezer just for Punkin and loaded it with jackrabbits and carcasses from the neighboring ranches who knew to call us when a cow died. The rabbits were his favorite meal, but it was much easier to freeze the rabbits first instead of having to use flea powder on the lion. I have always been amazed at how many ticks can live on a jackrabbit. I skinned a porcupine one time after being told that they were a lion’s favorite game only to have him push it back over to me untouched. Once I gave him several live blue gill only to have him hold them down with his paws until they stopped breathing and walk away unconvinced that grown cats eat fish. He liked deer and elk season because he got all the liver and anything else we considered his part.

What I will always remember about Punkin is how you could tell what he was thinking, or going to do, by the way his eyes seemed to change color. Like most animals he responded to a certain amount of discipline, but his attentiveness was tempered by his curiosity. He was proof that cougar have plenty of little gray cells and the ability to use them.

He lived fifteen years before he grew old and feeble. He lived long enough to become a game animal, no longer just a predator. The local Game and Fish Department was in a slight quandary when the cougar status changed in New Mexico, but considering his age, they decided he should stay with us instead of a zoo. Finally, he began to decline slowly, then rapidly and I had him put to sleep. I would never want another wild animal. Caring for a wild puma no matter how domesticated he may act at any given moment is a never ending learning experience. Punkin was definitely one of a kind.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Fletcher's House Cat Remembered

In the mid 1960's, The Fletcher's had a lion of their own, named Punkin, for several years. Below are are a few photos from his life.
Punkin on the bed in Carnuel Canyon, between Albuquerque and Tijeras around 1965. He's reclining on Orvel's suit jacket.
Punkin in a postcard around 1966.
Punkin at hunting lodge outside of Reserve around 1967.
Punkin around 1967.

Ashley's Cat

This is a story of a granddaughter hunting with her grandpa. My granddaughter, Ashley, had been wanting to get her own lion every since she was old enough to buy a license, but something always seemed to come up and her chance to shoot a lion was put off until a later date.

In early March ’06 Ashley was home visiting and I asked her if she wanted to go with me the next morning to run the dogs on the ranch that lies northeast of our house. She had promised her mother that she would help with the horses, so I told her that if I saw fresh lion sign that I would call on my cell phone.

At sunup the next morning I loaded my hounds and drove to the private locked gate at the end of old 17. There was about two inches of snow on the ground and the air was crisp in the early morning sun. A few miles inside the ranch there is a small spring that collects in a concrete tank in the bottom of a canyon and I drove toward it to check for sign. At the time a female and her yearling kitten were living on the ranch. I had jumped the young tom a couple of times, treed him and called off the dogs. The young tom’s home range was not very big at that time and I had seen his tracks numerous times. I had not seen a mature tom on the ranch since the previous year when I had caught a really large cat at the request of the local game warden because the big tom was killing and eating people’s pet dogs.

I turned the hounds out to exercise as I drove up the road toward the spring. Right before I dropped down into the bottom of the canyon I spotted tracks in the snow. It was the track of a big tom traveling south. The dogs struck immediately. I did not particularly want the dogs to run the track south since the ranch is surrounded by a populated area. I imagined that the cat might go in that direction, cross the busy north 14 highway and head into the heavily forested Sandia Mountains.

I got out of my truck and called Ashley to tell her that the hounds were running a big tom and if he kept moving in that direction that she should walk out onto the ranch and listen for them. If they dropped off on the west side of the ranch I wanted her to catch them and call them off before they reached the highway. By the time I finished the phone call the dogs had made a circle and were headed east toward South Mountain, a high, barren round mountain that anchors the southeast boundary of the ranch.

I called Ashley again and told her to meet me at the back gate. By the time I reached the gate, Ashley, her brother Hank and her husband, Josh Boyd, were already there. We were in a hurry to return as the dogs were already out of earshot and we needed to reach a place where we could walk into the foothills around South Mountain. Josh stayed at the truck in case we needed to relocate it to a better area. Hank, Ashley and I followed the tracks through the snow, listening for the dogs.

The old mountain is rough and very steep. Ashley had not changed from her riding boots to a pair of hunting boots, so her feet were already wet. The snow was about three inches deep under the trees and had begun to melt. Hank has an old knee injury and he slipped and aggravated it. Hank made a crude crutch from an old dead limb and we decided the best thing would be for him to go back down the mountain and head for the old Horton homestead where Josh could drive around and pick him up.

By now the wind had kicked up and was blowing the snow around us in a blinding cloud. The temperature was dropping. I knew Ashley was beginning to tire and her feet were probably frozen. We had not heard the dogs since we began to climb up through the rocks, so I asked her if she wanted to go back down to the truck. She was stubborn about going on, so we turned north and began working our way around through the rock slides stopping every few minutes to listen for the hounds. We finally topped out after a tough climb. It had been thirty years since I had been on top of that mountain. At that time I had seen the sign of two toms headed north, and I thought that trail was the best guess to which direction the dogs had gone. As we braced ourselves to walk against the cold wind I spotted the tracks of the dogs and the lion heading north. At this point the truck was only about four miles west of us and I hoped that the lion had turned that direction.

As we reached a deep saddle, the tracks turned back east toward the ridges that overlook the village of Cedar Grove. Our cell phone service was spotty and the battery was beginning to run low. Ashley called Josh and Hank to let them know we were going to drop off the east slope and make our way down toward the home of some people that I knew. These were the same folks that had lost a Welsh pony to a lion the previous year. The wife was the daughter of a houndsman who lived in Arizona and she had called the game warden when the pony was attacked. She had been somewhat angry that the game warden had shot the cat when we caught up to him, but after I showed her the scrapes and lion sign near her home she was glad to be rid of him because of the children. Their two young daughters had often played in the same area where the lion had spent several days before he killed the pony inside their corral.

As we started down the mountain my eight month old pup, Yeager, came to us. He had crossed enough snow covered ground that we could back track him. This is a very wild looking piece of country and in an area where the ranch had recently lost several calves. The man who oversees the cattle had thought is might be the work of coyotes or a pack of wild dogs, but I wondered if this cat was killing livestock. Over the past few years I had been called in to assist the local game warden in catching five grown cougar that were killing everything from goats to dogs and cats. In every instance it was a big tom lion that was preying on domestic animals. How these full grown tom lions, all in their prime, were ending up in the same area was a mystery. The area was too populated and the mountain range too small to support that many cats. I had asked the local game warden if we could arrange to DNA the toms that had been caught to see if they were closely related, but funds were not available for this.

We kept dropping down following the tracks. The blowing snow and rising wind made it difficult to follow the pup down the mountain into a big canyon. As we reached the bottom we could hear the dogs barking treed and as we approached the area where they were gathered under a great, tall pine it was obvious that they had been treed for several hours.

The lion was perched as high up in the huge, ancient pine as I had ever seen one climb. All we could see of him was his head and neck. Ashley took a few photos that did not turn out too clear, but we were happy with them anyway. I told her to make sure that she took her time and placed her shot. The cat was dead long before he hit the ground.

We were at least three quarters of a mile away from the nearest dirt road. I told Ashley I was give out and that she was going to have to drag the cat out by herself. There was still enough snow on that side of the mountain that it was a bit easier for her to do the job. When we reached the road I sat down on a log while Ashley went up toward the house to see if Hank and Josh had made it around the mountain.
About forty five minutes later they drove up. The hounds and I were mighty glad to see them. Hank was driving his new Ford pickup. We put the lion in the back of the truck with three of the dogs and put the other six dogs in the back seat with Ashley. Everyone was very tired after a ten hour ordeal.

The game warden came by the house that afternoon and we examined the contents of the cat’s stomach. The warden thought it was deer, but I thought the hair looked a little too long although I could not give a guess at what it might be. The skull measured 15⅛” and would be good enough for the record book.

Several days later I ran into the local rancher and he wanted to show me something so I followed his truck around to where he stopped next to a brushy hillside. Underneath a mound of piled up leaves under a scrub oak were the remains of a long haired red dog that this cat had killed and partially eaten. So, the mystery of what type of hair was in the cat’s stomach was solved.