Several days ago a neighbor took me on a tour of her gardens. As we approached the upper side of the gardens, I looked at the stone row that outlined an old woods road, once a short cut between two roads. And then I saw it – a large tawny cat lying on the stone row. A big cat. Dead? It looked like a mountain lion, also known as a cougar. But I thought they were extirpated a long time ago.
In fact, a friend saw some taxidermied animals being put into a dumpster by an organization that no longer wanted them. Retrieving the mountain lion from the dumpster, the prankster placed the stuffed animal at dusk on the stone row. It took nearly four weeks for my neighbor to discover it. And, yes, she was temporarily freaked out when she saw it.
While this animal could have passed for the Nittany lion that reposes in a display case at Penn State University Park, it has not been seen in Pennsylvania since the last one known was shot and killed in Berks County in 1881. With the exception of a small population of black panthers (another name for a mountain lion) in Florida, no mountain lions live east of the Mississippi River.
Cougars are apex predators. White-tail deer and elk are prime food. This cat prefers to roam far from human habitation; here in the east there is no room to roam. Occasionally a juvenile male has been found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or in Wisconsin. He’s trying to find an area without a competing male. While male cougars require 50-350 square miles of territory, females only need 25- 150 square miles. Females do not travel far whereas males will travel, sometimes 1000 miles or more looking for new territory. If they don’t find a female, they either return to former territory or die. Prime breeding area is from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps you are muttering, “My friend saw a cougar here in Pennsylvania.” While some people claim to have seen a cougar, it is quite likely that they actually saw a bobcat which weighs ten to forty pounds, a bit larger than a domestic cat and with a “bobbed” tail. Bobcats, like mountain lions, are very skittish, so if you’ve seen one, you are really lucky.
Yes, I did see a mountain lion or cougar, but it was quite dead. It was also quite an experience.