From herds of elk and packs of coyotes to opportunistic, wandering black bears, the Sellman family is familiar with having wildlife all around their home in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood.
But they never imagined a mountain lion would kill a family pet in the yard of their home of 21 years, only about 1,500 feet southwest of the Duncan Drive Trailhead and less than 2.5 miles from downtown Missoula. That’s what happened Nov. 15, with Teddy, the couple’s beloved 4-year-old “double doodle,” a golden-doodle/labradoodle mix.
“I have never in my life seen a mountain lion in the wild,” Rich Sellman, 58, said at home on Wednesday. “I’ve heard of mountain lions, we live pretty close to Rattlesnake Creek,” but “this is the last way I thought we’d lose a dog.” About six years ago, he said, someone elsewhere in the Rattlesnake “had their dog eaten right in front of them.” And a few years ago, a lion was spotted feeding on a deer carcass at the Duncan trailhead, according to Michelle Sellman, 53.
People are also reading…
But those sporadic incidents were far less common — and farther away — than other wildlife sightings, even in the Sellmans’ own yard.
“Generally speaking, we might see one or two bear a year,” Michelle said. Rich, a physician in Missoula, added that “bears got into our chickens twice and decimated them.”
So, the couple worked with Jamie Jonkel, a bear manager with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, to install electric fencing around the chicken coop near the couple’s house. The couple and their six children, now adults, had a variety of dogs throughout their decades in the home, all without issue. Runners and hikers frequently traverse open-space trails just beyond the Sellmans’ fence.
‘Everybody knew him’
Teddy was a dog that went everywhere.
“He was very well behaved,” Michelle, a retired special education teacher, said. “He flew on a plane with us all the time. He got along with everybody. He went rafting with us, paddle boarding. He was just a sweetheart.”
“One of his favorite things to do, we would take him to Murdoch’s (ranch store) and we’d let him go down the toy aisle and he’d look at all the toys,” Rich recounted, explaining that they’d lay a few toys on the ground in front of Teddy and squeak each one. “And he would sniff all three, squeak all three, and then grab one like, ‘Alright dad, this is my new toy.’ He loved Murdoch’s, and people at Murdoch’s loved him — everywhere we took him that allowed dogs.”
With their children moved out and scattered around the country, Rich said, Teddy “was like our child.” As their furry child, Teddy was big-brother to Bruno, the couple’s 16-week-old, brown, furry golden-doodle puppy.
“He thought Teddy was the bomb,” Rich said, laughing. “Teddy thought he was a pest,” for about a week, “and then he finally warmed up to him.” Watching a video of Teddy rolling over to let Bruno crawl on top of him to play, Rich teared up: “It’s hard to see the videos. It’s still really hard.”
About two weeks ago, a neighbor spotted mountain lion tracks in the hills to the north of their quiet cul-de-sac. A few days later, Michelle said, a lion killed and ate deer in a residential yard near Khanabad Way, across from Rattlesnake Elementary School on the east side of the Rattlesnake.
On Nov. 15, the Sellmans had friends over for dinner to eat Italian food and discuss travel plans. When one couple left around 9 p.m., Teddy went outside with them for his usual evening bathroom break and walk around the upper portion of the Sellmans’ 2-acre yard.
That was the normal nightly routine for the spunky 25-pound dog with fur of fluffy black curls. He would patrol the fence line, contained by an invisible fence collar, diligently chasing errant deer out of his domain.
“I was always super proud of Teddy, keeping the deer off the property, just being kind of a studly little dog out there,” Rich said, adding that Teddy’s tail would wag with pride when he ran back to his humans after banishing deer. “He was always running the perimeter, always checking out his turf.”
So the Sellmans didn’t think twice when Teddy went outside around 9 p.m. They figured he’d just come back in through his dog door like usual.
“He was 4 years old. Never in his life had he not come home,” Rich said. “When he’s out guarding the perimeter, all you have to do is squeak one of his toys and he’ll come back.”
About 90 minutes later, around 10:30 p.m., the Sellmans saw the rest of their guests out. They noticed Teddy hadn’t come back. They also noticed a missed call from a neighbor, placed around 9:08 p.m. — minutes after Teddy had gone outside. The neighbors said they heard some sort of animal attack, Michelle said, and were worried that coyotes had gotten to one of the Sellmans’ house cats.
Worried for Teddy, the couple grabbed flashlights and searched around their yard and cul-de-sac for hours, until early the next morning. Then, Michelle said, “we woke back up the next morning at sunup, actually before the sun, and texted all our neighbors,” and everyone went to look for Teddy.
Around 7 a.m., in a previously overlooked portion of the yard, they found some blood-stained snow and a long depression in the snow.
“Once you could lay eyes on it, you could just envision he was being dragged, because his body made a trough in a snow,” Rich said.
The drag path went from the yard, under the fence, to a spot near a lone tree not far from a popular trail. And there was Teddy.
“It was a very sad trail to follow,” Rich said. “When we saw the carcass, it was just terrible.”
The couple called FWP around 9 a.m., and Warden Sergeant Daniel Curtin was there by 11 a.m. Curtin explained why he believed Teddy was killed by a young female lion recently dismissed from its mother, they said, and explained why the incident wasn’t a bear or coyote attack. Given Teddy’s penchant for chasing animals out of his yard, Rich wondered if Teddy tried to do the same with the mountain lion. But “the warden’s opinion was she was just out in the field hunting, went opportunistic when Teddy went out to pee.”
In a phone call Friday, Curtin said that the incident was “more of an opportunity issue” — the lion just happened to spot Teddy going out in the yard.
Rich and Michelle said FWP didn’t have hounds available last week to track the lion while the scent was still fresh, so the lion is still out there somewhere. Curtin, they said, told them that “it might come back one night, but their territory is like 500 square miles, it’s not going to come back.” However, they said, other neighbors who had run-ins with lions were told the lions needed to be killed, for fear that they would return.
The difference, Curtin said, is that the lion in this case didn’t cache Teddy for later, so there wasn’t anything for the animal to return to. And the open fields around the yard aren’t the kind of landscape where a lion would hang out.
Regardless, Curtin said, it’s not common around Missoula for a lion to kill a domestic animal. Curtin has been a game warden for 38 years. He said that “the lions for the most part do co-habitate with people very well. We have very few incidents where we have conflict directly with people themselves. And we don’t have a lot of domestic pets taken, either.”
Around the Rattlesnake, he said, it doesn’t seem like the lion is frequenting residential areas. If sighting reports or other incidents lead wildlife managers to believe a lion is frequenting residential area outside of it’s normal behavior, he said, “then we definitely get a bit more concerned.”
Curtin said that lions and other predators follow deer and elk to lower elevations in winter, meaning that more lions are around human development in winter. Pet owners should consider accompanying their pets outside from dusk to dawn, he said. But he added that in Teddy’s case, “they did absolutely nothing wrong by any means. It was just a bad set of circumstances.”
When Rich takes Bruno out at night, the puppy is leashed and Rich uses a powerful flashlight to watch his surroundings: “It’s really really made me so much more aware of my situation. I’ll go back there with Bruno in the middle of the day, I’m like scanning every hill.”
Michelle hasn’t gone back to the part of the yard where the lion got Teddy. She said she hopes people will learn that they all need to be more aware of mountain lions.
“I don’t want it to happen to anybody else,” Michelle said. “It’s Thanksgiving, all these people are coming and bringing their dogs and grandkids. We live on the edge of this wilderness, and that’s what we get. And people need to be aware of this.”
“It’s just a sad story all around,” Rich said, “and if anyone can save an animal from this story, that’s great.”