Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cougars in Ontario: Big cat, bigger mystery

Recent DNA evidence gives some proof to sightings of a large cat in the Fort Erie area

RAY SPITERI / Review Staff Writer
Local News - Saturday, July 14, 2007 Updated @ 7:06:33 AM

Are they or aren't they? Were they or weren't they? DNA from feces found at the Wainfleet Bog two years ago recently confirmed a cougar was in Niagara. And despite that being the first indisputable evidence the animal is - or at least was - roaming the wild here, several people in Fort Erie have, for years now, reported such sightings in their own backyards.

So, maybe the large cats apparently seen around seven years ago in the border town were cougars after all. Or, like spottings of Bigfoot and Elvis, it could all have been an urban legend.

The DNA testing was done at the Wildlife DNA Forensic Labratory at Trent University.

Ann Yagi, an area biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, says the feces came from a North American puma concolar.

The last official sighting of a cougar in Ontario was in 1884. But in 2000, over a period that lasted more than a year, there were numerous reports of cougar and even panther sightings in Fort Erie. No evidence, however, was ever found to prove their presence there.

But don't tell that to Roy Pastorius, general manager of the Fort Erie Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"People have reported sightings of a black panther and a brown cougar in the area for years - mostly in 2000 and 2001, but it has since died down," he says.

During that time , Pastorious was inundated with calls from locals claiming to have watched the large cats enjoy their habitat or having found their unique paw prints marked in surfaces such as mud and snow.

"I had a trapper come down from up north to try and catch what was being spotted, but nothing ever came of it," he says.

In 2000 alone, there were 28 large cat sighting reports made to the animal shelter - some claiming to have seen a cougar killing a domestic cat, lynx-type cats, or just pawprints.
Unfortunately for Pastorius and all those involved in the case, there has never been a conclusion to the mystery.

"We have found a lot of paw prints - we had an expert come to see if the prints belonged to a cougar and he said that they did, but we never had anything concrete."

Stuart Kenn, president of the Ontario Puma Foundation, says it's possible the apparent cougar sightings in Fort Erie years ago could be linked to the findings at the Wainfleet Bog, near Port Colborne.

"It's really not that far-fetched for a puma to travel the distance between Fort Erie and that bog," he says.

"There could be a correlation between those two points. My question, however, would be: 'Is there enough coverage for that kind of animal to travel like that?'"

Yagi, who was involved in the testing of the feces, warns the public that although the DNA came back positive for a cougar, it doesn't necessarily mean the species is currently here.

"We are there regularly and there has been no sign since then," says Yagi. "Don't go out there looking for them because even at this time of year, you won't find them. That kind of species has a very long territory - it can be 100 kilometres or more."

Pastorius says he no longer receives calls regarding apparent cougar or panther sightings in town.

The Ontario Puma Foundation - 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 foundation, 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.

Experts say most wild animals are more afraid of humans than the other way around. And cougars are predisposed to preferring deer meat when it's time to eat, which is a good thing, as a male cougar can weigh upwards of 150 pounds.

Pastorius, who has a file in his office with photos and videos taken by members of the public in areas where the apparent sightings took place, was so intrigued by the possibility a cougar or panther could be calling Fort Erie home that he went in a helicopter to try and catch a glimpse of the suspected feline from up high.

Again, to no avail.

An animal trapper was called to Fort Erie in 2000 to catch what some believed was a fully grown panther on the loose in a farmer's field on Garrison Road, near Bernard Avenue. There was a debate whether it was a panther or a fat house cat. Pastorius, along with hordes of media, convened at the site after a family reported seeing the large black animal from their window.

"Its tail was too long to just be a house cat," remembers Pastorius. "The grass was quite high too, but it was taller than the grass. You had to see it in person to believe it."

The trapper did not succeed in securing the animal and the case eventually dwindled away. But because of public and media interest generated by the apparent sightings, the animal shelter created a seven-section booklet, attempting to address the origins, number and distribution of large cats possibly in the town in 2000.

The book suggests there were at least two adult cats, along with one to three cubs roaming around in Fort Erie as of seven years ago.

An adult black cat was seen throughout town, but never with a cub and preferred the Crescent Park and Ridgeway area. The adult brown cat was seen with one cub, but enjoyed areas west of Ridge Road. The three young adults had been seen in the southwestern area of Fort Erie - often playing together in fields.

Yagi says she followed the apparent sightings of the black panther in Fort Erie. In 2001, town council passed a bylaw prohibiting and regulating the possession of exotic animals in the Town of Fort Erie, with the exception of it being kept in a veterinarian hospital, SPCA lands, or at ZOOZ. Anybody who had an exotic animal at the time the bylaw was passed was permitted to keep it on a condition it was registered in accordance with the bylaw and with the animal shelter.

Once considered extinct in eastern North America, the cougar is now listed as endangered after hundreds of sightings over the last decade. There have been regular cougar sightings in the London area, especially on First Nations land along the Thames River.

Kenn, who has studied cougars in Ontario for more than 30 years, says he has received many reported sightings in Niagara over the years. But for the most part, the information he has received does not match up with typical cougar characteristics.

A cougar has a long tail with a black tip on it, he noted. They have white around their muzzle and are of beige colour, or light brown - a lot like deer.

But Kee Dewdney, a co-ordinator with the Ontario Puma Foundation, believes southwestern Ontario is experiencing a reproducing population of cougars.

"We have seen mothers and daughters together - two examples, clear sightings. That's fairly good evidence that breeding is going on to me," he says. "Females breed any time of the year, too."

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