It was evident something had spooked the horses at JG Horse ranch when owner Gina Rosario arrived at their pen Sunday morning.
Several of them had managed to break through a fence and were standing in an alleyway between pens. Water was spewing from a trough where the line to the hose connection had been broken. There were deep holes in the earth where the horses stampeded.
The brown gelding, one of the friendliest on the ranch and always the first to great Rosario, was standing in the corner with his head down, trembling.
That’s when Rosario noticed the deep marks across the horse’s lower back.
“I didn’t even notice the extent of (the injuries) until I got him up here,” she said standing by her barn Monday afternoon. “He wouldn’t come out of his stall; he was terrified actually to come out ... and he was in so much pain. I start checking him and I saw that claw mark and went, ‘Holy crap, what could have done that?’”
On the horse’s left rear hind quarter were four parallel cuts, about 4 to 5 inches long.
The veterinarian who treated the horse thought the culprit likely was a wildcat, as did friends on Facebook, where Rosario posted pictures of the injuries.
The consensus from the experts at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife: “Based solely on photo evidence ... it could be a mountain lion,” said Lt. Ryan Detrick. “We know mountain lions are in the general area, but there is no way to confirm what it is at that point.”
One of the department’s trappers saw photos of the horse but no one had been to the ranch to examine it or check for tracks in the area.
The injuries to the brown horse might have come from the same source that inflicted previously inexplicable injuries to another horse, Max, last week. However, rather than what appear to be claw marks, Max has a hole and tear on his neck and lower chest. The brown horse doesn’t have any puncture wounds.
Other animals that could have attacked the horses, Detrick said, are bobcats, coyotes and dogs.
After seeing the Facebook post, one of Rosario’s neighbors told her that one of his goats and been killed about 10 days earlier. On Monday, he found a dead duck on his property.
Detrick said a trapper will visit that ranch but, without the carcass, there is unlikely much evidence left. He said they also might install trail cameras near Rosario’s ranch to capture any wildlife movement in the area.
He said mountain lions follow food and water sources, and while they generally eat deer, they have been known to attack livestock. There’s an irrigation ditch near Rosario’s property.
“The drought can tend to displace animals,” Detrick said. “Not to say that’s what’s going on here; we’ve always had mountain lions in the Valley.”
Last fall saw a series of mountain lion sightings around east Turlock and Denair, and the department confirmed a goat killed near Oakdale was felled by a mountain lion.
No mountain lions were caught or killed during that time, and Detrick said the attack on the horses is the first report received recently.
If livestock is killed, owners should immediately call Fish and Wildlife. If the attack is verified, the owner can get a depredation permit to kill the otherwise protected animal.
For now, Rosario said, she will be leaving her dogs out at night to guard the perimeter of her property.
To contact the regional Fish and Wildlife office in Fresno, call (559) 243-4005.