COLUMN: Bobcats? Yes. Mountain lions? Evidence lacking

-A A +A

Vince Luecke
editor@perry countynews.com

Long ago, perhaps when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was walking through the woods on the family farm. I had visited cousins in New Boston and was headed home. It was about dark and the woods was a time-saving shortcut.
Halfway through the small 15-acre patch of trees, I heard the most horrendous, scary and heart-thumping sound. The sound is difficult to recreate in letters but I’d describe it as an eerie screech. It was enough to send me running toward home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was scared spitless. Was there a monster on my heels? Probably not. In fact, the best guess for what had me as white as a ghost was no monster at all, but a screech owl all of 6 inches tall.
The debate over the past few months – at least in Perry County – hasn’t been over owls, but whether or not there is a mountain lion in the area.
Mountain lions are known by a variety of names: cougar, puma and panther. Long ago, mountain lions were common to southern Indiana, although the latest documented case of a wild mountain lion anywhere in the state was in the mid-1800s.
Bobcats, on the other hand, live in our area. Shy and seldom seen, the small cats are making a comeback of sorts. True to their name, bobcats have no tail, but a short bob. Mountain lions are larger and have long tails.
I’ve seen several photos, most from trail cameras, of bobcats, some of which have been misidentified as mountain lions  A friend showed me an image captured by his trail camera of a healthy bobcat not far from Lamar.
As far as I know, there have been no confirmed reports of mountain lions in Perry or Spencer counties.
Friends have forwarded me copies of e-mails from wildlife biologists who say they’ve seen no evidence of mountain lions living in our area. I’ve seen photos of suspected mountain lions, as well as reports of suspected mountain lions that people have seen or heard.
Could someone have released a mountain lion raised as a pet? Perhaps. If so, the animal may have wandered hundreds of miles and settled in our area.
I suppose it’s also possible, though unlikely, that a mountain lion has migrated to our county.  
Though I did not confirm it myself, several legitimate outdoor Web sites supposedly confirmed mountain-lion sightings over the past few years.
Two years ago a Clay County deer hunter in a tree stand captured an image of a mountain lion. There was some speculation then that the animal might have been a female mountain lion that escaped from an exotic feline rescue center.
In 2010, a mountain lion was confirmed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources in a rural part of Greene County east of Bloomfield.
The mountain lion’s presence was verified then by Scott Johnson, the DNR’s non-game mammal biologist and member of the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife’s team that assists in reviewing big-cat reports having credible evidence.
Johnson was contacted after a local conservation officer received a call from a citizen. Conservation officers helped Johnson set trail cameras and informed the community about the mountain lion’s presence.
As in the Clay County sighting, it was not known if the Greene County mountain lion was born in the wild or had been raised as a pet and later released or had escaped.
According to a DNR news release, “the chance of encountering a mountain lion today in Indiana is almost nonexistent,” but Perry Countians should always be alert to their surroundings when outdoors. DNR also offered several tips as far as what to do if a mountain lion is seen. I’m taking this directly from the DNR media release.
Do not approach a mountain lion. Give it a way to escape.
Do not run from a mountain lion. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact.
Do not crouch or bend over. Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms, open your jacket or shirt. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice.
Hold children and pets near you.
Fight back if attacked using big sticks, stones or any other available items.
As with the screech owl I encountered as a kid, I’d probably run.
The DNR regularly receives photos of suspected mountain lions, some of which are quickly disproven as hoaxes, or which are actually bobcats. In some cases determinations can’t be made because of the quality of the photo.
Are we in danger from big cats stalking the woods? I don’t think so. Ticks pose more of a health problem than big animals.
As we all know, animals once rarely seen or locally extinct have made comebacks. I’ve seen back issues of the newspaper from the 1940s that show how rare it was then to spot a white-tailed deer. Turkeys, once numerous, were absent for many years until they were reintroduced. Perhaps some day frequent hikers will be lucky enough to spot a bobcat. Maybe mountain lions will soon be proven to be living in our area. Personally, I hope not.
It would be very interesting to know how many bobcats are in our area – or if there really are any mountain lions. If you have photos, feel free to send them to me at editor@perrycountynews.com. I’m sure our state wildlife biologist Jeff Thompson would be interested in seeing them as well. He can be reached at jsthompson@dnr.IN.gov.
I’ve already been asked by a few well-meaning people if the newspapers I edit have been hiding the truth from the public. Such questions are disappointing because we never hide stories about important topics, most especially about big cats that might be living in our area that could pose a safety risk.
If there are confirmed reports of mountain lions, we’ll report it. Just a few days ago, I talked to a resident near Fifth Third Bank who reported seeing what he said matched the appearance of a mountain lion. There’s apparently been more than one sighting of the cat.
A trail camera has been set, I’ve heard. Stay tuned for updates.