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Officials Almost Calling “Ghost Cat” Witnesses “Crackpots”

Posted by: Loren Coleman on September 19th, 2008

The Associated Press is running an article (below) today that has conservative groups like the Cougar Network, Eastern Cougar Foundation, and Virginia’s wildlife department up in arms. The Eastern Cougar Foundation pulls one of those dirty political tactics by saying “it doesn’t want to call” witnesses “crackpots” while thus actually doing it and being insulting. Virginia officials have come out and firmly said that the eyewitnesses don’t know what they are seeing and talking about. These characterizations of the witnesses are getting downright offensive.

“Many people who report seeing a cougar in the eastern United States have mistaken it for its smaller cousin, the bobcat,” notes the statement forwarded to the AP from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Clearly, I find these “official” positions short-sighted and unfortunate. These three organizations are, more or less, calling people liars.

But, indeed, most eyewitnesses, who are familiar with their local fauna, use the length of the tail and size of the cat to identify what they are seeing as cougars/mountain lions, and are not as easily fooled as officials would have us think.

The AP news item gives a hint of the overwhelming number of cases coming out of Virginia. Apparently up against the wall, officials feel compelled to do damage control because so many cougars are now being seen in the East.

Search: Va. town tries to prove existence of ‘ghost cats’
By Dena Potter, Associated Press Writer

Blacktstone, Va. – Like some other residents of this small town, Mary Elizabeth Goodwyn doesn’t go outside after dark much anymore.

Goodwyn, 81, used to welcome the dusk under a red maple tree in her front yard every evening, but that was before cougars started showing up in Blackstone _ at least in the local newspaper.

Since 2003, the Courier-Record has run at least 15 stories on cougar sightings in town and in the neighboring 41,000-acre Army National Guard training base.

Wildlife officials say that except for a known population of 100 in Florida, the large cats _ also called mountain lions, pumas, panthers and the fitting “ghost cats” _ were wiped out in the eastern United States by 1900. They claim sightings most likely are cases of mistaken identity _ perhaps a bobcat, deer or even a Labrador retriever.

“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.

As mayor of the town of 3,700, he must also figure out a way to calm residents’ fears.

While hundreds of cougar sightings are reported each year from Maine to the Carolinas, evidence of their presence is as elusive as the big cats themselves.

Since 1900, only 64 sightings have been confirmed in the East outside of Florida, despite tens of thousands of reported sightings, said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is leading a review of the eastern cougar.

“People see an animal run quickly across the road in front of them at night in their headlights, and they might jump to the conclusion it’s a cougar, but a number of those reports are inaccurate,” McCollough said.

Mark Dowling, co-founder of The Cougar Network, a research organization, calls it “mountain lion mania,” when one sighting spawns others.

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.

Dowling and other experts say the stragglers that do turn up are former pets. Experts estimate there are at least 1,000 captive cougars in the East, although many states have outlawed having a cougar as a pet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife review, due this winter, is expected to put to rest the question on whether mountain lions still roam eastern forests. If it finds the eastern cougar is extinct, it will be removed from the list of endangered species. If not, a plan could be put in place to manage the cougars that are here and possibly bring others in.

Those in favor of reintroducing cougars say it is a way to restore some of the natural balance to the ecosystem. The cougar’s favorite meal is deer, which cause an estimated 1.5 million auto accidents and 150 deaths annually because of overpopulation.

McCollough said while the natural habitat is well-suited, the fears of easterners accustomed to life without the world’s fourth-largest cats might be the bigger impediment to reintroduction.

“The biological issues are probably not as difficult to deal with as the social or political issues,” he said.

Officials estimate there are as many as 35,000 mountain lions in the West, including in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. And some are inching eastward.

A cougar kitten was hit by a truck in Kentucky in 1997, one cougar was killed and another captured in West Virginia in 1976 and scientists verified droppings from Massachusetts in 1997.

Earlier this year, police killed a cougar in Chicago that was traced through Wisconsin from South Dakota. Sightings have been confirmed in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and down to Arkansas and Louisiana.

But experts say those are isolated incidents.

Hundreds of motion-activated cameras dot forests throughout the East, from Great Smoky Mountain National Park to an ongoing study along 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The results: hundreds of photos of bears, deer and other critters but no cougars.

“I don’t want to come out and say that everybody who says they’ve seen a mountain lion is a crackpot or mistaken, but if the cats were there, I believe we would be confirming them” more through roadkill, trail cameras or other means, said Jay Tischendorf, president of the nonprofit Eastern Cougar Foundation.

Blackstone recently set up a handful of cameras in the woods with the hope of getting proof, and the town’s lone animal control officer’s hours were pushed back to patrol for the nocturnal cat.

Earlier this month, town officials made a cast of what they believed was a cougar track and sent it to state biologists.

The determination: inconclusive.

Sue Cobbs doesn’t need proof. She knows what she saw twice near her Blackstone home. In June, a big brown cat with a long tail chased a deer through her back yard. A month later, she saw one outside her neighbor’s house.

Like Goodwyn, she’s now a little more careful when she goes outside.

“Every time I take my dogs out to go to the bathroom,” she said, “I’m standing there watching the horizon.”

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


17 Responses to “Officials Almost Calling “Ghost Cat” Witnesses “Crackpots””

  1. cryptidsrus responds:

    I guess we have more fallout from BiscardiGate.

    Either that, or it could also be that officials know something’s out there and want to cover it up.

    Another possibility—this goes outside their firmly established “paradigm” so they dismiss it if it doesn’t fit. Sigh.

  2. Tricky responds:

    With 35000 in the wild (admittedly in the west) and 1000 in captivity (or not) in the East i’m surprised there is so much fuss about misidentification – i’m guessing they dont know which half they are supposed to inhabit.

  3. kagon responds:

    I remember an new article in my old local paper, The Patriot News(Harrisburg, PA) about a few sightings in northern york and southern cumberland county, the conclusion by the writer was something to the effect of; if the game commission admits to their being cougars they have to issue hunting permits on them. This was a few years ago, I’m pretty sure those details are correct, any fish and game officers out there?

  4. greywolf responds:

    First of all most people know what a Cougar (or) Mountain Lion looks like. I also think that any one who lives in the eastern US knows what a Bob cat looks like.If i saw a large cat with a long curve tail and was the size of a large German Shepard or so ………Well don’t tell me i don’t know what I saw. If there are captive animals that have gotten loose hmmm that is the first excuse they give..1. To have that type of animal you need permits 2. If it got loose you are liable for any damage and if you don’t report it you can be arrested for not reporting a public hazzard. 3. The Game or public officials would check those places first to see if an animal got loose.

  5. greywolf responds:

    The Pa .game commission for years would not admit that coyotes were in the state even though when I was a kid the Sportsman’s clubs had “Critter hunts”…..Well guess what the Critter was! I don’t think they know what is in the woods why because the only people in the woods are the enforcement officers and they don’t spend enough time hikeing around to see or watch for the animals. Unless they get a call you know the OMG there is a bigfoot or large cat in my yard.

  6. red_pill_junkie responds:

    They are not calling the witnesses liars.

    They are calling them idiots.

    Honestly, they think folks could mistake a Labrador dog with a cougar?

  7. runwolf responds:

    Here in ALabama a decade or so ago we had a string of sightings of cougers at a popular lovers lane. The officials implied something similar about the witnesses. Long story short it turned out to be a cougar escaped from a private owner.

    Ditto with bears. Which seems to be happening more frequently.

  8. Munnin responds:

    “Earlier this year, police killed a cougar in Chicago that was traced through Wisconsin from South Dakota. Sightings have been confirmed in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and down to Arkansas and Louisiana.”

    Pierre SD is 793 miles from Chicago. There are cougars in the Ocala National Forest in FL. The distance between nearby (to Ocala) Palatka FL and Blackstone VA is 616 miles. It seems reasonable to me, then, that one or more cougars could travel between Florida and Virginia. Just because none have been captured on any trail cam is no good reason to discount their presence, in my view.

    And even if some sightings of cougars could be attributed to escaped “pets,” that would not change the fact that someone sighting such an animal gave an accurate report of what they saw.

    This automatic, knee-jerk debunking is so tiresome!

  9. Trapster responds:

    I see this type of issue from a different angle, because of my job, catching nuisance animals, I get to speak to a witness who’s seen something they don’t usually see. Then, usually I get to see the animal they saw (when I catch it).

    We’re not talking about sea serpents or grizzly bears here, just basic animals like opossum, raccoons or armadillos. It is truly surprising (and dismaying) to learn that many people could not tell you what animal they have seen, or which one is which, when it’s sitting in a trap in front of them.

    What I’ve come to understand is that an alarming amount of people are not going to give you a good description of what they have seen. I don’t think they are idiots or fools, just people who are not used to making a detailed morphological classification in a brief time frame with no warning.

    There are many people who have the luxury to be paid for spending time out in the wilderness with the zoological background, observational skills,and technology to capture that shred of evidence, when they say they have not found evidence, I put more faith in them, as opposed to an 81 year old woman who saw some animal with a long tail run through her yard.

    Additionally, I’d bet than any of these animal control officers, biologists, or game managers would LOVE to be the guy to finally get a picture, or a sighting themselves of the REAL thing, because they think this stuff is really fascinating! After all they have devoted their lives studying this stuff, right? My two cents.

    Anyone else?

  10. korollocke responds:

    nothing special here, just regular animals caught in fleeting moments misidentified, the closer halloween gets the more of this stuff there is. They are all good people just caught by surprise is all.

  11. DWA responds:

    Trapster says:

    “Additionally, I’d bet than any of these animal control officers, biologists, or game managers would LOVE to be the guy to finally get a picture, or a sighting themselves of the REAL thing, because they think this stuff is really fascinating! After all they have devoted their lives studying this stuff, right? My two cents. Anyone else?”

    Well, there’s me, and I think that if anyone thought this was really that fascinating, they’d have more of an open mind on the subject than these supposedly professional wildlife people do.

    I live right next door to Virginia and I can tell you that people are seeing cougars – that’s cougars, the real animal – in Virginia. And in my state, and in the others that border Virginia. Period. Maybe the pros are frustrated because they think they should be the ones having the fun? I don’t know.

    “But experts say those are isolated incidents” translates into plain English as “but experts like to fire from the hip, so they can sound like experts.”

    Personally, I’m willing to trust what people with two good eyes say they saw – particularly when they are of that segment of the population that does know the local fauna – over what desk pilots say those people saw. Those desk pilots are displaying an incuriosity of the sort that never, ever, ceases to amaze me. How do You, O Desk Jockey, know precisely what that lady saw? Were you there? One would think these guys would like a bit of spice in their lives. If there is anything more plausible – that we don’t officially know, that is – than the Eastern cougar, I’d love to know what it is. What is so impossible about this?

    Loren’s theme is spot on. Until we get to the point that we put a little more thought into the observations of everyday people doing what humans do best – living by the evidence of their eyes – we aren’t going to get anywhere with cryptids. This is precisely what the word “ethnoknown” means.

    The eastern cougar is ethnoknown.

    Science can catch up any century it comes around to wanting to.

  12. HOOSIERHUNTER responds:

    I will never understand why the “experts” think that an animal which still exists, is not extinct, and is known to be slowly moving back into areas of former habitation simply cannot exist in their areas!
    Do they think that big cats, for example, read their press releases? Do they think that the creatures strictly observe state lines and will not cross this imaginary boundary? Do they think a river like the Mississippi River is an uncrossable boundary? Do they actually think that these creatures will never ever venture forth into the eastern United States again simply because these experts say so? Makes you wonder who the “crackpots” really are!

  13. cryptidsrus responds:

    Good comments here.

    I guess science thinks of itself and having all of the answers. Just THEM. Like Dwa, I think we need to put more faith in people.

  14. DWA responds:

    HOOSIERHUNTER: exactly.

    Pure science says this: the Eastern cougar is a slam dunk. Of course they’re going to get there, any way they can, just like the coyote did, just like people shut up behind the Iron Curtain risked their lives to get to the West. Who wouldn’t want to go where the easy living is?

    One little thing has gotten lost during our long romance with the wild wild wild West. Most of it is a DESERT, literally, but practically all of it is by comparison to the East, some of the finest wildlife habitat in the global temperate zone. The mountain lion’s ideal prey – deer – inhabit the East in numbers incomprehensible to Westerners. Not only that, but practically all of the East offers cover! (Not only that, but most of the livestock raising in North America happens EAST of the Mississippi.) There’s more forest here now than Washington’s generation saw, and although it is being threatened anew by our idiotic taste for more more more – more big box stores; more square footage per person; more screens in more theatres, more built space that is built to be nothing but space – it is still coming back strong. And so are the animals. The moose is all over New England; you can’t hike in Shenandoah National Park anymore without tripping over a mother bear with four cubs; I’m seeing buck whitetails GRAZING ALONG ROADWAYS for the first time in my life, guns be damned, because they know they won’t get shot in the suburbs, in broad daylight. It’s a smorgasbord, here in God’s country, and the mountain lions can smell it from the arid buttes.

    If they ever left – if the coyote ever left – they were coming back, as soon as we let them. Well, we’re a century into letting them now. Why are professional wildlife people in denial about this?

    The pure scientist in them isn’t. The politician/bureaucrat in them? That’s what is.

  15. John A. Lutz responds:

    I’d like to add my comments to this list of wildlife officials claiming, “people making cougar & mountain lion reports in the east being crackpots”.

    The only crackpots I’ve run into during the last 43 years of cougar & black panther field studies are state & federal wildlife officials who cannot distinguish differences between canine & cougar tracks & other evidence of ghost cats.

    As for the USF&WS Mark McCullogh claim of “only 64 confirmed eastern cougar events since 1900″, I’d say his comment is from the biggest crackpot working for any federal wildlife agency.

    Our all volunteer Eastern Puma Research Network professional staff of animal identification specialists has identified CONFIRMING evidence of cougars & mountain lions to be currently present in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois & Wisconsin.

    As for the state of Michigan, retired DNR Forester Mike Zuidema along with Dr. Patrick Rusz & the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has documented a current presence of native cougars in 11 Upper & Lower Peninsula counties since 1999.

    If an animal looks like a cougar, leaves tracks of a cougar, screams like a cougar & is caught on film in a cougar suit, what other animal could that feline be, but a COUGAR!!!!!

    Now I’m going to wait & see what official wildlife crackpots from state or federal wildlife agencies or the other eastern cougar groups want to debate me on this issue..

    Since our appearance on the History Channel’s Monster Quest Program discussing cougars & black panthers, we have received an assortment of internal memos from various state agencies where field officers talk over the subject during lunchbreaks.

    Dozens of professional wildlife biologists have told us to keep pursuing the subject, since we are very close to the truth on a continued presence of wild, native cougars in eastern North America.

  16. snakegirl responds:

    My hometown’s on Cryptomundo! Too cool.

    On topic, speaking as the person who found the track that the state biologists determined was “inconclusive”–it was four inches across with four distinct toes and no claw marks, if it wasn’t a cougar I want to know just what the heck was in my driveway–I just want to say “Thank you, Loren.”

    When I heard that a reporter from the AP was coming into town to do a story on the cougar sightings I was afraid that the end result would be insulting and derogatory because the minds of our state officials seem set in stone.

    It was so nice to come onto Cyrptomundo to catch up with the latest cryptid news and find your comments. Yes, most people in town are familiar with local fauna, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone here above the age of ten who could NOT tell the difference between a cougar and a bobcat.

    For every sighting that gets reported there are at least a dozen more that are only whispered about because people fear the very ridicule that was on display in that article.

  17. kittenz responds:

    I have NO DOUBT that there are pumas in Kentucky – I saw one near Cave Run Lake in the spring of 1992. I know cats – and dogs – and it was a young puma, not a yellow Lab, that I saw loping alongside a rural highway on a cold, cloudy Spring day. I got right alongside it before it leaped away into the brush.

    Virginia is right next door to Kentucky. I live about 30 miles from the Virginia border, and along that Kentucky/Virginia border are the deepest canyons in the East. Virginia has lots of wild country that is terrific puma habitat – big mountains cut by deep gorges, lots of forest, and a large population of whitetail deer. I believe the pumas are here, but there are probably not a lot of them, and they are very secretive. Sooner or later, someone will get a trailcam photo or one will be killed on the highway or something, confirming their existence. This has already happened in Kentucky – the puma kitten that was killed was in Floyd County. Floyd County, Kentucky, is very near the Virginia border. If pumas can be living wild there, there’s no reason to believe that they are not also living wild in Virginia.

    I doubt that pumas are emigrating from Florida though. There aren’t really very many Florida panthers, and they are still dispersing into Florida. They’re a different subspecies than the Eastern puma too, although that would not be much of an inhibition to them moving northward, if the Florida population ever becomes large.

    I think that most of the pumas here in the East, especially those living in the Appalachians, are Eastern pumas that have been here all along; they were never completely exterminated. There are some escaped or released former captive cats too, and probably also a few dispersals from the western areas.

    That having been said, I also believe that by far the majority of “puma sightings” in the East are misidentifications. I can see how someone could mistake a Lab or other big dog for a puma, if they only saw it briefly and they aren’t really familiar with animals. Shucks, I’ve had people tell me that they saw a black panther on my property, after they saw my black cat, Halloween, out on the hillside. But there are many people who have seen pumas, or evidence of puma activity, who know what they are talking about.



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