Saturday, June 02, 2007

Cougar confirmed in S. Ontario may be escaped pet

By NTW Editorial
Jun 01, 2007

About the only cougars you'd expect to come across in Niagara are forty-something women trolling local nightclubs for younger men looking for a good time.

But the self-imposted slang word for older women picking up younger guys could soon have a double meaning for Niagara residents, some of whom claimed sightings of some kind of big cat in the region's south end a few years back.

To most people, that seemed about as credible as finding Bigfoot moseying along the Niagara Escarpment, making night raids of tender fruit orchards and vineyards or picking through fast food restaurant dumpsters.

Now comes word this week that, yes, it appears there is -- or at least was -- indeed a big cat roaming the peninsula. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources DNA testing of feces found two years ago near a suspected den in the Wainfleet Bog, about five kilometres northwest of Port Colborne, confirmed a cougar -- also known as a puma, a mountain lion and the eastern panther -- was in the area.

It isn't clear if the big cat was an exotic pet that escaped or was released into the wild, or whether it's a remnant of the cougar population that once thrived here and was reduced to the brink of extinction well over a century ago when the Europeans came to the New World and began relentlessly hunting the animals and destroying their habitat by clearing land for agriculture.

Most people have no idea that cougars still exist in Ontario. But the ministry says they do, and classifies the species as endangered. The Ontario Puma Foundation (OPF), a volunteer organization working in co-operation with the ministry, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, says the province's cougar population has recovered from a low of about 40 animals in the late 1800s to about 550 today.

Their numbers continue to increase steadily to a sustainable population, says the OPF, which was established in 2002 and is dedicated to research and the rehabilitation of the Ontario puma population.

Frank Mallory, a professor of biology at Sudbury's Laurentian University, said the DNA testing shows the hundreds of reported sightings of cougars around Ontario in recent years prove at least some of them are true.

Luckily, experts say most wild animals are more afraid of humans than vice versa. And cougars are predisposed to preferring deer meat when it's supper time. That's a good thing, because a male cougar can weigh upwards of 150 pounds.

Still, come Hallowe'en you might want to think twice about dressing up as Bambi again this time around.

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