The following is reprinted from November 2013.
For a great number of years, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether or not there are or ever have been cougars in North Carolina. The official standpoint of wildlife authorities is that the only big cats, meaning cougars, that are in existence east of the Mississippi River are a small population of Florida panthers in the Everglades.
Let’s get one thing clear before we go any further. Cougar is another name for panther or mountain lion, all the same animal. The wildlife authorities’ position on the existence of cougars is quite clear. Probably their strongest argument is that of all the thousands of reported sightings across the state, not one verified picture has been furnished, and that argument grows stronger with the advent of game cameras and cell phones that can take pictures.
On the opposite end of the debate are the people, a great number of them, who swear that they indeed did see and/or come in contact with cougars. Included in their numbers are hunters, loggers, motorists, hikers, and one supervisory wildlife officer—and me.
Several years ago, on our farm, on the back side of which flows Fishing Creek, on a prehistoric migration trail from the coast to the mountains, my brother, John, and I saw cougars several times over a period of a few weeks. Several of our neighbors also saw them. There were at least two, one tan and one black. John almost hit one with his van on a farm path. Another person was in a tree stand deer hunting when a black one ran right by.
My position on the existence of cougars is that they are indeed here; however, I believe that most of them did not originate in this area, but are escaped from circuses or zoos. To back up this opinion, several years ago, a deer hunter shot and killed a cougar that had numbers branded on the inside of one of its ears. I do know that at one time there was a breeding population of cougars in the vicinity of Atlantic Beach. I saw that with my own eyes. And, up until last week, I saw a live cougar that weighed about 200 pounds almost every day for the last 14 years, less than a mile from the Warrenton city limits.
Going back to last week’s column in which I told of a gas station owner at Atlantic Beach showing me a big female cougar that he had in a cage, I immediately knew that there was a breeding population of cougars in that area. How did I know this? I saw her mammary glands, which were still somewhat enlarged, which indicates that she had recently weaned babies. The man had caught that huge cat in a walk-in live trap with a small live pig for bait. He had also shot a cougar and seen up close several small, half grown young ones.
Another example of strong evidence that big cats have been in this area comes from the sighting reports that come to us here at the wildlife center. In several instances, if we were to plot each sighting on a map, they would all be in a line several miles long over a period of several days, which indicated that it was the same animal moving on. One such instance began with a sighting in the Five Forks community near Lake Gaston, then one near the Churchill community, the next day at Macon, followed by one at Afton, another in the Sulphur Springs area, and on into Franklin County. There can be no coincidence that each person described the identical animal and in sequence with the previous one.
Then there is a lady who once lived at Lake Gaston and had a close encounter with a big cat. This lady, whose name is Inez, hit a deer with her car one night. The deer was still alive but was obviously mortally wounded. Several people stopped, including two or three men, but none of them was willing to put the dying deer out of its misery. So she took matters into her own hands. She was packing heat and took out her pistol and dispatched the deer, which had a sizable set of antlers. She decided to have a taxidermist mount the head, and she would hang it on a wall in her house. She also had some kind of big knife with which she cut off the deer’s head. Now, I must say to any criminal or potential criminal, you do not want to tangle with or challenge this lady. You would almost certainly suffer the same fate as the deer. Inez put the deer head on a table on her porch right beside a glass wall or door, which was covered by a curtain.
In the dark of night she heard a thud on her porch. She flicked on the porch light and drew back the curtain. There, within inches and with only the glass between them, she saw a huge black cat with the deer head in its mouth. She said to me, “Frank, I know what I saw, and there can be no doubt or mistake about it.” Soon after, we received several reports of sightings of a large black panther in that general area.
Next week, we’ll talk more about big cats, including the one I saw almost every day for 14 years.
—Continued next week.—