Road Kill

So, what’s up with this dead cougar that showed up on a Milford, Conn., highway early Saturday morning?

If this is the first you’ve heard of it, then it’s either shame on the news sources that feed you or shame on you for living in a bubble. The story spread like the Arizona wildfires, beginning at breakfast time Saturday morning when my inbox was inundated with tips and links to developing online reports. By Saturday afternoon, the story was running wild, growing by the minute, new information piling up on each hourly “milford mountain lion” keyword search. By now it’s old news, has been reported nationwide and into western Europe. And this cougar tale was no Internet hoax. No sir. The proof was right there, laying dead for everyone to see on that section of Route 15 called the Merritt Parkway.

“Are you sure it wasn’t New Milford?” asked the first man I called Saturday morning with the news. He was referring to the rural northern Fairfield County hilltown north of Danbury, where the green, rolling landscape is strikingly similar to Conway or Ashfield. No, I told him, not New Milford; the coastal town of Milford, snuggled between Bridgeport and New Haven, not a place where you’d expect New England’s first road-killed cougar to appear. But there it was. No denying it. Dead as a freakin’ doornail. Big, too.

It wasn’t like the 140-pound male cat came out of nowhere. Several cougar sightings had been reported in the posh New York City suburb of Greenwich, Conn., some 40 miles down the road from Milford. Someone there had even snapped a photo that was convincing enough to warrant town-wide warnings for residents to keep an eye on their children and pets. A prep school along the periphery of the sightings had even cancelled an outing. Then, just after 1 a.m. Saturday morning — Bang! — it happened, a compact SUV killed a cat on the Parkway. Officials, who say they’re certain the dead animal had lived in captivity and either escaped or was released, believe it and the Greenwich cat were the same animal. Two Greenwich citizens who reported cougar sightings after the road-kill beg to differ. So, apparently, does Audubon Greenwich, which has temporarily closed its hiking trails.

So now it’ll be interesting to monitor the situation and see where the story goes. Finally, after surging Northeastern cougar sightings over the past decade, a beast shows up dead on the road just three months after the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW) had changed its Eastern cougar classification from endangered species to extinct. No wonder they were so quick to dismiss the dead cat as an escaped captive. The story had to put them in an uncomfortable place. But to be fair, spokespeople from the Cougar Rewilding Foundation (CRF), formerly known as the Eastern Cougar Foundation, also believe the dead animal was probably not wild and expect scientific analysis to reveal just that.

“Until we see DNA and results from the necropsy (autopsy), a former captive is the honest answer,” wrote CRF spokesman Christopher Spatz, a New York researcher who has diligently followed leads for many years and come up empty in attempts to substantiate the presence of Northeastern cougars.

Spatz’s CRF colleague Helen McGinnis concurred, opining the dead cat was more likely a former captive than a wandering male that had found its way from the Midwest to Connecticut. “Just look at the roadmap to see how difficult it would be for a cougar to get from Michigan, Indiana or southern Florida (the closest states where big cats are known to exist),” she wrote. Yet, although it’s true that such a trek would be challenging, it clearly isn’t impossible.

A thorough examination of the road-killed cat’s carcass revealed no obvious signs that it had been held captive — no tattoos or tags, no collar, not de-clawed, a lean physique more typical of wild animals. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection will have the cat analyzed to determine its origin, if possible. If they discover that it was indeed wild, or cannot prove otherwise, I wonder what the “official finding” will conclude? Maybe a weak, innocuous report that the neutered press will accept without question and forget about.

As a veteran scribe who’s reported many credible cougar sightings and spoken to several experts about them over the past 30 years, I long ago concluded that there is no evidence to support the existence of a breeding Northeastern cougar population. Still, I scoff at the notion that every cougar sighting I have written about was in fact a hallucination or an escaped captive. And how about this one: Now that the officials must lay out damage-control information to douse this Connecticut brushfire, the Associated Press reports that Massachusetts officials have over the past 27 years confiscated six captive cougars, most recently in 1993. Why, I ask, if this is so, has no one ever mentioned a word of it to me, likely the New England scribe who has written more than anyone else on the subject over the past 10? The fact is that despite being cooperative throughout my years of interviews and reportage, officials have, since the beginning — way back in the 1980s when Virginia Fifield was stationed in the Pioneer Valley specifically to investigate cougar sightings — always made it clear that they would prefer I didn’t draw attention to cougars. Yet not one of them alerted me to several seizures of illegally held Massachusetts captives? The silence doesn’t make sense unless I’m missing something. In fact, as time passes, this cougar-discovery business only seems to get more confusing.

Contributing to the confusion is the latest bombshell I uncovered just this week by asking a simple, logical question. When I asked if the experts had ever proven that North American cougars from the East and West were different cats, McGinnis wrote: “I am certain the eastern and western cougars are NOT separate species. They are not even a subspecies. The comprehensive study of cougar DNA throughout their North, Central and South American range, done by Melanie Culver and associates, published in 2000, concluded that there are only six subspecies of cougars and only one in all of North America. By the rules of zoological nomenclature, the North American subspecies is Puma concolor couguar. Although some cougar biologists question this conclusion and believe the Florida panther is a separate subspecies, no geneticist/DNA specialist who has further investigated Culver’s work disagrees with her. There has also been a study of viruses carried by various cougar populations that support Culver’s work.

“That doesn’t mean that all North American cougars are alike,” she added. “There are some distinct populations, including the Florida panther, for sure. Elsewhere, there are gradual changes in what constitutes a typical cougar, especially going from south to north. A cougar in Arizona is much smaller and has shorter fur than a typical cougar in Alberta, for example.”

Which makes a lot of sense. Think of it. The same can be said of white-tailed deer, which are larger in northern climes where life is tougher than in the warmer South. There is even an obvious difference between Northeastern deer from opposite ends of the region, with Northern New England whitetails dwarfing those from Pennsylvania.

So how about that? USFW classified as extinct a species — Eastern cougar — that never existed. What the agency should have ruled was that Puma concolor couguar no longer colonizes the Northeast. Of course, the same could have been said 25 years ago about states like Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, all of which are now on the cougar map, some of them perhaps only as states where “dispersers” occasionally pass through. Dispersers are defined as wayward sub-adult males driven away from territory by dominant males. So who can say with any certainty, as these dispersers become more common and perhaps start extending their eastern range, that a breeding population will not also start creeping eastward as well?

There were many factors that led to Northeastern cougar extirpation by the early 20th century, not the least of which was human persecution. But also the forests had been cleared, deer (cougars’ primary food) became scarce and cougars vanished. Now, with the forests and deer populations back, what’s stopping the king of North American cats from following them, even in small numbers, beginning with dispersers? Even CRF won’t go out on a limb and make that prediction. But what’s to stop cat recolonization now that the forests have returned?

In discussions about cougars with wildlife biologists I respect, a recurring question by them has been: “If cougars are here, then why aren’t they being killed on the highways?” Well, now that day has arrived. I suspected, maybe even hoped, it would happen closer to home, or in the wilds of New York or Vermont; was not expecting it to occur a stone’s throw from the Big Apple. But something tells me there will be another, and another. Call it instinct, the same natural impulse that’s pushing dispersers eastward.

Never say never. That’s my mantra. That and don’t underestimate the forces of nature.

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