A Mythic Presence: the elusive Eastern Cougars

In the thirteen-and-a-half years I’ve lived in the Pontiac, I’ve periodically heard rumours of Eastern cougar sightings.

Probably in the first year we were here, a couple who live near Wyman said they were absolutely positive they’d seen one. Later on, another reliable source informed me there had been paw prints and scat discovered somewhere in Pontiac. And, when an environmental association was being created, another series of supposed sightings came to my attention.

Do Eastern cougars still exist? Are there any of these elusive beasts here in the Pontiac region?

What binds the sightings together is the wish either from the reportee to remain anonymous, or from reporters such as myself to stay mum on the topic.

Why is this? Well, there are some people who simply want to track and kill any “specimen” just to prove it exists – or to be the individual who definitively shot the (or one of the) “last Eastern cougars.”

Similarly, people want to go out in a herd and look for it. That’s why I decided not to tell the Outaouais bird watchers, as well as a couple of competitive bird counting teams, where a nesting pair of little blue herons was. These rare (for our region) species would have been disturbed by a host of well-meaning naturalists tromping up to their nesting area.

Forget it! I’m not playing.

My reticence is well-matched by many of you who feel exactly the same way. And many of us feel this way about the elusive cougar, which truly has an almost mythic presence in nature facts and legends.

Eastern cougars are a smaller version of the wild cats found in British Columbia and Alberta. The last one shot in Ontario was in 1884.

In his award-winning newspaper story (2000), writer Bob Reguly wrote, “The visual reports, which have intensified since 1995, extend across northern Ontario for 1,000 kilometres — from Kenora, near the Manitoba boundary, eastward across the top of Lake Superior to Kapuskasing, then southward to Cochrane near the Quebec border.”

He related why Todd Lester, a third generation coal miner, started the Eastern Cougar Foundation after spotting an eastern cougar in West Virginia.

“‘When we made eye contact,’ Todd said, ‘the cat captured a piece of my heart.’ But when he reported the sighting to local wildlife officials, they ridiculed him, which made Todd determined to learn everything he could about cougars. In 1996 he made plaster casts of tracks near the same place as his sighting. Two independent experts confirmed those tracks as cougar. Buoyed by the affirmation, Todd founded the Eastern Cougar Foundation (ECF) to advocate for restoration of cougars in the East. He asked me to be vice president. Together, we have compiled written validation from reputable authorities to document well over a dozen cases of confirmed field evidence of cougar presence from Maine to Missouri, evidence that includes bodies, scats, and videos.”

The ECF’s web page is www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/1318/; snail mail address is The EASTERN COUGAR FOUNDATION, P.O. Box 91, North Springs, WV 24869, E-Mail: scb01489@mail.wvnet.edu. HOTLINE for cougar reports: 304-664-3812.

The ECF is A 501(C)(3)non-profit, totally volunteer organization dedicated to scientific documentation of cougars in eastern North America and advocacy for their protection.

On this site there’s a great deal of information about the so-called ghost of the eastern forests. For instance, it offers interesting facts concerning the cat’s original range:

“Cougars were native throughout most of the New World when European settlers arrived in the 15th century. Because cougars are powerful predators, settlers feared for their own safety and for their livestock. Cougars were hunted with dogs, harassed and persecuted until they were believed extirpated in the eastern United States and Canada by about 1900. Cougar populations in the West were also greatly diminished but have rebounded to some extent since the 1970s, when bounties on them were removed.”

Those of us who border wild sections of the Pontiac can comprehend how frightening the cougar would have been to earliest settlers. After all, the preservation of endangered species was hardly an issue for them, considering wildlife populations – and we can understand how threatening cougars, bears, wolves would have been. Not to mention how dangerous for pioneer families plus livestock.

But times have changed, haven’t they?

Yes… and no. Today farmers are still as concerned about threats to their livestock. It’s understandable that someone wants to shoot a wolf that is predating a prize herd.

And, if that wolf – or cougar – just happens to be the last individual in the Pontiac or wherever, opinions will sharply differ on whether it’s a good thing. To the farmer, he or she has eliminated a threat to their herd and livelihood. Such a person might think, they have indeed gotten rid of the last “varmint.”

In contrast, there are people like me, who want to find a way to keep that cougar, wolf or whatever alive. My thinking goes along the lines that these fascinating species have just as much a right to life as we do. Moreover, they are indigenous mammals of the region.

However, when we look at human impact upon habitat, when we examine our livelihoods, when we consider our recreational wants, we have to realize how we encroach upon the territories of wild creatures. How many of you reading this article, for instance, would like to shoot a specimen cougar?

Possibly several of you.

So, there we go.

What chance does a cougar have of surviving, here in the Pontiac?

Who knows. But know what? If you see one, you can call me… because I’m not telling who or where an eastern cougar has been spotted. That’s for sure.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her space with wildlife at her home near Gatineau Park.