Close Encounter

It’s really starting to get wild here in cougar country.

First, sightings, then related follow-ups and safety concerns; now shiny green eyes and a guttural grumble that’s difficult to describe, even from close quarters … real close, like, say, five or six feet, if you can believe it.

Yes, folks, it looks like these cougar sightings we’ve been following in recent years have climbed to a new altitude. I can already sense what’s next. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field researcher will soon be sent to investigate cougar sightings as I pore through brittle, yellowed town records attempting to reincarnate the likes of Greenfield’s James Corse and Ashfield’s Phillip Phillips, two historic hunters whose names are prominent among 18th-century “panther” bounty hunters. It could be fun for a fella like me.

Having already seen a wayward Western cougar killed on a Connecticut highway, how long before one turns up dead on a roadway close to home; like, say, right here in Franklin or Hampshire County, maybe Berkshire or southern Vermont’s Windham counties? Likely not long, in my humble opinion. When a roadside carcass finally does appear, it’ll be entertaining to watch the professional deniers flee for cover, furiously trying to adjust their initial logic and spin their old opinion that sightings were creative figments of fertile human imagination. Yeah, right! If you believe that, you probably believe the Romney-Ryan ticket really wants to save Medicare.

To be honest, I’m getting sick of writing about cougars — at least the four-legged variety — and fret that readers, too, have had enough. Hey — who knows? — they may even think I’m going goofy as I approach the big 6-0. I sure as hell don’t want people comparing me to those eccentric, bespectacled old ladies I remember as a kid pedaling their bicycles around town through a thick air of giggles and whispers. No, frankly, I’d much prefer to chime in on the election, the VP choice, the illness along America’s Gulf Coast in wake of the BP Disaster; you know, the deepwater geyser our mainstream media would lead us to believe was over-hyped and left no long-term damage. But, no, I must return to cougars, local sightings from credible witnesses. I just can’t get away from them, with recent reports swarming like black flies in Victory Bog. So, here we go again.

First, an email from a local police chief I knew from my adult South Deerfield days; “Sowdeerfeel” to those of us with roots, rarer and rarer these days. Anyway, after reading about a backyard cougar sighting by Greenfield’s Lorraine Blanchard on Adams Road, the chief dropped me a quick note saying: “Read your article on cougar sightings today and wanted to pass on that last week retired probation officer Dick Colgan told me he had seen a cougar cross the bridge on Bascom Road from Gill into Greenfield. It wouldn’t be a far stretch for that same cougar to continue its path southwest to Adams Road.” Indeed. Not far a’tall, Chief; probably less than a mile.

Colgan, a Gill resident and former Eagle Scout, wasn’t alone. No, he was returning home from an evening trip to a Bernardston creemee with his wife and granddaughter, both of whom also saw the beast; it was standing on the Gill side, panicked with the car approaching and ran across the bridge right at them before disappearing into thick streamside brush, fleeing downstream toward Scout Road and its intersection with Adams Road. The date was July 1. Blanchard’s sighting occurred a month later, on Aug. 5.

But hold on. This one gets better. Before I had even spoken to Colgan, I was on my way into The Recorder for my weekly Monday meeting and, at the reception desk, passed another old acquaintance, Charlie Olchowski of Trout Unlimited and beer-brewing fame. He stopped me to voice his concerns about potential cougar dangers in the local woods, wondering aloud if he was at risk hiking or biking through the wilds of Colrain with family, seemingly suggesting that maybe I ought to address the topic. Sorry, but I ain’t going there. I’d hate to stir up bloodlust for an elusive creature no one is likely to encounter. The fact is that even if you did cross paths with a cougar in the woods, it’s unlikely that an attack would occur. It’s far more likely that such a cat would try its best to avoid human contact. That said, I must admit that I feel more comfortable carrying a .38 revolver when patrolling the woods alone. Although I have never removed the weapon from my hip for protection, I do feel more secure packing it for solo walks through the woods with or without the dogs.

Anyway, with Olchowski in the rear-view, I broke the newsroom threshold and hadn’t even sat down before veteran scribe Diane Broncaccio approached with obvious excitement in her voice. She had taken a call earlier that day from a Shelburne Falls woman with an interesting cougar yarn. It seems that the previous night, about 10 o’clock, Torie O’Dell was driving 19-year-old daughter Nicole home to Colrain on North River Road in East Charlemont, before the dump, when her headlights illuminated a big pair of unusual green eyes on the side of the road. Curious, the two women stopped and turned around to identify the source. Animal lovers, they feared something was injured. When they pulled into the turnaround where they had seen the eyes, sure enough, they still shone brightly low to the ground just inside the woods. Thinking perhaps someone’s pet was injured and in distress, Nicole told her mother not to shine the lights directly at the creature before going outside to investigate, uttering a soothing, “Here, kitty, kitty,” along the way. When she got to within what she estimated to be five or six feet, the animal swung slightly around to face her directly, still crouched, and she knew her little walk had been a bad idea.

“It was a huge cat with a big head and green eyes about five or six inches apart,” she said on the phone Tuesday night. “I wasn’t sure what it was at first because it was low to the ground, back arched, like a cat laying on its stomach but not laying down, crouched down, like it was ready to pounce.”

The cat’s tail was curled forward toward its head and had a distinctive black tip. When Nicole noticed the tail “flicking” right below the face, she slowly backed up, creating a little distance, and ran a few steps to the car, according to her mom.

“Its head was ginormous,” Nicole said. “It didn’t seem aggressive, but when it moved I was very close and scared.”

After turning toward Nicole, the cat uttered a continuous eerie sound O’Dell was totally unfamiliar with. She described it as a “low grumble.” When asked if she could give a better description, like maybe a purr or soft growl, she said, “No, neither of those, more like a deep hissing sound, nothing I have ever heard before.”

Torie, watching from the car, claims she immediately recognized the terror in her daughter’s hurried steps and reaction. Then, when she got inside the car, “she was terrified, shaking and trembling.”

The next day, Torie went back to the scene along the lower eastern slope of Catamount State Forest and found a rubbish bag torn open, the contents, including pungent mussel shells, scattered about. The cat had been crouching to eat. She didn’t want to disturb the site because she thought maybe someone would want to investigate for evidence, which never happened.

Still stunned a couple of days later on the phone, Nicole called her close encounter “astonishing.”

“I had no clue such animals existed here,” she said. “The flicking tail under that huge face and eyes was scary, and the distance between its eyes was ridiculous.”

The next time she sees such a sight along the road, she’ll probably choose to stay in the car and search with her headlights. No more walking toward dark woods with a friendly, “Here, kitty, kitty.”

Looking back on the incident, Torie O’Dell is just grateful the beast wasn’t ornery.

“Nicole only weighs 90 pounds,” she said. “I think that cat could have made quick work of her.”

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top