State conservation agent Brian Ham received a 2 a.m. phone call to pick something up from the Callaway County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday — a mountain lion in a body bag.
The mountain lion was killed Monday night by a woman driving in the southbound lane of U.S. 54 in Callaway County, a mile south of Fulton. She called the Callaway County Sheriff’s Department about 11:20 p.m. to say she thought she had hit a dog.
“I guess she was concerned about this dog,” said Jim Lowe, news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
A highway patrolman responded to the woman’s call and realized the dead animal was not a dog before he stepped out of his vehicle. Since he did not want to confront an injured lion, the patrolman activated his lights and sirens to make sure it was dead.
“I did not believe it was a mountain lion,” Ham said. “As much time as I spend behind the windshield of my truck, both night and day in Callaway County, I’ve never seen one. Ever since I’ve been an agent, I’ve never seen a cat cross the road or anything.”
Lowe said the mountain lion, also known as a cougar, was between 2 and 3 years old, weighed 105 pounds and was in reasonably good health, although one of its front paws had only one claw left.
This is the seventh verified mountain lion sighting in Missouri since 1994. Before then, there had been no positive sightings since 1927, when Missouri’s deer population hit rock bottom. Mountain lions feed on deer, and Lowe said Missouri’s thriving deer population could be part of the reason for the increased number of sightings in the last decade.
“We feel like Missouri does have a small number of free-ranging mountain lions today,” Lowe said. He said the cougar could have traveled from a well-established population in Colorado, South Dakota or Texas.
“Nothing indicated that this one was captive — no calluses on elbows or pads, no tattoos or ear clippings,” Lowe said. “It had the appearance of a free-roaming animal.”
Ham transported the carcass to the Missouri Department of Conservation Research Center in Columbia, where a necropsy, or animal autopsy, will be performed today. The contents of the animal’s stomach will be examined to determine its eating habits. The mountain lion’s DNA will also be analyzed to determine whether its of North or South American heritage. If it is more closely related to the South American breed, the chances are greater that the animal would have been confined as a pet or in a zoo.
The mountain lion’s skull and hide probably will be used for educational purposes as an excellent example of a rare specimen, Ham said.
The chances of encountering a mountain lion are extremely low, Lowe said, and the number of dangerous encounters is even smaller.
“People are much more likely to die of a bee sting than a mountain lion attack,” he said.
Last year, another cougar was struck by a car on I-35 in Kansas City. It survived the collision but was mortally wounded and later killed by officials. After examination, it was determined that the cougar was wild.
Lowe said Missouri law allows mountain lions to be killed if they are threatening people or property; otherwise they are protected as an endangered species.