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MARTHA SEZ: A cat tale about cougars

April 1, 2011
Most of the time I am preoccupied with the world of people. Only once in a while does my perspective shift, and I see the hamlets and villages of the Adirondack Park as small encampments, islands surrounded by wilderness.

There is plenty going on all around us, hidden among the trees. Yes, even now, in the snow. I am reading that the first black bears are already coming out of hibernation, ermine weasels and snowshoe hares are beginning their spring molts, changing their nival camouflage from white to brown in keeping with the changing seasons.

Fisher kits and flying squirrel pups are being born, ravens are hatching, and barred owls are laying eggs. Breeding season is just starting for lynx and bobcats.

But not for mountain lions. This month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct.

The mountain lion has many names, including ghost cat, cougar, painter and panther, which goes to show how wide the distribution of the species used to be across America.

Until recently, I held out hope that the big cats still ranged these mountains, only rarely showing themselves to humans in the little pockets of civilization dotting their hunting grounds. This made sense to me. I have a romantic attachment to believing that mountain lions roam the forests at the corners of our eyes, and why not? I saw one in St. Huberts.

It was late summer, 1993. I was picking raspberries and blackberries in the woods behind the Slater house. As I approached the berry patch, I heard the sound of crashing, as a large animal bounded up the side of the steep hill in front of me. I assumed it was a deer.

As I picked — 1993 was a very good berry year—I felt I was being watched. I turned my head to my left, and there it was.

The cougar stood a few yards away; it must have crept back down the hill very quietly. It was about the size of German shepherd, and no, it was not a German shepherd. It watched me calmly, as if considering.

Right then, I knew how monkeys feel when confronted by tigers, or how any prey animal feels when faced with a predator. Pure fear hit me in the stomach, bypassing my neocortex entirely. This wasn’t a neocortex moment.

I remember turning and walking, very slowly, back through the woods to the bridge and up the Slater house driveway, forcing myself not to run, wondering whether mountain lions are the kind of animal one maintains eye contact with, or the kind that one should never look in the eye. This was irrelevant anyway, because I didn’t have the nerve to turn around and look. Later, after the adrenaline had worn off somewhat, I realized that I had been singing to myself — something like “Whistle While You Work” — in an attempt to appear nonchalant to the cat. It must have worked, because it didn’t come after me.

No one believed that I’d seen a cougar, except for Mimi McGivney, who had also seen it in the same vicinity a few nights earlier. She was walking her black spitz dog, Anna, when the cougar came down the Slater driveway, noticed her, did a leaping turn in midair and bounded back the way it had come.

Then hunting season came, and Tom Hickey spotted a cougar which he watched through his rifle scope. It walked along, he told me recently, as if it owned the woods. Brett Lawence, one of his hunting partners, called in the sighting to the Department of Conservation, where biologist and wildlife expert Edward Reed began an investigation.

In his investigation report of Nov. 3, Reed reported, “Mr. Hickey is an experienced woodsman and a trained police invstigator who has seen bobcats in the wild and is sure this was not a bobcat.”

Its recent kill, he said, would be covered with leaves and debris by the cougar. The cat leaps, grasps its prey with its claws, and bites its neck.

Kent Wells had found a doe. Reed went to the site and found that it had been killed by a cougar. There were three-inch bite wounds in its neck, but no claw wounds on its back and shoulders. Reed determined that this lion may have been a pet that had been declawed and then released into the wild, although there had been sightings in the area for years, he said.

I was disillusioned to learn this, after all this time, but glad to know the true story. Now I know that there are no breeding pairs of cougars in the Adirondacks.

But I’d be glad to find out otherwise.

Have a good week.


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