“TRAPPER FRIED EVERYTHING in lion grease,” Rick Bass writes in The Myths of Bears. “Pancakes, sausage, elk steaks – it all sizzled in the sweet fat of the mountain lions he killed. Old folks said that it would go to his brain and give him the trembles…”
All is not well with Trapper, and it’s not just the lion grease. Trapper’s a zealot, a believer in his own myth.
June 11, 2011. A South Dakota mountain lion is struck dead along the Northbound Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Connecticut. The driver of the Hyundai SUV escapes unscathed. But the lion doesn’t, nor do the people of Connecticut. Some are indignant, apoplectic about what has been kept from them, the chain of conspiracies that allowed this mountain lion to exist not in Colorado Springs or Billings but in their backyards.Milford,Connecticut, where the worst thing to fear is high taxes and bedbugs.
In Connecticut, there were once rumors, sightings, suspicion. Now it’s full blown lion fever.
There is the lion that travelled 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota, marking “one of the longest movements ever recorded for a land mammal and nearly double the distance ever recorded for a dispersing mountain lion,” according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
There is the way this story was covered – tweaked, massaged, and manipulated – by media outlets, including The New York Times, NBC News, CBS News, USA Today, and others based on the perceived temperature of the public.
Finally, there is the concatenation of social media, public distrust of scientists, and the ire burning up comment boards. Ire that has jumped the fire line into a belief that we know better, that someone is always trying to trick us. That in a pinch, whether to believe an endangered species specialist or “a friend in the know,” we choose the latter.
Ghost cat, catamount, puma, painter, panther, cougar. Such a mythical shapeshifter we can’t settle on a single name. Never mind an emotion. Fear it, adore it, hunt and trap it to extinction, bring it back, bruit over it. Imagine it watching our children, designs in those yellow eyes.
We haven’t had to worry, not since the late 1800s, since guys like Alexander Crowell took a photo op with Vermont’s last Eastern cougar. Shot and trapped, its food source gone, its forests denuded, the Eastern cougar was no longer. An animal famous for making do in everything from coastal marshes to mountains couldn’t make a go of it anymore. Only Western cougars managed to endure.
Over time, deer would return to the Northeast. Some semblance of the forests would spring up. And eventually, talk. Lions by barns, sunning themselves. Lions that turned out to be golden retrievers, coyotes, or bobcats. People want to believe.
Then a credible sighting, June 5,2011 in Greenwich,CT, near a prep school. A week or so before, someone produced a blurry photograph from a kitchen window, the long tail definitively a lion’s. Scientific evidence was considerable – scat, fur, trail cam photos – though none of that mattered to long-time believers as much as their convictions.
Finally, there was Milford. There was a body.
The dead lion meant vindication, especially after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s five year review, which officially declared the Eastern cougar (Felis concolor couguar) extinct. In a piece by Jim Gold of NBC News, “vindicated” is the exact word used by Massachusetts sports editor Gary Sanderson: “I felt vindicated,” he says. “I didn’t think they would admit it was wild.”
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, charted the lion’s journey, with assists from the USFWS, the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, the New York State Museum in Albany, and Burlington, Connecticut’s, Sessions Woods Wildlife Center, where the necropsy was performed. On NPR, Kristy Pilgrim, a lab supervisor for Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, talked about the science of creating a unique genetic profile for the lion, about the database of 800 individual cougars from all over the West, using this information to create a map of the cougar’s trip through Minnesota and Wisconsin, probably up into Canada, before ending up in New York’s Hudson Valley and, ultimately, Connecticut. 1,500 miles and the science to back it up.
Even now, though, people aren’t buying it, all this jumping through hoops, skin tissue and research from multiple scientific agencies. Commenting on the NPR piece, one person speculated that it was “more likely that this cougar got from South Dakota to Connecticut in the back of a truck.”
Bo Ottmann’s Friends of Connecticut Mountain Lion/Cougars of the Valley site talks of the “lion’s return to the Northeast” as if heralding a boxer’s return to the ring. Ottmann is honest about his reasons for wanting to believe that mountain lions – beyond the single case of the Milford lion – are making a return to Connecticut: “Most people want to believe there’s a breeding population of lions spreading through parts of CT and NY’s Hudson Valley. We want to believe that where we live is not completely tame – that there’s a whiff of wildness and mystery to boring old CT.”
Ottmann offers a $100 reward for a verified photo (using an Old West graphic and typeface), posts an “eyewitness account map,” and provides ample space on the site for people to report sightings, many of them over a year after the death of the Milford lion. These sightings run the gamut, from a cougar belching someone’s cooking oil to a guy who claims to have lion poop in his fridge.
Cougars of the Valley is just one site of many suggesting that the mountain lion is well on its way to re-establishing a presence in the Northeast. The cumulative effect is that those who believe, who share their sightings on comment boards, are made to feel special. Insiders. They may say it’s not true, but we know better. Naysayers, scientists or not, are the enemy. The familiar refrain in the comment boards, here and everywhere, is this: “U.S. Officials do NOT want to admit to wild cougars being in the Northeast United States.”
One problem, though. It’s not true.
On the USFWS page for the Eastern cougar, you’ll find a lot of information about the animal’s former territory in the Northeast, about its height, weight, range, and preferred prey. You’ll also learn why it no longer lives in the region: “Fragmented habitat, roads, diseases, parasites from domestic animals and expanding populations of humans will likely prevent cougars from returning to most of their former range.”
After the Forest Service’s five year review, which uses tracks, scat, photos, hair, and genetic samples to determine whether or not a species still meets the definition of endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the Eastern lion was declared extinct. Meaning that “Service Biologists have found no scientific evidence of the Eastern subspecies since the late 1930s.”
But what about the smoking gun, the dead Milford lion?
What about all these sightings, like Brigitte Ruthman’s in her Connecticut Magazine piece “Seeing Ghosts:” “I had seen what state biologists say I couldn’t have, a mountain lion, known to Native Americans as the ‘ghost of the forest’… I might as well claim I’d seen Sasquatch here in a state that so vehemently denies the existence of even transient wild lions, but also one that lies in the path of the animal’s inevitable eastward expansion.”
In case you’re wondering just how vehemently scientific experts at the USFWS and elsewhere denied “the existence of even transient wild lions,” here’s a greatest hits of them doing no such thing.
- “Habitats able to support small populations [of lions] may still occur in some of the larger undeveloped tracts of forest in the East.”
- “While confirmed cougar sightings have occurred recently in the wild in the East, there is currently no physical evidence documenting continued existence of a population of wild Eastern cougars. The cougars examined in the Northeast in the last 70 years are likely released or escaped captives. Some cats had a South American genetic profile. Some may be animals that dispersed into the region from Western populations.”
- Mark McCollough, an endangered species specialist with USFWS office in Orono, Maine: “That is not to say they don’t show up from time to time.”
Or, to put it another way:
Biologists declared the *Eastern* cougar extinct. Which is a type of cougar. Just one type, like saying the Diesel Rabbit is extinct. But it doesn’t mean that all cars are extinct. These folks never said that it was impossible to see a mountain lion in the Northeast, from time to time.
No one, it seems, including many major news outlets, managed to make this distinction.
- NBC News: “Cougar sightings persist in the East nearly a year after the big predators were declared extinct in the region, a determination that some don’t believe.”
- CBS News: “Ironically the Eastern mountain lion was officially declared extinct in March.”
- New York Times: “The discovery and confirmation of the mountain lion’s existence was an undeniable I-told-you-so moment for all those whose accounts of encountering a mountain lion were ever questioned, laughed at, or worse.”
CT.com, using what appears to be a stock photo of a lion, went balls out with this: “Is There a Mountain Lion Conspiracy in Connecticut?” They tossed in a snarky “if you believe the wildlife experts” and garnered douche points for referring to the lion as “dude” and “this bad boy.” They also had loads of fun with DEEP’s Rick Jacobson, quoting him thusly – “In every single instance when we’ve been able to determine what the animal was [from a reported sighting], with the exception of the one last summer, it was something other than a mountain lion” – following with: “Ah yes, that one last summer that was hit by an SUV and provided concrete evidence that at least one wild mountain lion was wandering through Connecticut…CT wildlife officials could no longer say there were no mountain lions here.”
Is it actually possible that all this outrage is predicated on a misunderstanding? That everyone has glossed over the “Eastern” in “Eastern cougar”?
Perhaps some blame should be lobbed at the USFWS. They acknowledge that “the elusive cougar has re-appeared in media across the Northeast.” “Why?” they ask, in a jolly effort at inclusiveness. “You tell us!” As if aware of the tide of I-told-you-so coming their way post-Milford, they include this aside: “We acknowledged that cougars of other subspecies origin have been seen in the Northeast, such as the one killed in CT this past summer.”
They buried the lede.
Still, the USFWS tries to be game about it all, inviting comments. Comments from people who think they’re being lied to, like this person on DamnedCT.com:
“I heard a few years back someone in the Western part of CT had shot a mountain lion on their property because it was attacking their cows. According to what I was told, this cat had a collar on, and the person that shot the cat called the number on the collar and it was from somewhere in the Midwest. This person told the person that killed the cat that they sold breeding pairs of cats to the state of Connecticut to help with deer population control.”
The saga continues, with conspiracy theories of wealthy conservation groups engaged in secret reintroductions of wolves and cougars. Phony trail cam photos still make the circuit. In “Seeing Ghosts,” Brigitte Ruthman floats a story of a man who pulled a lion out of the road and the subsequent efforts of the Burlington state troopers to bury the evidence. (The same Burlington where the necropsy on the Milford lion was performed?) People continue to be outraged when they’re told they’ve probably just seen a bobcat or a coyote. Insulted at the notion that a mountain lion they saw was simply an illegal pet, despite the fact that there are 1,000 cougars held in captivity in the East.
This from the Pennsylvania Game Commission: “If someone does encounter a mountain lion, the most logical explanation is that the animal escaped from or was released by someone who legally or illegally brought the animal into Pennsylvania. The agency has received reports of other exotic animals…throughout Pennsylvania, such as a binturong found on a Beaver County family’s front porch.” The Game Commission goes on to list an escaped serval, two wallabies, and numerous alligators.
Why do people want so desperately to believe? What inspires this hatred of experts? Do people really believe that the USFWS isn’t in the woods looking for these animals? Or that they would try to cover up the truth (even though they’ve never said there were no cougars here to begin with)?
Their contention seems to be that the Forest Service is protecting the general public from panic. And yet, they’ve told us there are black bears in our woods. Black bears are predators, and we seem to go on living in their midst, reporting them when they raid our birdfeeders. We gobble up their habitat, plow them down with cars. We’re still sitting happy atop the food chain.
It has to be more than a fear of mountain lions, or a desire for their return. Why isn’t it enough that a wild mountain lion – unneutered, porcupine quills in his subcutaneous tissue – wandered 1,500 miles, graced us – am I allowed to say that? – graced us with his presence. Before we ran over him, of course, on a really fucking depressing stretch of highway.
Even for those who grasp the distinction between the extinct Eastern cougar and the dispersers, there’s opportunity for a rhetorical dodge and weave. For a man in Farmington, CT, who claims to have filmed a cougar on his land, it’s important to make the distinction that “he’s not one of those Montana lions. He’s a New England mountain lion.” It must be from here, or it doesn’t count. We must have breeding pairs – and “inevitable eastward expansion” – or it’s not worth our time. Is this regional pride?
Why wasn’t the journey of the Milford lion enough?
At the time of its death, the Milford lion had inspired his own Twitter account. I exist! His bio proclaimed. You can deny me any more!
I wish the Milford lion hadn’t come all this way, this long, lonely journey. He died 17 miles from where I sit. Maybe if he’d stayed in South Dakota, he’d have another three to six years in those granite hills. He knew how to cross a road, but there were fewer roads.
We don’t know much about this lion, just his age and weight, where he came from and where he got to, not where he was going, however much we flatter ourselves imagining his intentions. We take turns trying to define him. He’s mythical in the New York Times, an “immense, muscled cat, with a tail nearly as long as its torso.” Gothamist called him “beautiful.”
Along the way, media outlets twisted their language according to what they thought their readership was feeling. Gothamist took shots at “fancy” Greenwich and chose gruesome death photos of the lion (as opposed to CT.com’s glamour shot photo). CBS News spun it with lion sightings “pockmarking” the map, Fugitive-style headlines like “Mountain Lion Sought in Connecticut” and “8 Foot Long, 160 lbs Mountain Lion On the Loose.” Eventually they went the chick flick route: “Cougar Traversed Continent Over 2 Years On Way to Fairfield County – And What’s More Remarkable, He Did Thousands of Miles in Search of Love.”
And still, no one knows what to do with the lion. I shit you not, there’s this: “State environmental officials are still deciding whether or not they’ll have the visitor’s remains stuffed as a tribute to its long trek.”
Maybe we should just look at him.
There’s a trail cam video of the lion in a Wisconsin corn field, eating a fawn carcass, burying it. Moving husks around. It’s night and he’s come a long way but has so much longer to go. He’s cautious. Ears flattened, ears raised.
He’s none of these things we imagine him to be. He’s just a lion.