Earlier this month, a mountain lion wandered through the campus of a private school for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut. Staff snapped a quick photograph through a window and, though a bit blurred, even skeptical experts agree it appears to be a mountain lion.
Mountain lions have not lived in significant numbers in the eastern states since at least the 1930s. Viewed by early Americans as a threat to domestic animals and competition for wild game, mountain lions were relentlessly hunted. In addition, their forested habitat became deforested for lumber supplies and farmland.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently reported the native subspecies, eastern mountain lion, or eastern cougar, extinct. Their study, released in March of this year, maintained that despite nearly six hundred reported sightings in northeastern states, the subspecies itself is unlikely to exist. The USFWS recommended removing the extirpated animal from the endangered species list.
Last Saturday, a woman in an SUV crashed into a mountain lion on a highway near Milford, Connecticut. There it was—evidence in the form of an actual animal body that mountain lion roam the forests of the Northeast. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene and took the corpse for further study. They insist it is the same animal seen in Greenwich and will be comparing scat found at the previous site to the DNA of this animal. They will also be determining if the mountain lion had escaped from captivity by looking for signs of veterinary treatments and its relationship to the South American subspecies, which is normally the type kept as pets .
The DEP insists that the animals are the same solitary cat who must have escaped captivity, despite evidence to the contrary. The dead mountain lion had not been declawed or neutered. What’s more, on Sunday—the day after the dead animal was found—sightings continued around Greenwich. Even physical evidence in the form of cougar prints around a deer kill, did not seem to be swaying the experts.
A healthy skepticism?
Why do experts doubt the ability of locals to identify creatures in their own backyard? Some of their skepticism comes from mistaken identities. Bobcats and coyote are known to live in Connecticut and officials have found several reported sightings of mountain lions lead only to evidence of these other wild critters.
The nearest established populations of wild mountain lions are in Florida and Missouri, both different subspecies than that which was native to the Northeast. However, reported sightings have increased in the last decade in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. People have also seen mountain lions on U.S soil, east of the Mississippi in the states around the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Connecticut is now more forested than it has been in historic times, perhaps creating a welcoming environment for wandering species.
The controversy has garnered several stories in local, as well as national papers, including the New York Times. Headlines have called the mountain lion both “beautiful,” “elusive,” and “mysterious.” Though many Connecticut residents are fearful, the image of this large, wild cat roaming only seventy miles from the sprawling Manhattan metropolis also inspires wonder.
The sublimity of re-wilding
Whether or not it is the original native species, or simply the western species migrating to new territory, in its juxtaposition of urban and wild, a mountain lion in Connecticut is a sublime sight.
The recent report of the USFWS begs the question: why are there so many reported sightings now? Is it an odd coincidence—or is there more to the story? While we await the results of the necropsy of the dead mountain lion, we are left to wonder if the news of eastern cougar extinction hit someone (or some group) so hard, they launched a plan to reintroduce a related subspecies, secretly, into Eastern forests. The other, more likely possibility, is that people who had previously seen mountain lions had been too unsure, or too afraid of being called crazy, to report their encounters.
There are several “ghost” species roaming (or not roaming) American forests. We saw an uproar just a few years ago when scientists in the swampy forests of the South reported seeing ivory-billed woodpeckers—a species long thought to be extinct. While some doubted the veracity of the sighting, many locals admitted to knowing the birds inhabited their forests. Those who had reported such information previously had been dismissed as ignorant of the very landscape in which they live.
Sightings of supposedly extinct animals have become a dialogue between outside “experts” and local peoples. Anthropologists have studied traditional environmental knowledge in remote corners of the globe. Now, such studies might be needed in America’s own wild, or in the case of Connecticut, re-wilded landscapes.