Cat Eyes

The Eastern Cougar Has Been Declared Extinct. So Why Do Sightings of the Animal Persist?

In March, three weeks after the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar officially extinct, I got on the phone with a man named Joe Kennedy to talk about the cougar he saw in the Catskill Mountains, in upper New York State. Kennedy was, in fact, the twenty-ninth person I’d talked to who claimed to have seen the fabled Catskill cougar. The incarnations were cryptic. Here was the big cat flitting about in summer grass. There, racing across roads, alighting in backyards with tail quizzical and bouncy. Or, disappearing into the darkness, leaving only the certainty of the vision. Always the sightings were recalled with awed delight and a hint of conspiracy – a secret had been made flesh.

The cougar, in these parts called the mountain lion, would not be uncomfortable in the thousand square miles of the Catskills. The mountains are forbidding in the backcountry, the boreal peaks rising to 4,000 feet, capped with tangled balsam fir forests that gather heaps of snow and ice in winter, in spring dispersing the run-off into streams and waterfalls off craggy ledges and down into abysmal hollows where the fur-bearing mammals come to drink. The locals say that God made the earth in seven days and on the eighth he threw rocks at the Catskills. The stony soil of the high country offers little chance for crops, but there is much to eat for a cougar: White-tail deer fill the woods, noisy packs of coyotes have moved in from the north and the west, and there is a surfeit of fox, badger, porcupines, rabbits, and beaver, all of which a cougar will stoop to eating when deer aren’t on the table. In summer, the understory in the hardwood forests at the lower elevations, where man long ago abandoned logging and tanning, turns thick and difficult, choked with thorny brush and blowdowns. In places the forest is boggy and mosquito-infested and dark and full of mists – places in which to get utterly lost. This wilderness is abutted by the little towns and villages where the majority of the humans in the Catskills prefer to live, while a good portion of it, about 40 percent, is protected in the Catskill Forest Preserve, under the auspices of the New York State Department of Conservation, better known as the DEC, which counts among its mandates the tracking of wild animal populations.

blurred black and white photo of a cougar on snow

Joe Kennedy did not have kind words for the DEC, though it was a sister agency to his own employer, the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, which is tasked primarily with protecting the reservoirs that provide the “champagne” drinking water for New York City. The reason for the enmity was that the people at DEC laughed at him – a colleague in government service! – for claiming to have seen a mountain lion.

Before he retired, in 2006, Kennedy’s job with the DEP for 11 years was to patrol the reservoirs on tiring night-shifts in his cruiser, often covering 100 miles of waterside each evening until dawn. In the fall of 2003, at roughly 2 a.m. on a weeknight, he was driving east from the Pepacton Reservoir, near the town of Margaretville, at the western edge of the Catskills. “It crossed in front of me like a flash – it was in the road and it leaped,” Kennedy said. “There’s a rock ledge there, angled back almost straight up and down, 15 feet high. And it leaped from the ditch by the road up into the air onto that ledge. But it didn’t make it all the way. It hung on, and with its back feet scratching pulled itself up and over.” Being a veteran cop – Kennedy had been a police officer in the Catskills for 21 years before joining the DEP – and an enthusiast for animals in the wild, he took note of the details. He guessed it was 75 pounds, maybe 80. It was a tannish color. He knew it was a cat, and he knew it was big, and the tail – 20 inches or longer – certainly wasn’t the short, bushy thing found on a bobcat.

This was not all. In the summer of 2005, parked in his cruiser not a thousand yards from the spot of the first sighting, he saw a second cat. “It wasn’t sneaking around. Broad daylight! It came up from the river” – the east branch of the Delaware River, which feeds the Pepacton – “and went out across the road. Nonchalant, you know? When I seen that, I yelled, ‘There’s a mountain lion!’ I took off, floored it, and shot to it – and there it was: I wasn’t over 20 feet from it. It was down the bank, off the road, and it was walking. When I stopped the car and opened the door, it turned around and it looked at me and it took right off running – gone into the brush, where it could hide forever. I didn’t really believe it, but I know what I saw.

“Well, I talked to two different conservation officers” – with the DEC – “and the first one was Harry Youngs, now retired like me. And he said, ‘People see this and people see that, but most of the time it’s big bobcats. We never found any evidence. Nobody ever sees no tracks.’ I saw what I saw! I wonder if headquarters at Conservation tells Harry what to tell people like me. He didn’t even say, ‘Hey, where’d this happen? Take us to the spot! Let’s look for prints!’ Nah. Never once. No investigation. Seems like they want to brush it off, cover it up. I know what I saw.”

Before we hung up the call, Kennedy said to me: “I hope you can prove it. Prove that they’re here.”

Puma concolor, ‘cat of one color,’ once had sway of the continent. It lived in swamps and canebreaks and bamboo forests, and in rainforests and oak stands, along rivers and by the sea, on the plains and prairies and in the deserts, and on mountain ledges east and west. Perhaps due to this wide range, the animal was many-monikered. It was called cougar, but also catamount, panther, puma, mountain lion, and among proud-accented New Englanders it was the “painter.” The French naturalist-explorer Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, in his Natural History (…of the Brute Creation), published across 36 volumes between 1749 and 1788, gave it the name “cuougar,” a derivation of the Brazilian Portugese word cuguacuarana, which itself derived from the Tupi Indian word susuarana, or “false deer.”

In Native American folklore, it was “ghost walker” and “ghost of the wilderness,” for the cat was nomadic, a loner, and almost mythical in its secretiveness. “A sleek and sneaking fellow, the shyest creature on the North American continent,” a tracker in British Columbia once told me. “Give him one leaf and he’ll hide behind it, hide himself as no other can do.” Up close, it was playful and graceful like the house cat, purred, and had a taste for catnip. “Though not as strong as the jaguar, he is as fierce and perhaps more cruel,” Count Buffon wrote. “He appears more greedy of prey, for having once seized, he kills it, and, without waiting to tear it to pieces, he continues to eat and suck alternately, until he has gorged his appetite and satisfied his bloodthirsty fury.” Its method was ambush: a leap from nowhere, a cracking of the neck, the prey going limp, the skull opened for an hors d’oeuvre. The full-grown male could reach 200 pounds, though its voice could be sad and quiet. “When conversing with their mates,” wrote author Ed Hoagland, “they coo like pigeons, sob like women, emit a flat slight shriek, a popping bubbling growl, or mew, or yowl.”

Its preferred diet in the East was the white-tailed deer, which it shadowed through the seasons, but with the coming of European settlement the cougar was not averse to cattle, sheep, domesticated dogs and cats, and sometimes humans who got in the way. The settlers set out to destroy it. The cougar was hunted by hounds, poisoned with bait, and shot for lucrative bounties, while its meal ticket, the deer, was hunted to the point that deer nearly disappeared from the East. Deer populations rebounded spectacularly during the twentieth century – there are more deer today than at the time of European settlement – but by 1900 the eastern cougar was on its way to extinction.

In New York, the cats had been abundant. Thomas Meacham, a trapper who died about 1849, reportedly killed 77 cougars in his time in the Adirondack Mountains. A trapper named E. L. Shepherd had killed 28 cougars in New York by 1883. Between 1879 and 1890, a total of 107 cats in the state were slaughtered for bounty. The last cougar in New York reportedly met its end either in 1893, 1894, or 1897 – the records are contradictory. By 1904, the State Game Commission felt safe enough to conclude that the cougar was no longer a New Yorker. It was gone, too, almost entirely from eastern North America – its sole remaining patch of survival in Florida, in the Everglades – and within a few years gone from the Midwest. The cougar was now a confirmed Westerner, alive in the wild only beyond the Mississippi.

Then, beginning in the 1950s, there were sightings in the Northeast – odd and incongruous signs of hope that the animal had somehow endured in crypto-survival, lingering on the wild margins. In New Brunswick between 1951 and 1970, there were 20 sightings of “black panthers” – nonexistent in North America – the hides said to have been darkened because the cats were soaked with rain or emerging from water. Bruce Wright, a wildlife biologist in New Brunswick, gathered up these sightings and many others, and in the 1960s spun a theory: Cougars that had somehow held out in eastern Canada and northern New England were recolonizing their old terrain, especially where white-tailed deer had again become plentiful.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) would later take an uncharitable view of Wright’s work. His “passion for the survival of the eastern puma,” stated an analysis by USFWS published last year, “stirred the public imagination.” It just so happened that the popularization of Wright’s hypothesis in books and magazines produced a “coincident” increase in the number of sightings. His hypothesis, however, was accepted at the time “without critical scientific review.” It was based almost entirely on “unconfirmed sightings” – evidence that was also accepted without much review by the USFWS, which in 1973 officially listed the eastern cougar as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, “even though no populations were known.”

And the sightings did not cease. Since the 1960s, according to the USFWS, tens of thousands of reports were collected by state and federal wildlife agencies in the US and provincial agencies in Canada, and by organizations of citizens convinced the cougar had returned. The Eastern Puma Research Network, founded in 1983, collected more than 3,000 sightings in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. The Eastern Cougar Foundation and the Cougar Network also each dedicated websites and publications to the effort, mapping out possible cougar enclaves, dispatching volunteers to look for sign, reassuring those who had seen the fleet-footed creature that they were not alone.

When the USFWS issued its extinction notice last March, the lead author of the study, biologist Mark McCollough, sat down to review the three decades of sightings. McCollough could find no hard evidence – tracks, scat, roadkills – to prove the animal’s existence, nor, for that matter, did he find any documentation “to fully explain the rationale why the eastern cougar subspecies was listed” in the first place in 1973. The suggestion was that the USFWS had spent all those years in suspended disbelief.

There is no citizens group of big cat believers in the Catskills, but nonetheless a kind of brotherhood exists among those who are certain of their vision. In the village of Phoenicia, Bobby Dicaprio, who had a case of walking pneumonia and was missing the hunting season for the first time in 30 years, told me a cougar walked into his backyard a few years ago. It flipped its long tail in his direction, then it yowled once and bounded away. “Listen: There are mountain lions in the Catskills,” Dicaprio told me. “Ask around.” I did. I talked to clerk girls in supermarkets, carpenters in bars, postal workers – they’d all seen cats they said were cougars. A woman in the town of Margaretville, where I live part of the year, told the story of a father and son sitting around a campfire at dusk when two cougars walked out of the treeline, eyed the men, licked each other, rolled in the tall grass, and vanished. Kevin Greenbery, who cuts my hair in Margaretville, told me he saw the same cougar twice in the summer of 2002, near his house on the east side of the Pepacton Reservoir – about a half mile from where Joe Kennedy saw his cougars. “It was around midnight, a warm night,” Greenbery said, “and my cats suddenly were freaked out, banging on the screen door to get in. I heard a noise in the yard and turned on all the lights.

It just so happened that the popularization of Wright’s hypothesis in books and magazines produced a “coincident” increase in the number of sightings.

“The tail was real long – it hung down and then curved up at the end. He was looking at me and I was looking at him and we looked at each other like that for 30 seconds. He was maybe 20 or 25 feet from me. And then he turned around and walked away, down to the stream by the house.” Greenbery saw another big cat – perhaps the same one – a month later, as it sauntered on the road to his house. “I always looked for him after that. I wanted to see him again.”

One day recently I drove out along the Pepacton Reservoir with a DEP law officer named Bruce Mateer, who also saw cougars – twice – in the summer and fall of 2002. He took me to the spot of the second sighting, along cliffs that run down to the Pepacton, about 10 miles west of Greenbery’s house. On that night in 2002, he was cruising the midnight patrol and came to a bend in the road where a state trooper was parked, the officer standing beside the vehicle with a flashlight illuminating the cliffs.

“What are you lookin’ at?” Mateer asked.

“Shhh,” said the trooper, pointing. Up on the cliffs, lit in the lamp: a scrambling cat. It was “very long, small head in proportion to the body,” Mateer said. “Very muscular. A long tail, with a black tip. He was going straight up these cliffs. 90 degrees up!” The trooper turned to him and winked. “Remember, officially they’re not here.”

We drove to the spot of the first sighting, which occurred a few months earlier. This time, the cat was running across State Route 30, caught for “four seconds at most” in his headlights. Afterward, his shift done at 7 a.m., he went back to headquarters and stood in the locker room wondering if he’d hallucinated the creature. Not ten minutes later, he heard the news that a father and son had been fishing at dawn by the reservoir and came in breathlessly to report they’d seen a cougar.

misty photo of a mountain lion's faceCourtesy Bruce Tuten

His lieutenant at DEP headquarters, Marshall Vandemark, shrugged it off – obviously these people were seeing what they were seeing. “In the fall of 2004, I saw a mountain lion, outside Walton, New York,” Vandemark told me. “It run right in front of me, and at first I thought it was a bobcat. Then I says, ‘Holy mackerel, look at the tail on that!’ He was almost colored like a bobcat – but just one color, a goldish brown. A bobcat – well, they have a six-inch tail. They have nice colors – white and black and gold. This lion I saw was bland, just the one color.” Vandemark, who is 60 years old, grew up poor in the Catskills, and survived by hunting in the woods for his meat. He must have killed 800 deer in his time, seen more than 50 bobcats in the wild. “If I’m positive it’s a mountain lion,” Vandemark said, “then it’s a mountain lion.” Like his fellow officer Joe Kennedy, he considered DEC willfully blind to the evidence. “They say, ‘There’s no goddamn such things as mountain lions in New York State.’ I don’t know where they get their information.” Bruce Mateer told me that the DEC staffers carry around “a specially-made cardboard cut-out of a mountain lion, which they bring out from their truck to show people there’s no way they saw what they saw. Well, why do they have the cardboard cut-out if there are no mountain lions here?”

I confess to jealousy of these sightings. I spend a lot of time backpacking in the Catskills, and also in the West, in the canyons of Utah and in the mountains of California, holing up in the wild for days. I keep an eye out for cougars, imagining I’d not run away or go paralytic seeing one. I want to believe they’re in my midst for the obvious reasons, at once hopeful and ashamed and always ironic: The great carnivores should still exist in an America where they had to be killed so that people like me could go backpacking and sleep in the open with both eyes closed. I suppose we want the world to be wilder than it is, and the idea of a man-eater at large flatters our sense of adventure.

Once, a few years ago, bushwhacking in Pole Canyon outside Moab, Utah, where the canyon reaches down from the high aspen country of the La Sal Mountains, I found what I thought were fresh prints in mud in the springtime. I stood over the spot and muttered like a child and did a dance. Then I looked again, as the sun shifted and the shadows moved, and I wondered if I had misread the prints. This past March, in the Anza-Borrego Wilderness in California, where cougars are known to exist in sizable numbers, I went up Hellhole Canyon to camp by a waterfall. In the night, under an old moon, I thought I smelled a cat passing by, perhaps up-canyon to drink. The smell is supposed to be unmistakable – the heavy stink of feline pee, “like being drowned in a house cat litter box,” as described to me by a woman whose teenage son ran away from a cougar outside her home near San Diego.

The trooper turned to him and winked. “Remember, officially they’re not here.”

Prints in mud, perfume in the air – the closest I’ve gotten. Or perhaps wishful, the closest I’ve not gotten at all.

A few days after we met, Bruce Mateer sent me a digital photo of a Catskill cougar taken by a friend of his, Nick Burton, a DEP forest maintenance worker from the village of Andes, seven miles north of the Pepacton Reservoir. I was stunned when it downloaded on my laptop. Blown up and enhanced, the photo, snapped in a field near Burton’s house in July 2010, showed what looked to be a long lean cat in high grass, in full daylight, staring straight at the camera with an expression that made me think of a housewife caught flashbulbed naked in her bedroom.

I sent the photo to a cougar biologist in California named Rick Hopkins, PhD, who immediately emailed back. “This is a house cat,” he wrote. “The gestalt – take a good look at the face – the color, and its relative height compared to the vegetation.” Hopkins noted that biologist Paul Beier, legendary for his cougar research in the West, found that up to 90 percent of the sightings he investigated were something other than a cougar. The house cat mistake, Hopkins said, was a common one. In 2004, a sheriff’s deputy in San Bernadino County encountered what he believed was a cougar and gunned it down. It was an Abyssinian house cat.

Burton’s photo, however, drew a good deal of interest from investigators at DEC, in particular a biologist named Scott Van Arsdale, who in 2008 wrote an article on cougar sightings for the DEC’s official publication, the New York State Conservationist. The article was titled “Big Cat Tales,” and it reported that in one year’s time, during 1995-96, Arsdale had gathered a log of 44 alleged sightings in the Catskills. His colleagues, he told me, were “sick of dealing with all the stories,” so he took up the log to answer a nagging concern that perhaps the DEC was too dismissive.

People sent in photos and videos, full of grainy images and half-seen creatures, and Arsdale responded with his life-sized cardboard cougar, which he hand-fashioned, visiting the sites to display the cut-out on the spot where the cat had been seen.

He found no physical evidence behind the visions: no hair, no tracks, no scat, no substantiated attacks on livestock, and certainly no dead cougars. Statistically, where there are cougars, as in California, lots of them end up killed by cars.

If people were seeing actual cougars in the Catskills, then the only explanation Arsdale had to offer was that they were seeing captive animals that had escaped or been set free or abandoned. He was able to corroborate at least one sighting in the mid-1990s in an area where a pet cougar had escaped captivity and was not recovered. Perhaps the escaped cat, in this scenario, had survived awhile in the wild, maybe for years, glimpsed here and there – the vision made true. There are 23 permitted cougars in captivity in New York, and more than 200 in Pennsylvania, many of them imports from South America. Perhaps others have escaped, Arsdale said. If alone, the escapee would never find a mate and would be an orphan, facing its end in the deep of the woods, in places unknown to man. Or perhaps to remain still out there – a talisman of the hoped-for recovery.

After 1996 Arsdale gave up keeping track of the stories, and the DEC now maintains no records of sightings. There are simply too many, and, in Arsdale’s experience, they often approach the hallucinatory. “Couple of the videos we’ve had with audio, people are exclaiming: ‘Ah, it’s huge! It’s a cougar! It’s twice the size of a German shepherd!’ And there on the screen: It’s a house cat. It’s clearly a house cat. People want to believe something else. I had one guy in Trout Creek, near Walton, call me and said he’d just seen a black panther. He was so convinced he didn’t even go look at the tracks. I got there and we went up the hill, and we crossed some deer track in the fresh snow and then some house cat tracks, which we followed. And there, hiding under an old abandoned trailer, was a black cat, probably feral, who didn’t want anything to do with us.”

When he heard about the Burton photo last summer, Arsdale dutifully trekked out to Andes carrying his cardboard cougar, and took photos, and analyzed the size of the alleged cougar in the photo as against the height of the grass and the width of the trees. He concluded it was not a house cat, but likely a bobcat. Burton didn’t believe him. There were hard feelings.

Arsdale once thought he saw a cougar in Yosemite National Park, near a popular trail area among tall trees. It seemed big, and it walked briskly. It went behind one tree and then another, and when it reappeared the curve of the hind legs looked like a curved tail. Ardsale looked again, frozen to the spot, because of course he wanted to believe. The creature came out behind another tree … and he saw it was a bobcat. Then Arsdale spotted two young children running, delighted by the sight. They were chasing the animal.

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