Posts Tagged ‘Puma’

west virginia cougar

This image suddenly started floating around my Facebook Feed. The image is of a “mountain lion” (oh I loathe that name for them!) that was spotted roaming in Wayne County, West Virginia.

I tried to do a reverse Google images search for it, but it didn’t show anything.  Sightings of cougars and black leopards are a dime a dozen in the Eastern US, and dodgy photos of them are valued at even less.

I’m skeptical.

This cougar is out in the middle of the day and appears to be unconcerned with the truck. That’s really atypical behavior for these animals, and any that wandered in from the West are going to have a healthy fear of people.

I don’t recognize those pines or evergreens as being any kind of native pine. The closest I can get to them are Virginia pines, and they really don’t fit the bill at all.

Now, cougars have been confirmed in Tennessee and Kentucky, and Wayne County borders on Kentucky, though not anywhere near where these animals have been sighted.

I would love for this image to be a genuine Wayne County cougar, but I’m not at all convinced.

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coyotes tree cougars

This scene happened at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge. Five coyotes sent these two cougar kittens up on a fence, and the entire ordeal lasted over an hour.

Check out the photos of the encounter here.

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This dog-killing cougar was the first killed in Ontario since 1884.

Police in Ontario have killed the first cougar in the province since 1884. The cat was killed in near the town of Utterson, which is in the District of Muskoka.

The Ottawa Sun reports:

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources have confirmed that an animal killed by police on the weekend is a cougar, long believed extinct in the province.

Police were called after the large cat killed a family dog in the Muskoka area.

There have been thousands of believed sightings of cougars in Ontario over the past few years, but this marks the first confirmed cougar killed in the province since 1884.

North of the Rio Grande, Puma concolor is doing fine.

It’s starting to work its way back into its former territory in the eastern half the continent.

Once they start to recolonize the Great Lakes region– as they clearly are– it will not be very long before they are able to set up shop in the St. Lawrence Valley and then work their way south and east into New England.  And from there, it’s not very long before they are in the Middle Atlantic states, especially the more remote mountainous parts of those states (which is where I am.)

Western cougars may be using the same paths to colonize the East that coyotes used.

The terrain is fairly flat from Lakes Superior and Michigan the eastern shore of Lake Eire and into Lake Ontario.  And the St. Lawrence also cuts a nice pathway to the east beyond the lakes.

It would make sense that lots of animals would use roughly the same path to travel from the Midwest into the Northeast.


Update: It looks like this cat is an escapee from a big cat collection just across the road.

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From Outdoor News:

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) has received photographic evidence of the presence of a cougar in Vernon Parish.

A private citizen sent LDWF a trail camera picture taken Aug. 13, 2011. LDWF Large Carnivore Program Manager Maria Davidson and biologist Brandon Wear conducted a site investigation that confirmed the authenticity of the photograph.

“It is quite possible for this animal to be captured on other trail cameras placed at deer bait sites,” Davidson said. “Deer are the primary prey item for cougars; therefore, they are drawn to areas where deer congregate.”

It is unlikely this cougar will remain in any one area longer than it would take to consume a kill. Cougars do not prefer to eat spoiled meat and will move on as soon as the Louisiana heat and humidity take its toll on the kill.

“It is impossible to determine if the animal in the photograph is a wild, free-ranging cougar, or an escaped captive,” Davidson added. “Although it is illegal to own a cougar in Louisiana, it is possible that there are some illegally held ‘pets’ in the state.”

LDWF has documented several occurrences since 2002. The first cougar sighting was in 2002 by an employee at Lake Fausse Point State Park. That sighting was later confirmed with DNA analysis from scat found at the site. Three trail camera photos were taken of a cougar in Winn, Vernon and Allen parishes in 2008. Subsequently on Nov. 30, 2008, a cougar was shot and killed in a neighborhood by Bossier City Police Department.

The mountain lion, cougar, panther or puma are names that all refer to the same animal. Their color ranges from lighter tan to brownish grey. The only species of big cats that occur as black are the jaguar and leopard. Jaguars are native to South America and leopards are native to Africa. Both species can occur as spotted or black, although in both cases the spotted variety is much more common. Although LDWF receives numerous calls about black panthers, there has never been a documented case of a black cougar anywhere in North America.

The vast majority of these reports received by LDWF cannot be verified due to the very nature of a sighting. Many of the calls are determined to be cases of mistaken identity, with dog tracks making up the majority of the evidence submitted by those reporting cougar sightings. Other animals commonly mistaken for cougars are bobcats and house cats, usually seen from a distance or in varying shades of light.

The significant lack of physical evidence indicates that Louisiana does not have an established, breeding population of cougars. In states that have verified small populations of cougars, physical evidence can readily be found in the form of tracks, cached deer kills, scat and road kills.

The recent sightingsof cougars in Louisiana are believed to be young animals dispersing from existing populations. An expanding population in Texas can produce dispersing individual cougars that move into suitable habitat in Louisiana. Young males are known to disperse from their birthplace and travel hundreds of miles seeking their own territories.

Cougars that occur in Louisiana are protected under state and federal law. Penalties for taking a cougar in Louisiana may include up to one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine. Anyone with any information regarding the taking of a cougar should call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-442-2511. Callers may remain anonymous and may receive a cash reward.

This really shouldn’t be surprising.

A cougar with origins in South Dakota was recently found run over in Connecticut.

West Virginia now recognizes this species as native wildlife that one might encounter, even though no wild cougars have been confirmed in the state.

This is one large cat species– which is not a true “big cat”– that is not going to become extinct.

At least north of Mexico.

South of Mexico and into Central and South America, the future is less clear.

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The jaguarundi is not widely known in the United States. However, it is a native species to this country, although it is quite rare and its official native range is limited to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southeastern Texas.

Although it is roughly the size of a large domestic cat or a small bobcat, it is most closely related to the cougar (the mountain lion, catamount, panther, puma, or whatever sobriquet one wishes to bestow upon it). I have no idea why this particular animal is called a jaguarundi. Perhaps “undi” is a diminutive, and because jaguars and jaguarundis tend to be found in the same habitat–both prefer riparian areas– they were classified together.

However, the current classification is to put the jaguarundi and the cougar within the same genus (Puma). The cougar’s current name is Puma concolor, and the jaguarundi is Puma yagouaroundi. Their next closest relative is the cheetah, and the cheetah technically should be moved into this genus to reflect the relationship. However, the classification of the extinct “American cheetahs” makes this classification tricky. The bulk of the evidence suggests that American cheetahs and the modern cheetah evolved in parallel with each other from a cougar-like ancestor, but there are still those who think that the cheetah evolved in the Americas and the modern cheetah is a descendant of those animals. Because this taxonomic issue hasn’t been settled, there is a general leeriness about putting the cheetah in the Puma genus. I don’t think it particularly matters where the modern cheetah evolved. It is very clear that these two cats are its closest relatives, and if we wish to classify things in terms of phylogeny, the cheetah belongs in the Puma genus with its two American cousins.

However, there is persistent rumor that the American cheetah still lives among us. Long-legged cougars that have been killed in Mexico have been claimed to be this cat.  Within Mexican Spanish there is an idiom known simply as “onza.” Onza is a cognate with the Portuguese word for the jaguar (onça). These words are in turn congnate with the English word “ounce,” which can refer to the lynx– or as it has been in more recent times– to the snow leopard.

In Mexican Spanish, onza refers to the jaguarundi. However, within the cryptozoological community, it is speculated that the actual onza is the long-legged cougar.

The sources that these theorists use is a some rather dubious historical references to cats that were seen by Spanish explorers. The most famous of these is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s description of two species of “lion” that were found in Montezuma’s menagerie– “one of which resembled a wolf.”  Diaz was with Cortes at the conquest of Mexico, and he wrote about all the strange creatures the Aztecs kept in their zoos. The first accounts of hairless dogs come from this time period.

Many people put a lot of stock in this account as being proof the modern existence of the Ameican cheetah. However, there is no further description of the cat.  No size is given.

Um. I think it is very possible that this reference is to a jaguarundi.


Jaguarundis do have kind of dog-like features. And what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. They are sometimes called “otter-cats,” because of their unusual head shape. They do vaguely resemble a kind of dog-cat hybrid in the face, and what’s more, they come in a gray color phase. Perhaps this is what the Diaz meant by the “lion” that resembled a wolf.

Of course, there are texts that talk of huge “onzas” attacking people and stock. These are probably jaguars or unusual cougars. As I noted before, onza and the Portuguese word for jaguar are nearly the same word. Indeed, they have the same pronunciation. Spanish and Portuguese are very closely related languages, and within Spain itself, there are regional languages that are closer to Portuguese than Castilian Spanish. The Portuguese were most likely the ones most intimately familiar with the jaguar– their main holding in the New World was Brazil, which was quite full of jaguars.  And it may be from the Portuguese accounts of these that the Spanish settlers– who largely arrived well after the conquest of Mexico–came up with their understanding of fauna of the New World.

And cougars themselves vary greatly in appearance. Those that live in the tropical parts of the Americas are smaller than those that live in the north and south of their range. This species tends to follow Bergmann’s rule almost without exception. Because much of the settlement in Spanish North America was in the tropics, where the cougars were quite small, they would likely be quite alarmed at the encountering larger cougars as they moved north. They likely would think that these larger cats, which did attack people or stock on occasion, were a different species.

These three cats very easily fit the description of any cat called an “onza.”  And because one can easily see how these animals could be called “onza,” one should realize that the evidence for an extant population of North American cheetahs is quite poor. It’s worse than the evidence for bigfoot or UFO’s.

The fact that the Mexicans call jaguarundi “onzas” should have been the first clue.

It’s a mini-cougar. Not an American cheetah.

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Aaron Hall

Aaron Hall, "Lion Hunter of the Juniata" and founder of the legendary strain of Pennsylvania panther dogs.

I came across an account of an unusual breed of hunting dog that was developed in Centre County, Pennsylvania. This account comes from Extinct Animals of Pennsylvania by Henry Wharton Shoemaker. The text was originally  published in 1907, but the actual account comes from period between 1845 and 1869 in which a legendary cougar hunter named Aaron Hall was said to have killed fifty “panthers.”

Hall’s legendary status had left him with the sobriquet “Lion Hunter of the Juniata.” He had styled himself as the central Pennsylvania version of Davy Crockett.

And like any great hunter of those days, he had a pack of hunting dogs that helped him pursue his quarry.

Unlike any other hunter of that day, though, he had bred a rather unusual strain of cougar hound.

His massive dogs were run in pairs that then pursued the cougar until they could catch it by the ears– one dog on each ear, very similar to how hog catch dogs are used. It is also very similar to the way that the borzoi caught wolves.  The borzoi would grab the wolf by the sides of the neck, usually two dogs on either side.

The dogs were said to be the result of breeding old-type bulldogs, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, and bloodhounds together to produce a superior cougar hound. They dogs were said to have been so large that a former Pennsylvania game commissioner was able to ride one of them.

I have some issues with the veracity of these claims, but it is known that the mastiff-type dogs can be used to hunt large cats. Fila Brasileiros were used to hunt jaguars and South American cougars, and the Dogos Argentinos were also used to hunt cougars in their native country. Newfoundland dogs were very common in America at the time and were considered an appropriate dog to use for hunting various species of game, although waterfowling was their most common purpose. Bulldogs were probably chosen for their tenacity and ability to grip recalcitrant and powerful quarry, and bloodhounds have legendary noses. The mixture makes sense.

However, the story about the dogs grabbing the cats by the ears is a bit too far fetched for me to accept. A cougar is a very strong and agile animal. If cornered by dogs, it is going to fight very hard. Because its ears aren’t that large, my guess is that the dogs would have a very hard time holding the cats by the ears. They would simply be clawed to pieces, even if they did manage to get them by the ears.

Keep in mind that a cougar can kill a lone wolf, and it wouldn’t have very much trouble killing a domestic dog of any size. (There is a very good account of a cougar killing at captive wolf in Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s Wolves at Our Door.) Most modern cougar hounds tree the cats or hold them at bay. Very few of them engage in mortal combat with the cats. I seriously doubt that any dog would be able to fight a cougar until it was able to grab it by the ears.

Unless Hall or Sober were very small men, I seriously doubt that he could ride any dogs resulting from his crossbreeding. The biggest mastiffs have exceeded two hundred pounds, but if you’re crossing in smaller bulldogs, bloodhounds, and the slightly smaller Newfoundland of the day, it is very unlikely that anyone would be able to produce animals of that size.

Shoemaker wrote a lot about the folk culture of rural Pennsylvania, and theis story sounds a lot like mountain person’s tall tale. Mountain culture in Pennsylvania isn’t that different from mountain culture here, and I can tell you that telling stories like this one are almost de rigueur, especially when someone starts talking about his hunting dogs. Maybe Shoemaker was playing around with this lore, or maybe someone was playing a trick on him. After all, he was an outsider, a graduate of Columbia and a native New Yorker who had grown up in India. Such outsiders are very often told tall stories, for nothing can make a rural person with limited educational and economic opportunities feel better than when he or she gets some outsider to believe some outlandish story.

He does mention that many people of this region were keeping cougar dogs, but most of the dogs used to hunt cougars were “fices” or “whippets.”

One of the great ironies about cougars is that they were known for having a great deal of fear of dogs. Although they were capable of killing a dog easily, they normally would run if pursued by a pack of them.

Normally, these pursuits end with the cougar a tree and dogs barking at them. My guess is that if a cougar had found itself being chased by Hall’s cougar dogs, it would have run for the nearest tree before the dogs could even get close to it. This would have meant that it would have been next to impossible for the dogs to grab them by the ears. (Unless those horse-sized curs could also climb trees.)

I particularly like the story about the Pennsylvania panther dogs, but I am very skeptical that this story is real. Maybe Hall really did have big cougar hounds, but they didn’t hunt in exactly in the way described. Maybe they held the cats at a bay or pushed them into the trees. Some of them were probably much larger than the typical hunting dog of the region, and thus, they were given such an outlandish size.

Hall’s strain of panther dog went extinct shortly after his death in 1892. We can never really know for sure, but I think the chances of these dogs hunting in the way described are not very good.  I can’t imagine that a cougar would allow itself to be held by the ears in such a fashion.

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The animal is reported to be a mountain lion/cougar/puma (all the same animal) living in Roane County, WV. The photo was taken in an area of the county in which several people claim to have seen the “fell beast.”

However, the photo is so grainy that we really can’t tell much. All we have is an image of animal slinking through the undergrowth. We have no scale on which to judge this specimen’s size.

I don’t think this particular animal is Puma concolor.

It is probably one of two common species that aren’t often seen, even by experienced woodsmen.

It is hard to discern the shape of the head, but I think it looks a bit doglike.

However, the length of the tail is also quite hard to discern.

I am thinking that this is a longer-tailed animal with a dog-like face.  In which case, the animal we’re looking at is the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Gray foxes are interesting animals in that they do have a cat-like body and move with the sleek motion of a small cat. In fact, some Latin American countries call these animals “mountain cats” or “deer cats.” They often shed out a lot of their coat in the summer months, exposing a kind of tawny or grayish undercoat.

Like this one:


Or this one:


And if you saw this one going through the undergrowth, in an instant you’d shout “mountain lion!”


These are all gray foxes. In the summer months, some individuals shed almost their entire coats. In this phase, they are called “Samson foxes”– because they lose a lot of their hair.

Gray foxes also have lots of black on the top of their tails. They have an ability to raise the  black hair on their tails whenever they feel threatened, just the same way that dogs raise their hackles.

Now, it could also be a “cross fox,” which is a color phase of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes fulva). Cross foxes do occur in the wild in West Virginia, but they are quite rare. This form is an intermediate between the normal red fox and the melanistic and silver forms. However, this particular animal has now white on the tip of its tail, which is the main identifying mark for the red fox.

However, if this specimen’s tail is short, then we do have a feline that could easily fit the bill.

The smallest species of lynx lives in these woods. The bobcat or red lynx (Lynx rufus). In this part of the world, it is not unsual to see a grayish bobcats with very faint spots.


Now, why do I not jump onto the puma/cougar/mountain lion bandwagon?

I do think it’s possible for a small remnant population of cougar to still live in West Virginia. West Virginia is rugged terrain, and it has large areas without large-scale settlement. My guess is that if one is going to be found in West Virginia, though, there are far more remote areas than this place, which isn’t that far from both Parkersburg and Charleston. My guess is that one would turn up in the Monogahela National Forest or some other area in the High Alleghenies, not in the foothill.

My own amateur zoologist’s opinion is that this animal is a Samson gray fox.

Just so you can get an idea of how gray foxes move, I am posting this video of a Jack Russell, which were bred to bolt foxes(!) and an imprinted gray fox:


You can see how a gray fox can be mistaken for a cat, and there is a reason why they move so much like cats.

You see, gray foxes retain an interesting behavior that was once common among primitive wild dogs. Gray foxes are not bound to a terrestrial existence. They can still climb trees. They share this trait with the raccoon dog and their close cousin, the island fox of the Channel Islands.


So what do you think?

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