Looking For 'Ghost' Cougars

U.S. Fish and Wildlife tries to prove mountain lions haunt Virginia town

Cougars inspire hysteria like few other large predators. I've seen it firsthand: When my dad first moved to mountain-lion country in Colorado, he set up a situation room. He filled it with crazy escape-plan diagrams, well-worn copies of The Beast In the Garden, and newspaper clippings of mountain lion sightings, which covered the walls Beautiful Mind-style. He even made my brother and me take a ridiculous Bowie knife with us when we went hiking — you know, just in case we had to stab a cougar in self-defense with an unweildy, 12-inch blade.

Similar mountain-lion mania has gripped the town of Blackstone, VA, population 3,700. For the last several years, residents have spotted cougars around town, and a few even refuse to go out at night. The local newspaper has covered 15 sightings since 2003, even though mountain lions have officially been considered extirpated from the East since 1900 (excluding Florida, which has an isolated subspecies population of about 100).

Still, tens of thousands of sightings get reported, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will file a report this winter expected to determine whether or not native cougars still live in the East. Blackstone animal control officials and volunteers plan to contribute by setting up camera traps and other methods of detection.

While 64 cougar sightings have been confirmed in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Illinois, wildlife experts think most of these cats were either escaped pets or migrating from western areas. Native populations have never been confirmed.

"The sense I get is there are a number of game commission people laughing, and that bothers me a bit because we've got good people here who aren't crazy," said Billy Coleburn, who as editor of the paper wrote most of the stories.

They may not be crazy, but even just one cougar sighting seems to inspire prolonged bouts of cougar-sighting madness in any given community, according to Mark Dowling, co-founder of The Cougar Network (which is an organization I must join):

It is easy to misjudge an animal's size from a distance, Dowling said. His organization often gets photos of housecats from people who believe they are seeing cougars.

You see, Dad? At least half of your clippings are probably tabbies. And besides, they're more afraid of us than we are of them.

— Ted Alvarez

Va. town tries to prove existence of 'ghost cats' (AP)