STILL, biologists say sightings of the East-ern
cougar, known locally as the Carolina
Cougar, have not been officially docu-mented
in more than 100 years. As a result,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared
it extinct. And so, the native big cat that
once roamed North Carolina is no more,
right? Well, not exactly.
It is true that while reports of large cats across North Carolina
are common each year, little physical evidence exists to confirm
most of the accounts.
That all changed some years ago when Dr. Ben Smith Sr.,
noted Wilmington dentist, oral surgeon, and veteran outdoors-man,
not only saw a cougar on his farm in a remote area of
Leland near the Cape Fear River, but then made an impression
of its pugmark (in this case its rear paw print) to prove what
he saw was real. For the first time there was credible, reliable,
physical evidence that at least one big cat was back.
How do skeptical biologists explain away the pugmark? They
can’t. What they say is there can be no survivors of the original
Carolina Cougar, but they do at least buy into the idea that big
cats could roam into North Carolina from a neighboring state.
Since September 2015, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources
Agency has multiple sightings of cougars listed on its website.
Each is vetted and confirmed with a trail camera photo.
In Virginia, there were so many cougar sightings that
citizens started a research site, Cougar Quest Virginia, to
document sightings with observations, research and photos.
The published findings led them to believe that cougars live in
and traverse though Virginia and nearby states.
In a recent report, South Carolina resident and historian
Dr. Tom Horton, while driving along U.S. 341 an hour before
sunset near the intersection of Winterhaven Road one mile
east of Kershaw, saw what he described as a large cat crossing
the road. The head was round and large, the color was mottled
brown, and the tail was long and very thick. A panther no
Horton’s encounter is far from rare. From Blacksburg to
McClellanville, sightings of panthers are so common that
the Internet has become a bulletin board for South Carolina
panther reports, some with accompanying photos.
It’s 130 miles from McClellanville to the Leland site where
Smith cast the pugmark – much of that route through the
notoriously impenetrable Green Swamp, beloved of all things
wild. A cougar could make that trip before lunch.
As a result of so many sightings, and in view of recent
research, wildlife biologists now agree that it is possible
through what they call genetic exchange that a new strain of
big cats unrelated to the extinct Carolina Cougar species could
enter the state from somewhere else. Sightings confirm the
theory, and each has three compelling similarities: large-
bodied cat, tawny-brown color, and a long tail. Those are
not descriptions that fit a bobcat, wild pig or bear.
It certainly makes sense that if our neighboring states have
panthers, then surely we could have them here. But if we do,
why hasn’t one been photographed, trapped, killed on a North
Carolina highway, or shot by a hunter?
There are good reasons. For one thing, cougars are endan-gered
and federally protected so if a hunter were to shoot one
and be apprehended there could be a $10,000 fine and other
penalties including jail time. No reasonable hunter would take
Cougars are stealthy, people-shy, solitary, cautious hunters
rarely seen by humans even where they are known to exist, like
in Florida’s Everglades Swamp where they flourish. Do we have
Home to every creeping, crawling, death-dealing creature
imaginable, three of the darkest, most treacherous, most formi-dable
swamps in all the South lie along the North Carolina
coastal plain — the Great Dismal Swamp, Angola Bay, and the
Green Swamp — each similar to the Everglades and perfect
panther lairs. The phenomenal resurgence in those places of
whitetail deer, a cougar’s favorite prey, makes the habitat ideal.
The Angola, in Pender and Duplin Counties, encompasses
34,000 acres, most of it virtually inaccessible and some of it
so desolate toward the interior that it has not been seen by
man in a century. All signs of civilization literally disappear
Bruce Wright, a New Brunswick, Canada wildlife biologist and author,
poses with a mounted eastern puma, trapped in Maine in 1938.
36 october 2021