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Cougar Hysteria

Addressing Mountain Lion Mania in the Midwest and the East

Above: an acual cougar. Note the relative size of the body and tail, as well as the “masked” face.

Dave Hamilton there was already a long line of usually get for a Friday night high
Missouri Dept. of Conservation pickup trucks and cars way down the school basketball game – but they
1110 S. College Ave. rural road heading into town, and we normally didn’t come armed! We
Columbia, MO 65201 weren’t “on” for another 20 minutes. hadn’t planned on a hot public debate,
Five minutes before we were to open but they sure did, and two and a half
Some time ago, a couple of us the meeting, more than 300 people hours later, we realized why.
from the Missouri Mountain Lion were already sitting quietly in the The topic was “Mountain lions
Response Team were in the parking gymnasium (in a northeast Missouri in Missouri – what we know,” and
lot of a small community high school, town of 150) in eager anticipation for it was designed as a platform for the
waiting for folks to arrive for an the “debate” that was about to take Missouri Department of Conservation
evening public meeting where we place. One gentleman remarked that to relay factual information about the
were about to speak. Remarkably, this was a bigger crowd than they big cat that had been mostly missing
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confirmed cougar occurrences thrown
in the mix (more than 100 confirmed
with evidence in the last decade) that
often warrant front-page headlines and
always several “I told you so’s” down
at the coffee shop.

This element of an occasional

confirmed cougar isn’t a prerequisite,
though, for mountain lion mania
to exist, as Indiana, Kentucky,
Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey,
Mississippi, and a growing number
of other eastern
states can attest. The
rumors and first-
person accounts of
mountain lions and
Above: The real deal - a
trail camera photograph
the “mystical” black
of a cougar taken in panther sightings
Livingston County,
Missouri, on December 7,
and their mysterious
2006. Photograph by Joe behaviors are just
as powerful – and
Right: A photo of a house maybe more so – than
cat in Milan, Missouri,
believed to be that of
photographs and
a mountain lion by news about the real
the photographer and
neighbors. Photograph by
thing. In the last
Jesse Powell. year alone, we have
witnessed television
from Missouri’s fauna for almost across Iowa and in Arkansas, Ohio, and newspaper news alerts, warning
100 years. After the 40-minute slide Indiana, and southern Michigan, signs posted along public trails, public
show and the “what you should and it is growing in other areas of school and work-site closings, and
know” business, we opened it up for the country. It is marked by wide- city police warnings issued in several
questions and comments. More than spread fears about cougar attacks eastern states over nothing more than
an hour of stories and sometimes on children and livestock, fueled by reported sightings backed up with
heated exchange was followed up hundreds of eye-witness testimonies videos and photographs of bobcats
by some “one-on-one” time, with about mountain lion and black panther and housecats mistaken to be cougars
emotions running high – ripe ground occurrences. Its hallmark is that and black panthers. It seems that
for grandstanding and some anti- – despite detailed descriptions of deep down, somewhere in our psyche,
government paranoia. This meeting the sightings that accurately match many want these animals to exist
was held in a small and aging rural those of cougars – almost all of the so much that these kinds of events
community in a sea of agriculture evidence submitted as cougars turn have become commonplace, even in
(about 80% of the landscape), with a out to be misidentification of other our populated and heavily-modified
healthy white-tailed deer population animals (more than 95%), primarily environments. This phenomenon even
and a growing bobcat population. bobcats, dogs and their tracks, and a exists in Great Britain, Australia, New
This setting is typical of the areas large and growing portion of common, Zealand, and other countries that don’t
where the phenomenon that we everyday housecats (videos reveal that have native large cats. The term often
have dubbed mountain lion mania is some of the black cat varieties even used to describe these mysterious
rampant. have white stocking feet and chest sightings of pumas or panthers is
Mountain lion mania is at near- patches). Fueling the fire here in the “Phantom Cats” or Alien Big Cats
fever pitch in northern Missouri, all western Midwest are the occasional (ABCs).

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In efforts to stem the tide of nearly a century. Understandably, report cougar sightings often do not
panther paranoia, both the Missouri conservation department biologists realize the difference between being
Department of Conservation and from the Midwest and the eastern able to verify reports and accepting
the Iowa Department of Natural United States have little or no cougar reports without hard data. This can
Resources have taken public programs training. Because of years of wild- lead to resentment and distrust that
to the people. The forums are widely goose chases resulting from sighting spreads throughout a community.
advertised ahead of time so they are reports, many of us working for As the debate unfolds, the
usually heavily attended – and at public agencies have developed a credibility of conservation agencies
times emotionally charged – with fairly cavalier attitude about cougar is at risk, and with them, the
citizens looking for assurances that sightings, and are quick to dismiss credibility of wildlife biologists
the agencies aren’t protecting, or them as erroneous. Thus, we discount – innocent bystanders perhaps, who
even actively restoring a dangerous the accompanying fears as being get labeled “inept” (or worse) when
animal at their expense. Several merely overreactions based on faulty the public perceives us as being
years ago in Missouri, we formed the information. arrogant and uncaring. Obviously,
Mountain Lion Response Team: a However valid these view points losing credibility over cougars could
group of trained biologists scattered might be, we risk alienating the public affect our agencies’ effectiveness in
strategically across the state. We with what is sometimes viewed as other arenas of conservation work.
have had additional training from condescending treatment or public Unfortunately for us, the game is
specialists in cougar habitats from ridicule of the citizens who report largely played out in local bars,
other states, and we are working cougar sightings, especially when coffee shops, restaurants, the local
proactively to respond to cougar their sightings aren’t taken seriously. media, and Internet chat rooms (the
issues. We have learned some This is partly because of the fact that modern-day “electronic taverns”).
things with this experience, and we biologists need concrete evidence All of these are perpetual minefields
recommend our approach to others. to confirm a cougar sighting, while for government workers. In news
people making the reports simply reports about an alleged incident, the
What is at Risk? want to be believed. Those who absence of an official response from
Like it or not,
state fish and wildlife
conservation agencies
are involved in a public
debate about big cats,
and as a rule, are poorly
prepared for it. Other
than the small remnant
population in southern
Florida, cougars
have been absent east
of the Rockies for

Sterling Heights, Michigan – In March 2005, two housecats residing in this heavily urbanized
southern Michigan community created a media sensation. Local residents mistook them
for cougars, specifically an adult female (tan and white animal on left) and its spotted kitten
(black and white animal above). The city’s Chief of Police held a televised press conference
to address the hysteria surrounding the “cougars.” CNN later reported on the story,
claiming video footage of the tan housecat was actually of a cougar. Above photograph
courtesy Dr. Christine L. Marossy.

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your agency is a response – but not a a major part of the story as it unfolds, of habitat and have simply gone
very good one. Agency reputation can and if mentioned at all, it is near undetected for decades, and that
suffer mightily in a short time, and the end of the story and in passing, the conservation agencies deny
may take years to recover. Credibility mostly to illustrate the government’s their existence. Regrettably, a
is hard to earn, easy to lose, and once dismissal of the incident as being surprisingly large number of citizens
tarnished, can cost more time and hyped and off base. Depending upon actually believe these wild charges,
money in the long run trying to fix how this statement is couched or undermining their faith in and respect
than will ever be spent by working reported, it could serve to only deepen for the conservation agencies and their
proactively. the resentment between the public and staff.
As surprising as it may be in our agencies. Extraordinary claims require
this era of increased dependency extraordinary evidence, despite the
on government support for all A Vacuum fact that such evidence is frequently
facets of American life, our public In the vacuum that is created missing, a hungry news media too
conservation agencies suffer from a because of our collective inattention frequently reports unsubstantiated
perceived lack of relevancy to much (or absence in the news reports), claims as being factual. Consequently,
of our modern-day public. Our individuals, other than recognized many people now believe rumors
seeming irrelevancy on this issue cougar experts, have at times become that small populations of cougars
is revealed in many of the popular the popular source of information reside in places such as Indiana and
media reports of cougar sightings and the “go to” people. These Ohio, even in heavily populated and
and incidents across the country, “self-appointed cougar experts” at agricultural landscapes, and that
whether the incidents are real or not. times provide misinformation and black cougars or “panthers” do exist
The issue sells well in local media offer wild claims about the status in these wild populations possibly
because cougars and controversy grab of cougars, creating many public because of “genetic bottlenecks”
attention. Therefore, the stories are relations challenges. Some argue caused by isolation and low numbers.
often prominently featured on front – quite convincingly to the masses These groups point to the hundreds
pages or on the 6:00 news. However, – that small cougar populations of eyewitness testimonies and several
rarely is the state conservation agency have somehow survived in pockets well-publicized videos they claim
Below: This bobcat was mistaken for a cougar
in Missouri. Photograph courtesy Patricia Smith.

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as being cougars (they are actually It probably won’t. In fact, it is likely includes a protocol for effectively
housecats) as part of the “growing to get worse as our human populations dealing with the media and the
body of evidence” of their existence. grow and continue to lose touch public (with well-crafted messages
These and other claims of with the reality of the natural world. that reassures the public that your
“evidence” have been disputed by As odd as it may seem, the cougar agency is capable of handling this
reputable cougar biologists throughout issue is not the hottest in large cities issue).
the country. Unfortunately, they (where we would think we would
serve to heighten public hysteria have lost touch with reality). Instead, It is critical that our
and paranoia about cougars, and it seems to be the hottest in small- to communications with the public about
many accuse the natural resource medium-sized cities and towns, and cougars be centrally focused on safety
agencies of being inept and uncaring, in rural America – sometimes right in and that we do not dismiss citizens’
or involved in conspiracies ranging amongst our most active outdoorsmen concerns out-of-hand. In particular,
from “cover you should stress the
ups” of predator fact that this issue is
presence to “covert your responsibility,
stocking programs” and that your agency
to control deer is prepared to
populations. These handle any related
claims also help situation. It would
sell the news and be irresponsible if
stimulate additional you didn’t.
controversy, and they The source of
willingly add fuel to the animals is often
the existing public seen by biologists
distrust. as the central
debate following
So what is the the true identity
remedy? of the animal, but
This presents a to those citizens
difficult challenge Above: Cougars do not have a melanistic phase; as cubs, they bear spots, and as adults most concerned
their coat is light to dark tan. This picture, taken in Bollinger County, Missouri, in 2005,
for biologists and was thought to be of a “black panther.” It was taken 210 yards away from the subject. In
about safety, the
agencies. How do actuality, this picture shows a common housecat. Again, perspective is key to examining source of the animal
the photograph. Notice how the surrounding grass illustrates the small size of the cat.
you effectively gain Photograph courtesy Chasity Thele.
isn’t so important.
public trust while Emphasize that
not necessarily agreeing that every and women. should a cougar somehow find its way
sighting, track, photograph, or video is Next, formulate a simple into a populated or inappropriate area,
really a cougar? The more important investigation/monitoring and you are prepared and trained to protect
question to the public isn’t so much communication plan within your people, pets, and livestock.
about what you know, but “how agencies. This doesn’t have to be Setting the stage for this paranoia,
much do you care?” It is critical that extremely cumbersome and expensive, of course, is the widespread and
accountability be restored in the minds but it should have at minimum: unreasonable belief that cougars
of the public. Credibility and trust can reside in these large agricultural
be rebuilt and maintained, but it does • A centralized record-keeping expanses or in heavily populated
take concerted effort and a plan. component to archive reports from areas of the Midwest and the East.
First, raise this issue as one the public; Most people assume that reported
needing some attention within your • A mechanism for rapidly “sightings” of cougars equal the
agencies. Although many biologists investigating those reports and existence of a population of cougars.
and agencies are quick to dismiss incidents that have some evaluated This part of the debate is often the
the issue simply as an unpleasant evidence, and acting upon them as stickiest – differing and competing
distraction, we warn against ignoring evidence warrants; claims as to the true status of cougar
it in hopes that it will simply go away. • A communications component that populations.

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Seven cougar carcasses recovered in South Dakota during a three-month
period (January to March, 2006), primarily road-kills. This population in the
Black Hills numbers around 200 animals, yet road-kills and other human-
induced mortalities produce several cougar carcasses every month.
Photograph courtesy Jonathan Jenks, South Dakota State University.

Yet, it is extremely unlikely that 24 hours a day, seven days a week. cougars and trail cameras that are
undiscovered cougar populations Although this response has legitimate but are from western states
exist. Throughout North America, become somewhat of a cliché, we with concocted stories attached, many
even where small populations are have to allow for the possibility that times with real people attributed. Be
known to exist, bona fide sightings an occasional (rare event) captive quick to put these to rest with the
are uncommon, but evidence of cougar will become at large after help of the media and your internal
their existence, such as tracks, scat, escaping or being released. A female communication system.
scrapes, road-kills and train collisions, cougar recently escaped captivity
accidental captures, documented in central Indiana after seven years Cougar Field Workshop Offered
depredation cases, prey kills, in a pen and has yet to be captured. Clearly there is a need to increase
photographs taken by trail cameras, Captive cougars exist in surprisingly our experience, skills, and knowledge
cougar carcasses from poaching and high numbers, even where they have in order to deal effectively with
other accidents, and photographs of been supposedly “banned.” We must the public and maintain credibility.
cougars occasionally treed by hound also expect transient sub-adult male Featuring retired cougar biologist
hunters are easily obtained. cougars to occasionally disperse into Harley Shaw, the Cougar Network has
For example, in southern Florida the central United States. organized a Cougar Field Workshop
and in South Dakota where small Also, be ever vigilant about scams; designed to train biologists working in
populations exist, biologists document they do happen. We recommend that the Midwest and eastern United States
several road-killed cougars every you actually go to each site where to recognize cougar sign and to initiate
year. Cougar behavior is sufficiently mountain lion photos have been a plan of action to help conservation
stereotypic to suggest that local reportedly taken to confirm that the agencies deal with communication
populations should not be immune photographs matches everything on and public service issues. The first
to detection. In fact, the case can the ground, and that the camera in Cougar Field Workshop is to be held
be made that all across the Midwest question actually took the photograph March 19 to March 23, 2007, on Ted
and the East, the system of roads – not “Photoshop.” The Internet is Turner’s spectacular Ladder Ranch
and highways provide a continuous rampant with scams as well; some in the heart of New Mexico’s cougar
“cougar detection network” operating include photographs of hunter-killed country. The event is co‑sponsored

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by the Missouri Department information is very powerful housecats, dogs, or other animals.
of Conservation, Ted in persuading people. • Be open and candid with the
Turner’s Ladder That is why first-hand public; do not hold information
Ranch, and the New accounts of “cougar back unless it is absolutely
Mexico Department sightings” generate necessary. The existence of
of Game. Available so much emotion, confidential information in the
slots are already even if they are in hands of a public official – or even
filled for this one, reality just every- the appearance or suggestion of
but if demand is day housecats. such – smacks of hidden agendas,
adequate, future Don’t surrender this cover-ups, lies, deception, etc.,
workshops will be highly effective tool and creates a climate of mistrust
scheduled. to those distributing and suspicion.
In Missouri, we formed misinformation. Use • Show that you care, that you
the Mountain Lion Response it yourself to counteract listen, and that you are open and
Team to improve a calloused misinformation. For example, cite willing to respond appropriately.
reputation that we had earned. We specific examples where supposed Also, show that your approach
wanted to improve customer service cougar sightings or attacks on is reasonable, sensible, and
and do a better job of training our livestock were proven to be responsible.
own employees. Also, we desperately Below: Circulating the Internet, these photographs of a cougar on a patio deck have been attached
needed a coordinated media response to stories claiming the images came from New York or Pennsylvania. The photographs were
actually taken in Lander, Wyoming, by Dr. Dave Rodgers. Wyoming is a western state with a
to sightings and growing cougar population of several thousand cougars. Dr. Rodgers lives in a riparian corridor with a good cougar
paranoia. We also wanted to review habitat and plenty of deer, so sightings are not surprising in the area.
and revise department policy
statements so we could do a better job
of speaking with one voice. We want
to be the first source of information
– the “go-to” people whenever
mountain lions are mentioned. We
try to adhere to a few useful tips
– how to gain and maintain credibility
– from the Institute for Participatory
Management and Planning:

• Be the first, best, most complete,

and most reliable source of
• Remember the problem – people
are concerned for their safety,
that cougars have been reported
in populated areas. You are the
right entity to address it. In fact,
it would be irresponsible for you,
with the mission you have, not to
address it.
• Scientific facts, data, analysis, and
conclusions have a rotten track
record for persuasion, although
you have to use them to some
extent. Add to them your first-
hand accounts and examples to
spice up your message. Anecdotal

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