This week's Animal Oddity is going to settle a long-running debate between biologists, state wildlife managers, and a lot of people who believe they have spotted an animal that isn't supposed to be where they say they saw it.
Each year, dozens of reports come in from people who believe they have seen large, tawny colored cats in states where no such animals are officially documented.
Cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers, once ranged across North and South America. Cougar populations are stable in much of the western United States, but with the exception of the critically endangered Florida panther population, these large cats have been wiped out of the East. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared the eastern cougar officially extinct after extensive research.
So what are the animals that so many people claim to be seeing in eastern states? Wildlife officials typically chalk up such reports to misidentification or to animals that have escaped captivity, and maintain that there are no wild cougars in these places. Which of course leaves the people who believe they have seen one incredibly frustrated.
Recently a cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut and DNA testing revealed that the cat came from a population found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. That means this individual animal was able travel more than 1,500 miles through remaining wilderness areas, proving that these cats can cover remarkable distances and show up in places where even trained wildlife professionals (myself included) wouldn't have predicted they'd be.
While people all over the eastern half of the country who claim to have seen one of these cats are surely feeling vindicated by this news, it doesn't mean that wildlife professionals are wrong. The eastern cougar subspecies is extinct and there are no natural breeding populations of wild cougars east of the Mississippi.
What it does mean is that should we take action to preserve as much wild area as possible, one day these ultimate predators might just recolonize on their own. The incident in Connecticut proves that at least one of these animals had the ability to do just that.
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