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.

18 Comments

  1. carolyn niven

    I saw a cougar in my horse paddock yesterday. I live in West Townsend Mass on a 55 acre farm, mostly wooded. I’ve owned animals and observed wildlife my entire life. This was an extremely large dark gold cat with a long tail (not a bobcat)!!!

    I have a young child and many farm animals not sure what to do or if it will come back to stalk my animals.

    • charles smith from Sharon, CT in reply to carolyn niven

      I am an author of outdoor rec and natural history books mostly in the Berkshires of western Mass. I’m disabled now but when I was doing the books I would be in woods alot. Once I bumped into a ranger and we started talking about cougars and whether they still exist in the Berkshires. He replied that, on the record there are no cougars in western Mass. Off the record I,ll tell you that there are cougars. In fact the state has been tracking one out at Quabbin (reservoir) for years.
      There is a nice little town news paper in New Marlborough, MA that had a feature on the eastern cougar complete with photos of one cat. I know where the image was taken and you can’t fake it. Also the people in this nice country town see cougars regularly. Now please remember, these folks have grown up in the woods. They know the difference between a bobcat and a cougar. I lived up there for over 30 years and had bobcats walk through the backyard frequently and I never thought those bobcats were cougars. In fact my youngest one looking at a bobcat correctly identified the animal.
      I have no doubt the cougar is here. And I really think that if somone finds that one has made the backyard it,s “place to be” then one needs to prepare for its company. I have often checked out what the western cougar does around people. There is a wonderfully written book entitled “The Beast in the Garden, the true story of a predators’ return to suburban america” byDavid Baron. It details what happened when small town near Boulder, CO accidently made excellent cougar habitat on the edge of town. It has some excellent information for us all. And lastly, I wouldn’t let little ones be outside if a cougar was about, just like I wouldn’t let out if black bear was about. I’m not trying to be scary, just prudent.

      • No prudent adult would let their child play with strange dogs or house cats or hamsters, or horses, or strange adults, even strange children should be scrutinized, so it goes without saying that the rare, starving, old, mentally failing puma might be scrutinized. kindly submitted

  2. Peter from Rutland

    We have had sightings throughout central MA. My wife saw one cross the road here in town and we have had several sightings just here in town last year alone. If you talk to some of the animal control people off the record they will tell you that big cats are here. Officially, nope, nothing to see here, move along. There are rumors the NY DEC released big cats a few years back. They officially deny it.

  3. Brian Petersen

    I live in central oregon and i know two people who seperatley saw two wolves in a remot wilderness area. This is about 500 miles from the Idaho boarder. When the ODFW was asked if wolves were planted here, they denied it. Of course they dont want you to know, there would be an outcry of protest. As far as the cats go, dont worry, they will not hurt you if you are aware of your surroundings and never go out in the bush alone or if you do carry a weopon or some pepper spray. If a big cat wants you, it will have you! Just always be prepared for the worse and you will survive an attack.

    • A wolf has never attacked a human in North America. And Puma’s kill less than 1 of our 309,000,000 citizens each year going back 150 years. Cars kill 40,000, homocide almost as many.

  4. Tamcho

    I have seen cougars twice in the Catskill State Forest near where I live. The DEC is very interested in sightings and takes plaster casts of tracks if you call them in.

  5. Rickba

    I’m a lifelong outdoorsman and know my mountain animals. I had my own Cougar experience in NW Pa. during deer season way in the back country in the Alleghney National Forest. They are there whether you have seen them or not. Read my story.

    There are no Cougars in Pennsylvania
    At least that’s the official party line of the Pennsylvania Game commission. Well, you can go on believing that if you wish. Most people don’t believe things they hear. There’s the old adage, ‘seeing is believing’. If you’re from Missouri, ‘show me’! Well, this isn’t Missouri.
    The winter of 2003 was a particularly harsh winter with sub-zero temperatures and deeper than normal snow fall, especially in the high mountain. Christmas had passed and my wife and I were anticipating the New Year. December 26th is the start of the late primitive weapons season in Pennsylvania, where the only weapon allowed is a flintlock ignition rifle .44 caliber or larger loaded with black powder and patch and ball.
    It was just before sun up when I headed for the back country. My property borders the Allegheny National Forest. I go right out by back door and into the mountains. The weather forecast was for a bright sunny day in the teens. It promised to be a beautiful day for hunting. I was so excited about a day in the mountains; I grabbed my trusty flintlock, possibles bag with my ball, patch and powder, and skinning knife. I left my backup pistol behind. I always take my revolver with me for backup. One never knows what they will encounter in the deep mountains. I routinely go 10 miles or more back to get past the fair weather hunters. In my many years hunting the mountains, I have had some very close calls with wildlife.
    After a couple hours of walking, I was about 7 miles back. The mountains are quite high and the Mountain Laurels and Hemlocks are thick so the snow covering is much thinner. I set up for a spell on a well-worn Deer trail when I heard a sound that I hadn’t heard since my Marine Corps days at Camp Pendleton, California. As I listened, the sound seemed to get closer. As I assessed my situation, I suddenly realized how foolish it was not to bring my revolver with me. Well, too late now.
    I decided it was time to move and put some distance between me and the all too familiar sound. I stood and checked my flintlock. I opened the frizzen and brushed the powder from the pan. I cleaned the touchhole with my touchhole pic well and put fresh powder in the pan. I closed the frizzen, checked the position of the flint, tightened the jaws on the flint and pulled the cock to full cock then headed back down the mountain as quietly as possible with the rifle laid across my arms at a ready position. 95% of my hunting is with my flintlock. I think I’m a better than average shot with my rifle, however only one shot between me and a Cougar is not odds I wished to test.
    I moved slow and quietly as possible back down the mountain. After about an hour I had traveled what I would estimate to be a mile or so and I thought that I was in the clear. Then I went through an area of little snow with frozen leaves and pine twigs showing. My boots seemed to make an awful crunch as I walked. Every step brought the echo of crunching leaves and snapping twigs. I stopped to listen, the crunching continued for 3 more steps then stopped. I waited silently, listened to the silence of the cold mountain air for a few seconds before continuing to walk as silently as I possibly could. After two steps I could hear the echo again. I realized that I was being stalked by an animal that is not supposed to exist in Pennsylvania.
    I covered another 50 yards when I entered a small clearing about 30 yards across. I moved to the far side of the clearing and set up in a stand of Mountain Laurels with my rifle aimed directly at the trail I had just exited. It was eerily quiet for a few minutes. The only sound was a slight breeze as it moved through the trees, and a faint crunching of footsteps. The Cougar entered the clearing through the same trail opening that I had used moments before. I lined my iron sights right on his chest. He was the most magnificent Cougar that I had ever seen. He was quite large animal with a very dark brown coat, large head, slender body, and long tail. He looked me square in the eyes and I looked back, finger on the trigger. I waited for him to make a move. I had him dead to rights and he knew it.
    The Cougar let out a sound that I had never heard a Cougar make before which sent a chill up my spine. At that moment the Cougar turned and disappeared through the same trail opening which it appeared. I stayed at the ready as I listened to the crunching of the leaves fade into the distance and I was confident that the Cougar had left the area. I carefully made my way down the mountain without further incident.
    Since that encounter, I look for cougar sign in the deep mountains, especially when I go through that area. To this day, I can see in my mind’s eye the look on the face of the Cougar when our eyes locked. I’m sure he has the same memory of me.

  6. Valarie

    My husband and I saw a young cougar 2 days ago in a somewhat rural area in North Bennington, Vermont. Actually it was in someones front yard, I didn’t report the sighting to anyone though.

  7. Cindy

    December 5, 2011: About 8 years ago I was driving down a rural road in Kittery, Maine that I’ve known very well all my life. I had just come over a smail hill when suddenly from my left, out of someone’s yard, a cougar rushed across the road just a few feet in front of my car with something that looked like a pigeon-sized bird in its mouth. I got a very good look at it, long tail and all. Was totally unprepared to see that! We “don’t have cougars in Maine” anymore. Sent shivers down my spine. I told people about it and they said no, it must have been a fox. Hey, I love foxes and I’m a country girl from Maine; I’ve seen foxes all my life, and this animal was close to my car, I know it was not a fox. Round head, thick legs, long rope-like tail, ran like a cat, not like a fox. And it was very big.

  8. Martin

    August 9 2011, in Stuckely South QC a few miles north of Vermont a horse was attack by a cougar. Two days later, August 11 2011, in Danville QC about 65 miles from Maine and Vermont border with Canada, a horse has been attack by what look to be a cougar. Wildlife agent took a plaster print of the animal that was said larger than a Lynx (Bobcat).

    We live 25 miles from Danville QC and have found and took pictures of track of what we are sure is a cougar. Officially Wildlife dept said there is no cougar in Quebec even if their web site says that there may be some. But has said earlier, off the record, a friend of mine who work as a wildlife agent in the area said it is quite possible.

  9. Trevor Ose

    I live out west, but grew up in Vermont. Back in the late ’80s I was deer hunting with a friend in a particularly prey-rich area in Monkton, in Addison County. Midday, I saw a large, brown blur a long ways off in an open, snow-covered field. Deer-sized, yes, but something nagged at me that it wasn’t a deer. Looking through my rifle scope, the long, low body and long, slender tail were obvious. I carefully made my way out of sight into a gully between us.

    When I came back out, I would have cut our distance in half. Just then, 2 shots erupted from the timber west and uphill from the field. I ran, but the cat was gone by the time the area it was in came into view again. It turned out my friend had abandoned his rifle late morning for his shotgun and smaller prey, and had shot at a grouse up in the timber. I was sad to have missed both seeing the cougar much closer, as well as watching it erupt from it’s position at the shots. The field had not been completely covered with snow, nor were my very limited tracking skills tuned to much besides deer and hares, so I found nothing that said BIG CAT to me. I felt honored to at least get one glimpse.

    • >That\’s funny I had the exact same reaction the first time I saw their logo! When I was 11 or 12, my grehafatndr gave me a Frederick Keys program, which includes the names and logos of all the O\’s minor-league affiliates (Kane County was one at the time; so were the Polecats, BTW.) For some reason, I thought Kane County was in Alabama or Georgia somewhere, and certainly not in Chicagoland.So it wasn\’t just you. Personally, I find it a little eerie that we both made the same mistake.

  10. Deborah

    I saw a catamount (or eastern cougar) this afternoon at about 3:15pm when I was heading south on Interstate 91. The very large cat was about half-way between Lyndonville and St. Johnsbury, Vermont and was crossing the highway from the side going north to the side heading south. The cat crossed at about 30 feet in front of my car and I couldn’t believe I was so fortunate to see it. I noted its powerfully strong legs moving its body and the cat’s very long tail. It was definitely a catamount. I will be reporting this siting tomorrow.

  11. lisa

    Hello
    I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We have cougars here in our trails. I have seen two of them from a far distance and am I’m quite happy to say they did not see me.

  12. cheryl

    in the spring of 200, when i had my home in the Town of Jackson in Upstate NY (between the Hudson River and Arlington VT), i saw one out my window strolling right under my wash line behind my house. at first i thought it was a very large dog. then i saw the tail that curled up at the end after nearly reaching the ground. raised the hairs on the back of my arms when i realized what it was. i went running through the house checking for my 2 Boarder Collie pups and was so relieved to find them safe indoors. then i rang my “next-door” neighbor and town animal control official to tell him. he was not at all surprised and said they are seen in the area often after hard winters, looking for food.

  13. Alastair

    Several years ago, perhaps 2003 give or take a year, in March, I was skiing at Burke Mountain in East Burke, VT. It had been snowing hard all day. The last run of the day left flat light, as the sun had moved behind the mountain to the west. I was skiing in a glade on the east side of the mountain, which is an extremely wild area indeed, much wilder than one might expect of a developed ski resort.

    The snow had gotten quite deep by this time as it had been snowing all day. For some reason, I had a sixth sense reaction to movement above me and to my right as I descended the mountain at a leisurely pace. I am an expert skier and totally comfortable in the woods in all conditions, but I’m not a gun owner, and on this occasion I truly wished that I were.

    I stopped short and pointed my poles uphill and to the right in the direction of my premonition, anticipating a sudden impact that did not come. I felt hunted. I grew afraid, and after scanning the gloom as much as I could in the flat light and driving snow, I decided that my best weapon was speed, but that I should remove my pole straps from my wrists so that I could better use the poles as poking devices if whatever had taken an interest in me decided to to become an aggressor. I took off downhill as fast as could be in the deep powder, and not nearly as fast as I would have liked.

    I came over a drop-off and misjudged a right hand turn and fell hardly, into an awkward position, missing my left (downhill side) ski. Temporarily immobilized, I felt it necessary to put myself in a defensive stance, as at this point I was experiencing a full blown panic attack. I looked ahead and to my right back up the hill. Above me and about 20 yards distant, on top of a bulge that in summer might have been a smallish rounded ledge, I saw what was almost like the face of a Cheshire Cat, by which I mean I could only see the face and not the body, due to the increasing gloom and driving snow. Mostly what I saw, and this chilled my blood, was the eyes. Two large, yellow eyes which were the only points of light in the gathering darkness.

    I did the only thing I could do at this point. I spoke to the eyes. I told the eyes that while I probably tasted delicious, they would certainly pay for the meal dearly. I promised to stab the eyes with my ski poles. I kept talking while I retrieved my left ski and carefully clicked into it. I clacked my poles at the eyes, and saw a savage looking tongue run itself over tooth and chops. I howled like a mad thing possessed in an attempt to frighten the beast.

    It gave a tremendous start and bounded away., as did I, down the mountain as fast as humanly possible in deep powder. As I reached the base area I stopped at ski patrol to report what I had seen. They said that just that morning they had had reports of catamount tracks along the East Bowl trail, before the snow began, less than 300 yards from my encounter. I was trembling as I stood before them, hairs on my neck still standing at rapt attention like cadets before a drill sergeant’s inspection.

    Me-ow!

Share Your Thoughts