Mountain Lion Tracks
Photo by Linda Bittle

The Eastern Cougar


UPDATE: March 6th, 2011 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the eastern cougar is extinct. There is some controversy and debate as to whether the Eastern Cougar was an erroneous classification from the start.

Lately in Vermont there have been sightings of large, majestic beings that are nearly invisible prowling through the countryside bearing a striking resemblance in movement to our own familiar house cats.

Is the eastern cougar alive in Vermont?  Has the cougar ever really left the Northeast?  Are the sightings of escaped cougars?  It was said that the Eastern Cougar was “banished” from the area.

The Eastern Cougar is now on the endangered species list, and there are only about fifty of these animals known to exist.  But recent sightings in our area give us hope (or fear) that the cougar is back and possibly increasing in population.

During the past year there have been six separate sightings reported; in Newfane, Grafton, Townshend, Wilmington, Ludlow and Dummerston.  In the latest edition of Paul Rezendes’ book Tracking and the Art of Seeing, Paul gives us two more sightings, one of which was in the Northeastern kingdom of Vermont, where three cougars were spotted.

The other sighting occurred in central/western Massachusetts when a member of Paul’s tracking team was scouting a tracking site.  He found scat (feces) that appeared to be from a cougar.  Whether or not the cougar is here, it has become a mythological being and its presence is being felt in waves across the landscape.

At a recent Art of Mentoring workshop held in Newfane, Jon Young, founder of Wilderness Awareness School, spoke in detail and demonstrated how the cougar kills its prey, leaving all who attended with a powerful image that we won’t soon forget.

He said that the cougar often stalks its victim for at least a couple of days and gets to know the being’s pattern of behavior.  It observes and locates a weak point, then slowly stalks up close and pounces on the prey.  It first digs its long, razor sharp, hind claws in the victim’s flanks and with its front claws grabs the shoulders.

With its perfectly spaced canines, equipped with nerve endings that enable it to find just the right spot, the cougar bites into the neck, forcing apart the vertebrae and snapping the spine.  It then drags the victim into a ravine or protected area and eats the organs inside.

The cougar, or catamount, is one of the most invisible animals that dwell in the forest.  It has been revered by Native people across the continent for its powers of awareness, strength, and its ability to be invisible even to the most highly trained trackers and scouts.

So what does this all mean to us?

It means that we have one of the most powerful teachers in our own backyards.  It was said by an African bushman that in order to avoid being attacked by the leopard, one must become the leopard.

Jon Young told a story that put this saying to the test.  While at a zoo, Jon Young did just that.  He became the leopard by envisioning himself seeing through its eyes, hearing through its ears, feeling through its body, smelling through its nose and even tasting through its mouth.  Thus the spirit of the leopard fused with his own, all in front of the leopard site.  The big cat, aware of Jon, came down to him and looked him right in the eye.  It then bowed down in front of him.

Since I moved here about a year ago I have noticed that the cougar has sharpened my own senses.

I walk much slower and stop often to recharge my sense of surroundings.  I can imagine the eastern cougar walking some of the ridgelines out my back door near my secret spot.  By the way, did I tell you that the cougar can also jump down from 70 feet up in a tree and pounce right onto its prey?

Never walk the same path twice.

Steve Young is executive director of Vermont Wilderness School.