Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The elusive Carolina cougar

By TONY BARTELME
The Post and Courier

Got one. A man is on the phone, and he's excited. "We have our cougar," he says, and he has proof. A photo. Come out and look. And so you speed up Interstate 26 faster than you should, and 45 minutes later you're in Bill Cook's yard near Cross, holding the picture.

And there it is: A cougar slinking through the woods, about to pounce on a deer. Cook says he got the photo from a neighbor who got it from another neighbor who said the shot was taken behind his property. You think, maybe you're holding the first proof in a hundred years that cougars aren't extinct in South Carolina. Maybe.

View map of South Carolina cougar sightings

But the Internet is a useful tool, and later, when you plug the words "cougar deer" into Google, up pops the same darn photo on half a dozen Web sites in Wyoming, Michigan and Kansas. It's clear that your cat was nowhere near South Carolina. So you regroup and make a mental note to find the guy who said he took the picture. Wonder why he did that? The score so far: Cougars 1. Newspaper 0.

And then you're in an orange kayak in the Wambaw Swamp, deep in the heart of the Francis Marion National Forest, paddling with Kathie Livingston. She runs a local canoe and kayak guiding company and says she's seen cougars, pumas, panthers ? different names for the same animal ? on five occasions. Sometimes she overhears people call her the Puma Lady, a nickname she doesn't really like. It makes it sound as if she's the only one who's seen them, and she knows that's not true.

It's a beautiful winter morning to set a trap. Torrential rains hit the area a few nights before, and the swamp has a bloated feel to it, with wisps of mist curling off the coffee-colored current. All around are cypresses and briars growing from the water. The splash of a kayak paddle

is the predominant noise. You're only 25 minutes from Mount Pleasant, but if you were a cougar, this would be the place to hide. Scanning the tangled trees, you listen for growls. Livingston points to an old cypress with a hole in its gray base. The puma tree, she calls it. "This is where the little girl said, 'Look mom, a kitty cat.' "

Livingston was leading a kayak tour that day six years ago. "As we went around the tree, there they were. A cub was tangled in a briar, and the mother had another cub in her mouth. The cat froze when she saw us. She dropped the cub from her mouth, went to the cub in the briar, and then they all shot like bullets into the forest." It was a moment she'll never forget. "When you see that face, with those big eyes, it takes over your spirit."

She paddles under several snags and points to a small piney island. "And here is where I heard them a few years ago. They had low growls, much lower than a bobcat." She points to another bank shaded by longleaf and slash pines, and that's where you head. On the bank, she spots a pile of wild boar feces. Fresh. You think like a cougar: Wild boar equals bacon, and you set up a motion-detecting camera on a spindly pine tree. The vastness of the forest suddenly sinks in, and as you stare at the needles on the ground, you think of haystacks.

But a week later, after a return paddle to retrieve the film, you're at the Eckerd photo lab, sifting through the camera's images, panning for gold. The pictures are grainy, but what you see is unmistakable: You and Livingston getting out of the kayaks and heading toward the camera. Not a cat in sight. Cougars 2. Newspaper 0.

There is history here. Cougars supposedly were hunted out of the Carolinas by the late 1800s, even though the newspaper carried reports of sightings through the 1930s and 1940s and later. In the mid-1960s, a News and Courier reporter was so sure that cougars still existed that he persuaded an editor to send him into the Francis Marion National Forest for a month to chase the story. Seeking leads, he tacked up posters. He acquired cougar urine from Colorado and spread it around as bait. The reporter never found his quarry, and some ink-stained old-timers remember the paper's artist sketching a funny cartoon about it all ? a panther tacking up a poster asking about the reporter's whereabouts.

Still, the newspaper did report on some intriguing evidence back then.

In 1966, a government biologist and a clerk at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge saw what they believed was a cougar and found some feces and tracks. They sent the droppings to a Canadian scientist, who said he found cougar hair ? something you would expect because cougars, like other cats, groom themselves by licking their fur. It seemed like solid proof, but state and federal wildlife officials maintained then, as they do today, that cougars don't exist here, and that people are most likely confusing them with dogs, bears, bobcats and, more recently, coyotes.

Ghost cats

So you wonder, are people seeing phantoms? Or maybe something deeper is at work? Maybe it's the brain playing tricks, responding to a primal urge to connect with the wilderness. At least that's what Buddy Baker thinks is going on.

Baker is a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources and South Carolina's point man on a federal committee to protect Florida panthers should they migrate into South Carolina.

"Look, I'm an outdoorsman," he says, "and to us the cougar represents something very wild, and we almost have a need to believe they exist, especially as we lose more land to development." He suspects that when people are out in the woods, especially late in the evening and early in the morning when the light is dim, this tug on the brain transforms the shadows and shapes in the forest into panthers.

That said, a few sightings have been traced to pet cougars that have escaped or been released, he says. But a wild population must have a number of male and female breeders to sustain itself over the long haul. Animals, like aristocrats, don't do well when gene pools dry up. And there's no evidence that a large breeding population exists, he says. "We never say never, but as far as there being a population of wild cougars, we're very confident they don't exist here and haven't for a hundred years."

OK, that settles it. It's all in our heads. It explains why people are still fascinated with things like the Loch Ness Monster, the Lizard Man and other animal ghosts. But then you start hearing those stories again.

You talk to John Soprano, who manages a plantation near Green Pond. "I've seen them run across the pasture a couple of times. About four or five years ago, probably in February or March, I saw one in a tree. At first I thought it was a bobcat, but then I saw the long, brownish tail. And then there was the size, and I thought, 'Hey, that's a cougar.' A month before I found a deer with its throat ripped out right in the middle of the road. We went to get a camera and when we got back, it was gone. We found the carcass 15 yards away and it had been quartered."

And you talk to Dick "Snakeman" Winters, who leads tours at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens on the Ashley River and does snake shows for school groups and other organizations. In his self-published book, "Seasoned with Wildlife," he calls himself "the brother to the moccasin, cousin to the copperhead and friend to the alligator." He tells you he and his wife saw one six years ago. "We thought it was a dog at first, and then it lays down, and you could see the underside was white, and the tail was longer than my arm. I could see the outline of the face and the black around the nose and the white inside the ears. It rolls its tail out and it stretches halfway across the path, which is about 8 feet wide, and the tip had some black in it." You wonder whether you can trust a guy who calls himself Snakeman.

Then you talk to Orlando Sutton.

Sutton is the district ranger for the Francis Marion National Forest, an avid hunter and the boss of another biologist who told you that cougars don't exist here.

"I saw one over by Honey Hill in 2003 or 2004," Sutton says. "At first I thought it was a bear, but it had a long cougar tail. I told Steve (the biologist) 'I know you say they aren't here, but I know what I saw.' "

'I shot one'

And pretty soon you start hearing cougar stories from every corner of the Charleston area. Amy Coker tells you she saw one off Guerins Bridge Road a couple of years ago, not far from the Francis Marion National Forest.

Two other residents in the neighborhood say they saw cougars too.

You walk into "The Country Store" in Lebanon, in the countryside between Moncks Corner and Ridgeville, and ask John Harkis, the owner, if it's OK to put up a poster asking about cougar sightings. Sure, he says, sitting in a rocking chair near an old wood stove. You ask whether he's seen one.

"No, but I shot one."

He begins his story with what sounds like song lyrics: "I'd been hunting on the back side of Tupelo Bay. I thought it was a dog, and then I saw the long curling tail." He says he fired a shot, and the cat vanished. He checked for blood but didn't find any. "So I don't think I really hit it." He rocks on his chair a few times. "He scared me more than I scared it."

You get an e-mail from Amanda Smith, a 25-year-old College of Charleston student who lives near Ladson. She says a few years ago she and her sister were feeding horses at a friend's farm near Four Holes Swamp at sunset when they heard something big move through the woods. "When I stopped, it stopped. When I moved, it moved."

When they got to the car, "we heard a sound I'll never ever forget. It sounded like a woman's blood-curdling scream, except there was a distinctive growl in it that made me immediately recognize it as an animal and not human." They jumped into the car and dashed home. They began searching the Internet for animal sounds. "Knowing that cougars have been extinct here for ages, I felt more than a little stupid clicking on the cougar sound file." She clicked the link "and immediately got goose bumps." It was the same noise they had heard in the woods.

Over time you compile more than 50 reports, including more than 40 from the past 10 years. You plot the sightings on a map, and several cougar clusters emerge. Three are in the Francis Marion National Forest, and a few on the Charleston metro area's fringes, places where people and the country intersect.

But the question hangs like morning mist on the Wambaw Swamp. If so many people have seen cougars, why aren't there any pictures? Why hasn't a car run over one, or a hunter shot one?

So when Bill Cook e-mails you a photo showing a fresh track on a sandy path behind his house, you put your faith in your Stealth Cam and head back to Cross.

When you get there he takes you to the path. Nearby are piles of corn husks he spread out to attract deer. You see at least four paw prints heading toward the corn. Each print is about 4 to 6 inches wide. You look for claw marks; cats normally walk with their claws retracted, so claw marks usually rule out cougars. But you can't say for sure whether that mark is from a claw or something else.

You set up the camera and then go talk to Cook's neighbor, Ervin Grooms, who tells you he saw a cougar run across his yard a few years ago.

It's Grooms who tells you the name of the man who passed out the fake photo from the Internet, the one showing the cougar about to pounce on the deer, and so you set out to hunt him down.

You go to his house but you don't ask him straight out why he fibbed. You circle your quarry: "So, do you have the negative for that picture?"

No, he says, he actually got it from another guy.

"He said he got it off a camera I had up over there behind the house. I never did see the negative."

You show him the pictures you got off the Internet, the proof that the picture wasn't taken in South Carolina.

But instead of being defensive, he seems genuinely disappointed. He said he's seen cougars while hunting in the Francis Marion National Forest and by Wassamassaw Swamp. "I'll swear on a stack of Bibles what I saw," he says, "I'm gonna have to go tell that boy he's a ... liar."

Scratching the surface

A few weeks later you return to Cook's property to check the camera. "Hey look at this," Cook says, pointing to a tree with scratch marks.

Cook's into this hunt now. He got a camera of his own for Christmas. He says his wife's a little nervous, though, and wants him to carry a pistol when he's walking back behind the house.

Later, back at the Eckerd again, you're looking at your new batch of photos: There's one of a couple of deer trotting down the path, and another of Cook's backside.

No cat.

So it's Cougars 3. Newspaper 0. It's a shutout so far. But then again, maybe the game is closer than the score shows.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or tbartelme@postandcourier.com.

http://www.charleston.net/assets/webPages/ departmental/news/default_pf.aspx?NEWSID=67903

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